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Our age calls for public spaces that enshrine people’s right to protest

Ellis Woodman
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Our public realm should be a public stage where we can speak and listen to people both like and unlike ourselves, writes Ellis Woodman

A highlight of this month’s Venice Film Festival promises to be the premiere of Peterloo, director Mike Leigh’s reconstruction of the events of 16 August 1819, when upwards of 60,000 protesters gathered on St Peter’s Field in Manchester demanding the reform of parliamentary representation.

It was the largest political demonstration Britain had ever seen and ended in bloodshed when armed cavalry broke up the meeting, killing 15 and injuring between 400 and 700.

Peterloo massacre

Peterloo massacre

Richard Carlile (1790–1843) (Manchester Library Services) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The widespread revulsion at the massacre galvanised a nascent culture of political radicalism, the most concrete evidence of which was the foundation of The Manchester Guardian newspaper two years later.

But the Peterloo Massacre also proved instrumental in securing our rights to peaceful protest. Over the subsequent century the Chartists and later the Suffragettes won the argument for universal suffrage not just by means of the written and spoken word but through mass protest on streets and squares.

The forthcoming release of Leigh’s film could hardly be more timely, coinciding as it does with a moment when public demonstration is undergoing a remarkable resurgence. In the past few months alone, the streets of central London have been taken over by the Women’s March, Pride, the Brexit protest and the rally opposing the visit of Donald Trump.

The emergence of the internet might have led one to suspect that public space had lost its historic significance as a site of popular political discourse but these gatherings strongly suggest otherwise. As first became apparent during the events of the Arab Spring, the web has become a means of mobilising unprecedented large groups of people but it is ultimately in the streets rather than online that popular political causes are won.

Sadiq Khan has committed to the development of a Public Space Charter that will enshrine individuals’ rights to protest

A year ago, the world witnessed a more alarming instance of this phenomenon when the American alt-right movement ventured out of the shadows of its chatrooms and showed its face on the streets of Charlottesville. Much as the web constitutes a revolutionary means of communication, its propensity to disaggregate users into discrete echo-chambers significantly constrains its capacity to serve as a site of public discourse. For the protesters, Charlottesville was a moment of emboldening; for the rest of us it was a wake-up call to challenge views to which we are vehemently opposed.

In light of these developments it demands noting that, for all the progress made since Peterloo, Britain’s culture of public space provision remains strikingly cautious in its accommodation of popular protest.

The Victorians populated the country’s public spaces with trees, statuary and fountains in the name of civic improvement but the resultant restriction in the capacity of these places to accommodate political rallies was hardly coincidental. More recently, the Occupy protests of 2011 revealed the extent to which private ownership of much of the City of London’s supposed public space curtails the right to assembly.

In the draft of the next London Plan, Sadiq Khan has committed to the development of a Public Space Charter that will enshrine individuals’ rights to protest in such so-called semi-public spaces – a long-overdue initiative that demands application at nationwide level. But for architects and planners, the need to conceive of spaces that can serve as sites of public demonstration also represents an urgent challenge.

Writing in the 1930s, just a decade after the gates that had historically cordoned off Bloomsbury had been removed, Danish architect Steen Eiler Rasmussen compared the Continental square with its London counterpart, noting that, while the former was a site of congregation, the latter was almost invariably ‘a restricted whole as complete as the courtyard of a convent’.

Our present era demands a very different kind of space, one that is open, inclusive and available to appropriation – a public stage where we can speak and listen to people both like and unlike ourselves.

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