Making our town beautiful

Our public realm in Britain is alive and thriving; except for where we spend the money – there it is virtually redundant.

The money is spent on digging up the roads and paving; and then repeating it again and again. A hell of a lot of money is spent on this kind of thing – I’ve heard the sum of £9billion a year, sprinkled like confetti. Surely, not all of this is purely redundant? At least a few people have a job, many of them our East European brothers; they need the work. But couldn’t we be helping them, as well as ourselves and doing something better.

The public realm is beautiful in Britain in the mountains, by the river, along the dales and in the woods. Sometimes we catch a glimpse of beauty in the cities as well, I’m thinking of the faces of cheerful people walking confidently by, with elegant clothes, laughing and absorbed in playful banter. We can see beauty in trees and flowers and the odd sculpture like the dolphins near St Catherines Dock, or the ballerina in Bow Street. It’s there in architecture too – the view along Princes Street to Edinburgh castle, St Michael’s Mount off Penzance, the skyline of the Pier Head.

But so much of architecture and human artifice is miserable, and speaks more of short change and quick bucks, rather than cultivating a sense of order, an alliance with nature and inclusion of the dispossesed. All the answers are around us as we sit and read, or think or do. Why then do we have “management” that speaks endlessly of problems? Why are our politics eternally and aggressively antagonistic? Why do the rich so methodically steal from the poor, and then get upset when the poor bite back?

Jubilee Gardens is a wonderful example of what is right and wrong about British culture. Here lies a miserable bit of grass, pocked with mud puddles and scattered with litter. Surrounded by monumental businesses with bulging coffers, at the very heart of London. Belatedly and at the last moment, in true panic management style, with a litany of problems to explain away its culpability, a firm from across the channel will be brought in, to patch up Jubilee Gardens with tulips, concrete and a few elms. It will look slick no doubt, our continental friends will do us proud. And when the eyes of the world look at London in 2012, it will seem incredibly pleasant on the small screen. The management of litter collection will be impeccable on the day. The Brits do that so well! It is their forte. The panorama will be picture post card, Big Ben spied through London Eye, with some red flowers and green grass in the foreground.

When the Waterloo sunset has faded and you move away from the guided desire lines, the yawning redundancy of the off-beat will still be there ( our homeless people, drug addicts, unemployed and puzzled youth). How are we going to include people and make our world a better place?

First of all we require vision. We need to step up from the efficient mangement of litter collection. Of course we don’t want our streets and parks cluttered with mess, so let’s design out the “problems” which create litter in the first place. Give the homeless guys a job. It’s their space, they sleep there when your TV crews have melted away.

The current “management” of Jubilee Gardens is angling for the “royal parks” look, taking advice from the “royal parks department”, infering, leave us alone, we don’t want to include anyone, except royal park people. As if Jubilee Gardens will become a royal wedding-type place, stuffed full of people and then madly cleaned up afterwards (every day). Me thinks you pule too much sirrah!

The last thing we need is another royal park at Jubilee Gardens, the reality is they are not good enough, they are not fit for purpose. They will be too prim and proper for such a small space. Royal Parks are big parks run on regimental line; in the same way as royal rooms are large rooms with lots of cleaners. We’ll end up with the nightmare of litter picking madness, surrounded by prim little flower beds. The whole place will scream: chuck us your litter (and then we’ll clean it up for you). In other words a vision of – litter management of passive muck.

What we need is for Jubilee Gardens to be made so brilliant, so beautiful that people feel ashamed to thrown down any litter at all. It needs to be an interesting space, full of character and detail, a special place that people remember. A place of which local people and visitors feel proud, and if you did inadvertently drop litter, someone would point out your error and ask you to pick it up. Of course we will need a litter-management strategy, but I suggest this is run on the lines of bespoke sculptural litter bins, which are empltied every 30 minutes by currently unemployed homeless people, who encourage use of the bins rather than just picking up litter.

The vision Southbank Mosaics advocates is making Jubilee Gardens into a Celebration of the Achievement of Women. This gives a theme to what is otherwise a Jubilee Garden – for what? Very few people know that the garden has already celebrated the Queen’s 25th Jubilee in 1977 – there is no mention of her anywhere. This lack of attention to detail, is being made up for by the active ctizens at Southbank Mosaics who will record Jubilee Gardens as part of the Queen’s Jubilee with images and text that give the place meaning.

This is where the Jubilee Gardens transformation can dig deep into the well of what is alive and thriving in our public realm culture, where local residents who care more about the place than anyone bring their energy, enthusiasm and commitment, to create a unique and sacred place.

We want to build on the long tradition of concern for the welfare of women that is a proud legacy of the Southbank area.* We want to join Southbank Centre’s Celebration of Women of the World and record in portraits, with texts, up to 200 women from around the world. We want to compliment Parliament Square and its statues of men, taking advantage of the female symbol of the London Eye.

The local community is of course the people who meet on a committee privately, but it also includes residents who are active citizens ready to consider with their imagination and build with their hands, a Jubilee Gardens that will become a significant garden, that nudges the world to move on.

Women in our day do two thirds of the world’s work, are paid 10% of the world’s wages and own 1% of the world’s land. We note this basic unfairness, and respond with a signficant memorial, that for the first time anywhere in the public realm, permanently celebrates the vital contribution that women have made. Let’s do it for the Queen, and half the world.

*In 1758 the Asylum for Female Orphans was established just off Westminster Bridge Road, beginning this feminine Southbank tradition.  They had an agenda of seeking to prevent young orphan girls from sinking into sex work, by training them to work as servants. In 1767 The General Lying-in Hospital was completed, one of the earliest maternity refuges for single mothers. In 1769 the Magdalen Hospital relocated to premises in North Lambeth, to support the reform of young women drawn into the sex industry. It was a religious and tough regime of publicly displayed penitence – harsh grey uniforms and training in housework – to get women selling sex off the streets. Then the Royal Hospital for Children and Women was opened in 1828.  The Women’s University Settlement was started in 1887 and this still continues as the Blackfriars Settlement.

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