Events are back – but so are the vehicles that accompany them
After a long winter with no organised events, the easing of England’s lockdown restrictions on April 12th meant the return of some events to public spaces. It was perhaps telling that, as soon as it was allowed, fun fairs were installed in both of the London #festspace case study spaces: Finsbury Park and Blackheath. A three week long fair on Blackheath was organised to coincide with the school holidays and the forthcoming bank holiday weekend. I discussed the significance of Blackheath fairs in a previous post, but in this piece I want to focus on one issue in particular: the issue of vehicles driving on to urban green spaces. This has been a noted problem during Spring 2021 with various tweets highlighting the large volume of cars illegally parked on Blackheath.
This problem is exacerbated by the high demand for, and limited car parking in, nearby Greenwich Park. The public’s continued reluctance to travel by public transport during the pandemic has been a factor too. The streets surrounding Blackheath and Greenwich Park have been gridlocked on several weekends and people have struggled to find car parking. People coming to the fair or to the park have left their vehicles on the open spaces of Blackheath – even though this is strictly prohibited.
Drivers who park on Blackheath’s greensward are selfish, inconsiderate and lazy. But the authorities responsible for managing the heath are not entirely blameless either. Last summer, the Royal Borough of Greenwich sanctioned a drive-in cinema on Circus Field – a Suzuki sponsored event which communicated that driving on to Blackheath was permissible. Previous events on Blackheath have also permitted cars to be parked on parts of the heath, providing problematic precedents (see below). A further problem stems from the vehicles linked to the fun fair itself. Numerous lorries, cars and caravans service this event – and their visible presence on the heath suggests that it is acceptable to park vehicles on urban green spaces.
The damage and disruption caused by vehicles driving and parking on green spaces is an under-acknowledged aspect of staging events in public spaces. It is often assumed that negative environmental effects stem from the presence of crowds and installations, but impacts on turf and air quality are often caused by the presence of vehicles. In our report into park events published last year, the ways vehicles damaged green spaces – particularly during wet weather – was a common complaint from user groups. Even though damage to turf can usually be repaired quickly, it disrupts access and use, and visible damage also communicates a rather negligent attitude towards green spaces. And whilst the open spaces of Blackheath are sometimes dismissed as ecologically insignificant, this isn’t actually true. This part of South East London comprises acid grasslands, a precious habitat for various rare flora. Therefore, churning up or compressing open grassland should not be considered as a minor or temporary problem. These impacts, plus the ways cars interfere with the aesthetics, use and ethos of urban green spaces, suggest we need more stringent measures to protect host spaces from the motorised vehicles that tend to accompany events.
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This commentary identifies a significant issue for events regulation, namely the consideration of impacts, particularly those beyond the main event site. My research suggests that events, in NSW, Australia, are usually assessed by event officers who have skilled focused on-site management issues such as risk, waste, and traffic. This focus is reinforced by checklists and assessment sheets which limit the matters. Also, there may be issues with the KPIs of these officers which do not include a performance measure for broader impacts in their job review. Also, event officers may not have any of the broader skills for impacts assessment similar to thise associated with the town planning discipline. Even when there is legislative responsibility for town planners to consider environmental impacts, they either do not know the rules or ignore them. Town planners in local government in NSW seem to waive away any event impacts based on the short-term nature of the activity supposedly outweighed by the unmeasured and unverified community and economic benefits.