Illustration: Aisling Woodward / @aisling_bridget

Social distancing measures have provided greater room for us to consider the ownership of space. As society looks to reclaim its public realm from the pandemic, Laura Brown questions the equality and egalitarian credentials of Liverpool’s pavements and shared spaces.

Public spaces, our pavements, squares, streets and parks will be of increasing importance as we begin to emerge from our homes and adjust to the outside again. Yet for our public spaces to work for everyone, they must be shared in an egalitarian way. The public realm is not equal.
“Step into the street, look down, and it tells you what to do,” wrote Peter Campbell in 2008 in the London Review of Books. “Kerbs and gutters separate walkers from drivers. Painted words, lines and changes of material nudge you forward or make you pause.”

Once we fully emerge from our homes, we are going to have to give each other space. Allow each other to breathe. And what that will mean is recognising that we each have the same right to that public space. Yet, public space is not equal; certainly, access to public space is far from equal. We weaponise public spaces because we bring into them the bias and prejudice we have in the rest of society.

The most successful cities and places are built to serve the people who live and work in them. The last three months have turned cracks into chasms within the tears in our hegemonic society making it evident the extent to which we need to be able to share space. Our public realm is active and it’s possible many did not realise how actively political our public spaces are. Public space is the place where we define our ownership; where we protest, where we rally; it is where we parade and celebrate. We talk of ‘taking to the streets’, the physicality of turning our individual presence into a tens, hundreds, thousands turns the street into a stage for a collective show of strength and identity. The visibility in itself is seen as a political act, because the public realm is increasingly privatised, increasingly part of our commercial state.

Erecting a statue of a slave owner because you’re grateful for his fiscal contribution after his death two centuries ago is one thing; arguing he still has a place to be venerated in the public realm is another. Asking people, as you tell them that the public realm is equal, to be reminded through street names, through statues, through the names of buildings, of a multi-million pound industry that bought and sold their ancestors like cattle, is barbaric and heartless.

“We all own the space we use. It doesn’t belong to one or the other”

Yet we are told our physical presence, our physical protest, is a threat, it disturbs the status quo. In 2020 we are told protest threatens public health during a pandemic. In 2011 it was civil disorder, fuelled by BlackBerrys. In 1981 they said it was lawlessness. In fact, two things unite 1981, 2011 and 2020; race and the police. One is about a lack of visibility and a lack of ownership of physical space, the other is the representation of the power that believes they own the space. We are literally fighting over control of the pavements.

Civic pride, civic duty, civic responsibility, change depending on your perspective. Is it our duty to protect statues, or to tear them down? Can you support the removal of street names, but not graffiti calling them racist and covering their name? Is civic respect tied to one’s purse and power? Having one’s name on a building, a statue in a public square, a name adorning a street, is a patriarchal display of who is in power, who has control. It is rarely female, it is almost never black.

In Vienna in the early 1990s, city officials wanted to use data to discover how people used their city. It would provide a foundation for their infrastructure and spend. Because this was pre-internet, they conducted interviews, with a survey on the street. The questions centred around how people travelled, what transport they used, what issues they had. Men wrote quickly and were done. Women wrote paragraph after paragraph.

Women, they discovered, were more likely to use public transport, to walk and use pavements. Men, by contrast, walked from their front door to their car and from their car to their office. The “varied pattern of use”, how cities tend to assume their population uses pavements, wasn’t something they considered to be gendered. In 1992, Vienna established The Women’s Office and since then has supported 50 projects examining how to embolden the city, and its women, putting it at the forefront of urban development. In many UK cities when it begins to snow we’re still waiting for pavements to be gritted at the same time roads are. Cities here aren’t often built with equality in mind. It has taken a global pandemic for us to accelerate the cycle lanes that make a city such as ours as accessible on two wheels as four.

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In the past three months, using public space has been full of import and purpose. Every other person is a potential threat. It has also been fist-gnawingly frustrating. My brother rang one lunchtime, furious because he’d almost been hit by a car while trying to socially distance when a couple had refused to stop walking side by side on the pavement. Sharing space has not come naturally to many, and it seems as though the amount of space you feel you deserve to take, or are unwilling to cede, is linked to how important and significant you feel you are.

Take the family of four who walks astride each other along the path, either unaware or unwilling to budge. In truth, they are illustrating their understanding and recognition of their place and worth to society. Society has told them they, with their whiteness and 2.4 children, are the backbone and most important social construct in the country. They are more important than the single woman who has to walk into the gutter to provide adequate space to pass. They’re certainly more important than the older man who’s stopped, two metres away, to let them pass because they won’t edge nearer together.

You think that’s not true? 2020 is the year a British Prime Minister decided (again) who you could and could not have sex with, who defined what a household looked like, what a relationship looked like (married, living together). Only three months in, the government said couples who do not live together can share the same space again.

To say spending three months inside has been hard is as self-evident as saying a cold beer is refreshing on a hot day. The outside, the public space we have, may be limited and it may feel like a relief. But it is there for each of us to share, not for those who perceive their importance to take up more room because they feel they deserve it.

“There is an opportunity for us to change how we perceive our public space and, in turn, how it sees us”

The idea of social cooperation, of fairness and of sharing, are going to become more important as we begin to take our first tentative steps outside and how we learn how to live alongside each other again. The public realm will look different when we begin to explore it. There is a new website, Love Your Liverpool, detailing how we need to be kind, patient and responsible, as the city slowly reopens. Keep left, socially distance, use the one way systems in place, only go in lifts with people of your own household. The guidance is much needed, helps with confidence (in truth seeing some kind of handholding is appreciated) because it is frightening.

More spaces will be pedestrianised. Bold Street and Castle Street will have tables, chairs and, crucially, heaters spilling into the public realm to help restaurants and eateries make up for the space they will lose. We’ll have to learn to live on top of each other. We all own the space we use. It doesn’t belong to one or the other.

On the eve of 2008, two priests walked along Bold Street. Perhaps fittingly for Bold Street, these were not men of the cloth – at least, not in the traditional sense. Filmmakers Alex Cox and Chris Bernard were making Bolder They Walk, directed by Kim Ryan and created by tenantspin and FACT. As they browsed Hairy Records, bought forbidden fruit at Christian’s fruit and veg market in the square, toyed with tormenting nuns in Pauline’s Christian bookshop, they mused on culture. Was culture created within, or imposed from without? Do we have control over how our world changes around us?

It’s a fascinating watch for an audience in 2020 for several reasons. Firstly, we know what comes next. Liverpool’s year as European Capital of Culture was a success, and we do forget the trepidation with which much of the city’s cultural community viewed it. It did bring the city plaudits. Yet it did also do much to dismantle considerable amounts of the grassroots culture in the city: not by the fault of the moniker itself, nor solely by those who came to Liverpool (the arts administrators, as Alex Cox calls them), nor purely because of the industrialisation of the arts in Liverpool; but, in a large part, through a decade of austerity.

As you watch them meander from the corner with Berry Street, from St Luke’s to the Lyceum, you reflect on the independent shops that have gone. That Indian Tandoori was excellent. Hairy Records was equal parts intimidating and a treasure trove. The Oddbins next door to Mattas was a very good one. The market itself was, as predicted, at the end of its fight and didn’t last much longer than this film’s exhibition. 140 years of history erased.

It’s striking, as people casually saunter along a public street in the sunshine, something that feels so alien right now, how much the idea of public space has changed in three months. Every decision made out of doors now feels fraught. I cannot imagine myself casually wandering down Bold Street, popping into Mattas to grab something for tea, thinking maybe I’ll have a quick browse in, well, anywhere. I’ve done it a thousand times.

Outside won’t be carefree for the next few months. We won’t be pushing alongside each other to get anywhere. We won’t be in that mindless throb of a crowd. We won’t be able to see each other’s faces (please wear masks). How prepared are we to create a more equal public realm to help us cope with that? How ready is the public realm to be the place where we test ourselves back in society, how we define our new borders, our new responsibilities, the new ways we need to live and work and socially distance rub shoulders alongside each other?

“We all own the space we use. It doesn’t belong to one or the other”

There is an opportunity for us to change how we perceive our public space and, in turn, how it sees us. Seismic events, like the one we are currently living through, tend to do two things: they make a change that was coming happen faster; and they bring an entirely unexpected change no one saw coming. We will use our public spaces differently, but it would be an important shift after this if we felt it was there for us all. The arguments over tourism, over students, is on hold for a while, so we have to talk amongst ourselves. We’ve talked a lot about who our city is for. Now it’s for us, all of us.

If one thing has defined much of the discourse in Liverpool over the past decade and a half, it is the sense we have had little control over our public realm. Some has disappeared, some is, quite frankly, ugly. Sparse green spaces have gone, the purpose of buildings altered. Change will continue but perhaps we need to learn a new sense of empathy, of how to share and how to have equal voice in our public spaces. If we’re spending more time on our pavements, one of our biggest questions is how loud of a voice we’ll have over their existence.

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