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Saturday, 8 July 2017

Common Ground

 Common Ground

By Farhan Samanani

Depending on whom you ask, Kilburn is either one of the most vibrant or one of the most dysfunctional neighbourhoods in London. Clustered in the north-western part of the city, the area has been a swirling mix of cultures for more than 100 years, starting with Irish and Jewish migrants in the late 19th and early 20th century, up to more recent arrivals from the Caribbean, Latin America, Sub-Saharan Africa and eastern Europe. Walk along the Kilburn High Road today, and you’ll likely hear the cries of imams and evangelical preachers, threaded through with the rhythmic beats of reggae and a hodgepodge of accents, as people duck into takeaway food shops, hurry to meet friends, or pick up household items from eclectic corner stores catering to tastes from all corners of the globe.
Kilburn was my home for 16 months between 2014 and 2016. I’m a social anthropologist who investigates how people build communities in diverse areas, so I tried to trace the tangle of life on Kilburn’s streets by talking to the people I encountered in its estates, community centres and cafes. The writer Zadie Smith grew up here, and her fiction was a stimulus and guide. The Kilburn she depicts is not a harmonious whole but a jumble of different, uncontainable worlds. As she puts it in the novel NW (2012):
    Low-down dirty shopping arcade to mansion flats to an Englishman’s home is his castle. Open-top, soft-top, drive-by, hip hop. Watch the money pile up. Holla! Security lights, security gates, security walls, security trees, Tudor, modernist, post-war, pre-war, stone pineapples, stone lions, stone eagles. Face east and dream of Regent’s Park, of St John’s Wood. The Arabs, the Israelis, the Russians, the Americans… Free meals. English as a second language. Here is the school where they stabbed the headmaster. Here is the Islamic Centre of England opposite the Queen’s Arms. Walk down the middle of this, you referee, you!
When Kilburn’s residents do come together in public, clashes often ensue. Given the diverse needs, wants and lifestyles of local people, this isn’t really surprising; conflicts over the commons are a persistent feature of urban life, after all. But in recent decades this sort of friction has coincided with a sharp decline in the amount of shared space available in cities all around the world. Libraries are closing in the UK; the grand squares and historic boulevards of post-communist countries are being privatised; and in India, parks and roads are routinely sold off to developers. In the United States, the erosion of public spaces began with the post-war flight to the suburbs, and the more recent rediscovery of the inner city by the young and affluent has done little to halt the general trend.
Governments, justifying the sale of public land, claim that people are leading increasingly private lives, and relying less and less on shared resources. Meanwhile architects and urbanists shout ever more loudly about the value of shared space. They point to research that shows it fuels growth and innovation, enhances health and wellbeing, and allows people to get to know strangers and become familiar with diverse others. ‘By its nature, the metropolis provides what otherwise could be given only by travelling; namely, the strange,’ wrote the pioneering urbanist Jane Jacobs in 1961. It’s almost like two parallel conversations have been happening at once: one in which shared space is the lifeblood of the city, and another where it is treated as residual, fractious and a source of financial liability.
Some activists think that the solution lies in design: we just need to construct and reconstruct our cities to make them more inclusive, attractive, flexible, better suited to people’s needs. That’s the motivation behind many urban regeneration projects, from New York’s High Line to the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. These initiatives can be more or less successful, but my research in Kilburn makes me think that the problem with public space runs much deeper. It’s not our architecture that needs a refresh, but our habits. Deep down we don’t truly value public space, because we’ve been conditioned to think it should be given to us, as of right – instead of forged through encounters, interactions and, crucially, negotiations.
The public realm is full of confrontations. On Kilburn’s council estates, residents cast dark glances at groups of young men who gather to drink, talk and listen to music. Parks get commandeered for barbecues and seniors’ exercise groups, for football matches, family gatherings and groups of friends, and each of these groups might compete for priority. The streets bustle with pedestrians, rolling their eyes as they dodge mothers pausing for a chat over their prams, or are forced to sidestep the overzealous street vendors hawking batteries, flowers, handbags. Some locals claim that the restrictions on noise levels at a public hall are stifling local gatherings, while other people continue to complain about… the noise.
Within each of these encounters is a tug of war between different ways of thinking, not only about public space, but what it means to be a citizen. In a liberal political order, the paradigm of ‘rights’ tends to prevail. From the French Revolution to the American Declaration of Independence, the history of democracy can be read as a story of the expansion of the state-guaranteed entitlements and privileges that accrue to individuals. As a consequence, we’ve shifted away from understanding the citizen as a node in a social hierarchy, to relying on the idea of a free person, defined by a universally shared set of rights.
Urbanists have deployed this thinking to call for what’s known as the ‘right to the city’. The French philosopher Henri Lefebvre first coined the term in 1968, and it’s since been championed by activists, thinkers and organisations from UNSECO to the Occupy movement. The Marxist theorist David Harvey summarises it like this, in his book Rebel Cities (2012):
    [T]he question of what kind of city we want cannot be divorced from the question of what kind of people we want to be, what kinds of social relations we seek, what relations to nature we cherish, what style of daily life we desire, what kinds of technologies we deem appropriate, what aesthetic values we hold. The right to the city is, therefore, far more than a right of individual or group access to the resources that the city embodies: it is a right to change and reinvent the city more after our heart’s desire.
The idea is that we all need access to public goods to live worthwhile lives – whether that’s parks in which to exercise, pipes to bring us water and take away waste, or libraries and museums to expand our horizons. Each of us, however, places different demands on these amenities. The elderly and handicapped might require special provisions from public transport; installing better street lighting might matter especially to women who walk home alone; activists are in need of spaces to gather and protest. To accommodate these diverse and changing needs, people have a right not only to access public amenities but to transform them in line with what they require. In other words, for right-to-the-city thinkers, the ideal urban environment should be constantly re-made by and for citizens.
The struggle for more inclusive city spaces is part of this story. Central Park in New York City, built in the mid-1800s, was designed to provide a space for the benefit of rich and poor alike in an otherwise crowded and unequal city. In London in the 1980s, feminist urbanists formed the Women’s Design Service to provide free planning expertise to communities targeted by property speculators and ‘regeneration’ schemes. In Vienna in the 1990s and 2000s, the city council began to take account of the distinct ways in which older people and families with children used public spaces – and so widened its sidewalks for strollers, increased street lighting, and built more accessible crossings and steps. In almost every city in the world, you can find a collection of such campaigns, big and small, invoking the language of rights and touching on everything from trash collection to walkable streets, from boosting local retailers to securing green space.
But some dilemmas of city life can’t be solved through careful planning. In Kilburn, the presence of young people in the public areas of council estates often drives other residents away. No matter the quality of the space, or the thought or investment that had gone into it, some Kilburners I interviewed have come to think of certain squares and parks as places of danger and degradation. The sounds of blaring hip hop and grime, of shouting, the stares that follow passing strangers, and the spectacle of discarded bottles and raised hoods evoked, for many, the area’s bloody history of gang violence. The whole set-up gave some residents the impression that such places were to be avoided.
Often they were right: spend enough time talking to kids hanging out around the estates, and it becomes clear that staking an assertive claim to public space is important to them – it helps them regain some sense of power and control. School was chaotic, their parents hardly cared, and the police treated you like a criminal before you could even ride a bike. Between the despondent teachers telling you not to expect much from the future, and rich newcomers moving into the area, it was reassuring to feel that something belonged to you.
Read the full article HERE 
aeon.com