I sometimes wonder whether, in late medieval cities, there were disputes about where people left their carts. Car parking is a major issue in contemporary neighbourhoods, and inconsiderate parking infuriates people. Maybe some kinds of personality just get sparked by the very idea of public space, and always have done.
I’m not known for defending car drivers, but when you have situations where residents cannot get their own cars out of their driveways because others have left their vehicles in the way for long periods of time, you have to ask whether there’s a problem understanding that others have a right of access to public space.
A week ago I designed and ran a consultative process for a public meeting about car parking, in a large village on the outskirts of Sheffield. The material I had to work with included a lot of written remarks in open questions from an online survey, many of which suggested solutions and many of which consisted of repeated annoyance at inconsiderate drivers.
The process I came up with may have helped move things on. One reason is that most participants apparently were expecting a conventional public meeting in which councillors said something from the front, were shouted at by a few worked-up voices from the rows, and nothing much changed as a consequence. There were no rows (in either pronunciation) – the chairs were set around tables, people had the chance to shape their own agenda (and therefore found it hard to complain if the meeting did not discuss what they wanted discussed); they had the opportunity to augment and comment, in groups, on every live proposition as it was passed round, using pre-formatted sheets which included a street map; and they had the chance to vote, at the end, on preferred options to address the parking problem. There was no disruption. It was local participative democracy in action.
What was striking for me was the genuine sense of novelty among the participants, which I’m still absorbing. The sceptical might argue that just because some southerner comes in with an arty-farty creative approach, it doesn’t mean anything will change as a consequence. That remains to be seen. But I sensed from various comments afterwards that some people were grateful for a completely fresh experience of genuinely participative local democracy, which was, well, revelatory to them. That’s change, in itself.
The car resembles the traditional meeting as symbolic of communication confusion: it helps us to share some information (like status, power or detachment); in a car you can say ‘we’ve been through’ somewhere much as the conventional meeting ‘goes through’ an agenda. And cars really mess up interaction, and all the unseen benefits that go with interaction.