Fencing off public spaces – one of the emerging legacies of the coronavirus crisis?
London’s parks and squares are often fenced off for licensed festivals and events, and there is often related resistance as this trend contributes to the privatisation of public space. During the pandemic Londoners have noticed that access to public spaces has also been restricted because of the threat of unlicensed festivity. At the height of the COVID-19 crisis some public spaces were fenced off to prevent large gatherings of people. A few London parks were controversially closed and prominent squares were fenced off at times when people might be tempted to organise unsanctioned gatherings. Fencing off Trafalgar Square on New Year’s Eve 2020 was the most high profile example – one that made the front page of The Times newspaper.
This problematic trend has continued even as restrictions have lifted. In May 2021, the decision to fence off Primrose Hill to prevent access at night was fiercely contested. The Royal Parks and Metropolitan Police thought this was the best way to deal with the large numbers of noisy revellers who were gathering there after dark. This decision was backed by the local MP and Labour party leader, Keir Starmer – even though it was one that benefited affluent local residents at the expense of wider public access to the space.
Primrose Hill is London’s only permanently open Royal Park and the decision to fence it was an example of the pandemic being used as an excuse to introduce restrictions that had long been sought by local residents. For opponents, the fences were essentially ephebiphobic (anti-youth) measures that reinforced Primrose Hill’s reputation as a privileged playground, rather than a genuinely public space. People who tried to resist the fencing felt that this was a disproportionate solution that could have been avoided by providing police and security staff on the ground. Even though the fences were temporary, opponents feared they might lead to more permanent changes.
COVID-19 restrictions have now been lifted across the UK, but blocking off public spaces to prevent informal events and unsanctioned gatherings has continued. Over the past few days, the most prominent public space in in Woolwich town centre, General Gordon Square, was fenced off in the run up to Halloween and Bonfire Night. The previous year, there had been chaotic scenes and disorder here as revellers clashed with police and let off fireworks and Greenwich Council was keen to avoid a repeat in 2021. With little information provided on site about why the square was closed, or how long it would be closed for, local people presumed an event was due to be staged, or that the Square was undergoing refurbishment. The reality was that a public space had been again fenced off as a pre-emptive measure to stop people gathering and celebrating. This approach to managing anti-social behaviour isn’t necessarily effective, and it raises wider questions about how our public spaces are regulated and policed. Is it acceptable to block off access to public spaces because authorities anticipate problems?
These examples also highlight the legacies of the coronavirus pandemic – a period when access to, and behaviour in, parks and squares was unusually restricted. At present, the number of COVID-19 cases in London remains relatively high, so there is still an underlying rationale for exceptional measures. However, given the lack of any official restrictions on gatherings and the fact that large scale official events are now sanctioned, COVID-19 is no longer a justifiable reason for fencing off public spaces. Instead, the pandemic now provides a useful precedent and cover for managing public spaces differently. It seems that exceptional measures introduced during 2020-21 might be the new normal.