Thursday, 12 May 2011

Public space: overseas thoughts from back home Having referenced Hugh Schofield's thoughts recently on 'the fact French and other European societies are more socially-minded,' I spent most of the past week in southern France. I'm just unpacking and found a few loose thoughts about public space. I'm certainly not in a position to imply any conclusions about cultural differences, these are just reflections. When I first went to France, it must have been about 1967, I remember commenting on the constant background sound of emergency sirens in urban areas. I'd make the same observation now, it's so dominant. Who knows, there may just be some connection to the extraordinary French appetite for minor road collisions: there were four within metres of me at various times over four days. So it's a relief to observe that the French seem far less likely than the English to use their mobile phones while driving. I saw only one instance. In terms of offensive behaviour in public space, using a mobile while driving displays stark disrespect: it says unambiguously, 'my conversation is more important than your safety'. That's one reason why it's depressing to be returning to the British public realm. Public space in England is mcuh more information-intensive. In France there are fewer advertisements and signs - in train stations for instance, which can be remarkably dull - and on the trains and buses there are far fewer announcements. If you get on an inter-city train in the UK you are bombarded with announcements, about your ticket validity, destinations and bacons burgers, along with concerted attempts to catch you out and criminalise you. When you look out the window at a station, all sorts of information competes for your attention. Perhaps it mirrors the difference in food cultures. In France, the public realm doesn't rush you. And the more restrained approach to information provision may have subtle social consequences. If you need to know something, you ask - that is to say, you engage with others around you. Perhaps we have here an instance of Kev's Automatic Door Principle, which notes that there are distinct advantages to using technology to open doors for us: especially for people who use wheelchairs, also of course if you are overloaded with luggage; but automatic doors do not have to be held open for the lady with the stick just behind you, or for that bloke with the buggy just approaching. This is technology confiscating tiny social interactions. Information overload in the UK could be doing something similar. Uninvited encounters on the street seem far less frequent in France. If I walk through a town in England I know I will be accosted by people thrusting pieces of paper at me, people asking me for money or opinions or time. It could be argued that this is an acceptable part of the bustle of the urban public realm. I did note however that on the one occasion last week when I was offered a leaflet in the street, the lady said 'Bonjour m'sieur' as...

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