Wherever we go there are boundaries, but we have to keep thinking, we have to keep changing, keep asking if these boundaries are right for us.
Out-of-town shopping centres and retail parks land like aliens. We go through their automatic doors into an air-conditioned environment of chain stores, all semblance of independent spirit purged by the pension-fund landlords who dare not take a risk on, nay put barriers up against, the small guy while looking after our future financial security. Yours truly small guy would have struggled to make such a great start on my entrepreneurial path in the present situation. In the early 80s, with cheap rents available in Kensington Market and shop units available in Soho and on Neal Street, Covent Garden for less than £70 per week, ‘No references needed’, Gerardine and I were able to establish our first business – Red Or Dead – without any backing or borrowing.
In today’s alien shopping environments, we are thermostatically sealed from the natural environment as if we lived in some extreme climate. The concept of serendipity and the idea of surprises around the corner are lost in a surreal soundscape of piped R&B and kids being told off. Yet a recent Mintel report showed that 48% of people in the UK like to use local, independent shops, and 33% try to buy locally . . . we must bloody well lie to these researchers, because even with the current media saturation of all things environmental the local shop still struggles.
We seem to enjoy travelling to the out-of-town alien spaceships (or in the case of the Trafford Centre, a giant monument to bad taste without the wit of Jeff Koons) in our private little motorised cocoons through an ugly environment of signs and road markings. Why have we allowed road engineers to fence us in and blight our lives with signs that tell us the obvious? In Holland the boundaries are being torn down. Hans Monderman has almost single-handedly broken down the tyranny of the highway engineer, and is proving (the obvious to some of us) that if you put up a sign for 30mph, people will drive at 30mph; if it’s 60mph people will drive at 60mph. But take down the signs, take off all road markings, make it pretty clear, by design, that the pedestrian and the cyclist have equal rights to the spaces, and lo and behold drivers have to think, to consider that they don’t have a divine right in spaces they are passing through, that they are not being handed implicit instructions that these spaces belong to them. Look Hans Monderman up; look at the stats; it works. As the boundaries go down, people use the streets more, traffic speeds go down, accident rates go down. Health experts in the UK say areduction in speed limits on residential roads to 20mph would save about 13,000 children a year from death and injury,but experience in the Netherlands is showing that it is not a reduction in limits but actually a removal of limits that does the trick. Hey-ho: remove the speed-limit boundaries and our towns become more pleasurable, safer experiences.
We fence our housing estates in, our play areas in. Gated communities often attract higher land values. In this increasingly risk-averse society we do fear boundaries. Yet many ask for them. We love our job titles. For many, change is not good and tens of thousands of us get dressed, brush our teeth and routinely put earplugs in and switch our iPods on, putting up a boundary against casual conversation (or often, as we cross a road, a barrier against the sound of an oncoming cyclist or, more worryingly, a bendy-bus).
Many of us crave identity and belonging, and it is a sense of belonging that can engender a sense of place. I’m on a quest to discover how we can encourage local pride and belonging without having boundaries. Watch this space.