Common property

Dot writes: I’m prompted by Jeremy’s comment on my last post to pose a question: what would make people behave better in common spaces? I have wordily ranted before about how cross it makes me when people throw junk into rivers, or graffiti public buildings, or don’t clean up after their dogs, or leave broken glass and rubbish on beaches or in parks (or anywhere else for that matter). I find it particularly frustrating now I have a small, curious child, who can be guaranteed to find and fiddle with anything remotely filthy and/or sharp in his vicinity and so has to be denied many minor opportunities to escape his buggy and explore the outside world. But, quite apart from what makes people think it’s OK to do these things in the first place, how could they be stopped?

There’s certainly a sense, perhaps even more acute in Ireland than in the UK, that if a place isn’t your personal property then you have no interest in keeping it pleasant. If you do have a decent space of your own you stay in it, and if you don’t you go to a green area and get drunk and smash things. There are exceptions: Killiney Hill Park, for example, always seems to be pretty clean and well-kept, though when we went there with Hugh the other day he immediately found an abandoned bottle-top (choking hazard! germs!). (He does have unusual powers.) I’ve seen it argued that if a place is regularly cleaned people start to think of it as a clean place and behave much better; they are more likely to behave badly in places they perceive as uncared-for. Killiney Hill Park would seem to bear this out. I doubt the efficacy of measures like fines for dog-fouling, though they might achieve more if they were (perceived to be) enforced. But, above these piece-meal efforts, don’t we need to give people a much more general sense that public spaces are common property and that it is in their own interest both to enjoy and to preserve them? How on earth do you do that?


8 thoughts on “Common property

  1. I don’t think there is any answer, because I think population density is the problem. We generate filth. If there is a lot of space for each person, we keep the filth in our own space. If there isn’t, it invariably migrates out into shared spaces.

    Some people are more likely to generate shared-space filth than others, but this difference is an amoral one, I think. Shared-space filther-uppers are not a less moral breed than those who do not filth-up shared spaces.

    The most vocal opponents to shared-space filth are generally the least likely to do anything about it. Their desire is not to enjoy clean spaces but to feel they are superior to their neighbours. They seek moral advantage under the guise of a better world.

    The only place I have ever been that was clean and heavily populated is Zurich. So I suppose other than lower population density, facism helps people to have tidy shared spaces. I’m not sure I’m willing to sacrifice individualism and creativity for neater public spaces, however.

    As a dog owner I see dogs as a huge problem. I pick up all Gordon’s mess but there’s faeces everywhere because you can’t always get it all and there are plenty of people who just leave it. Leaving it was never a problem in Houston because the sun, beetles and other insects dessicated droppings within hours. Moreover everyone had a yard big enough to handle a dog’s daily mess. But here most dogs do their business in public areas and the business stays around and of course it is a nasty problem. I would never let Clem crawl around in any of the nearby parks. They have fenced off areas for children to play in and I think this is the only answer. Separate areas for separate uses.

  2. Ireland has a lot of space – and is able to spread rubbish across much of it. I remember a published photo collection in the ’80s called ‘Morris Minors in Connacht’ – it was a series of shots of abandoned Morris Minor cars crumbling away in various rural locations of the West.

    I think there are issues of civic pride and culture and perhaps perceptions of inclusion/exclusion.

  3. To refine some of what I wrote… I think the resentment people feel about the limitations of their home spaces causes two reactions, perhaps often mixed in the same individuals…

    1. anger at their need to use public space in the normal course of their life, which manifests as apparent disregard or even antagonism towards the maintenance of the space;

    2. moralising possessiveness about others’ treatment of the shared space.

  4. Belle Inconnue

    I think I disagree with Jeremy. If people see public space as an extension of their private space then they’re less likely to make mess – few people leave rubbish/broken glass/dog poo all over their homes, beacuse they use their homes, want to spend time there, and don’t want it to be gross. It’s the fact that they don’t see outdoor space as part of their space that leads them to make a mess.

    I also wonder if the countryside simply appears cleaner than the city because there’s more space to spread the rubbish around? I mean people could make just as much mess per person in the countryside, but if there’s 10 people in 1 square mile, it won’t look as bad as if there’s 1000 people in a square mile.

    I do think that British people are quite bad at ‘city living’. In other countries I think people use their communal space better, ‘living’ in the city and coming home to sleep, whereas British people tend to stay cooped up in their tiny spaces, feeling angry about not having more space, but not really using their communal space.

  5. kenanddot

    @Belle Inconnue: having grown up in the country, I can certainly testify that there is rubbish in the country, but you are right it is more spread around.

    @Jeremy: people create filth, but they also create dustbins, so why can’t they use them? It really isn’t too much trouble.

    Actually, one of the developments I absolutely hate about the hysteria about security that has enveloped officialdom in the last few years is the way they seem to have removed rubbish bins from all the railway stations. It truly pains me to have to leave my empty water bottle on a bench because I’m not allowed to throw it away like a decent human. I once went to the Oz-fest and caused much hilarity among my companions by earnestly and with increasing frustration searching for a bin. Everybody else was chucking their empties on the ground, and there were no bins. Whether no bins were provided because it was thought terrorists might target Ozzie Osborne, or whether it was just pessimistically assumed that scummy rock fans wouldn’t use them, I don’t know.

  6. I don’t remember ever seeing dustbins in rail stations, even when I was here in 1997. I always assumed it was Northern Ireland related terrorism that caused that step to be taken?

  7. Belle Inconnue

    There actually are some bins at some train stations now – they are those clear plastic bags hung up on what looks like a basketball hoop – I suppose because they can see what’s in them so it’s not considered such a risk. Not sure if they’re everywhere though.

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