Monday, 17 July 2006

Formal and informal in public space I've long been fascinated with the evidence of woonerven and Hans Monderman's experiments removing traffic lights, at the way in which less formal, less legally-enforceable arrangements result in more efficient, equal and safer use of space. Like a lot of people I dislike barriers and traffic lights both as a pedestrian and as a driver, because they seem like a mutually-inconvenient and extreme solution to different forms of movement because we cannot find a functional compromise. One reason motorist and pedestrian often haven't found a compromise is because official systems need to be able to apportion blame if things go wrong and therefore need to rule out ambiguity. This was before designers came along and introduced the notion of 'design speed' (ie controlling traffic speed through design elements) as distinct from 'legal speed'. Some of this I've touched on before - 1, 2, 3, and 4 - and it featured in discussion at the Manual for Streets workshop I attended the other day. At the table where I was sitting, our facilitator asked if we felt that in residential areas there should be guard railings, anywhere. There was an emphatic and unanimous 'no'. Now here's a note just posted on the Streets mailing list: "As part of the Kensington High Street improvement all guardrailing was removed, [with one small exception]..." "In the more or less 3 years since completion accidents have dropped by around 40% compared to the 3 years before completion, which is significantly better than the comparable figures for both the whole Borough and London." The tide is turning, slowly. And my point is not just that this is an evidence-based transformation of damaging safety-obsession in environmental design; it's also part of a cultural transformation towards the accommodation of informal ways of doing things, because human beings are quite good at informality and the managerialists, who aren't, have had it their way for too long.
Young people, respect and uniforms Early in the year I found myself wondering to what extent Tony Blair's respect agenda is partly an attempt to recover the lost influence of uniformed organisations at 'critical ages' for many young people. (Answer: hardly at all. As Will Davies noted recently, the respect agenda is more like 'the reduction of politics to pest control'). But then I recently attended a couple of conferences where the role of young neighbourhood wardens - apprenticed to grown-up neighbourhood wardens - was celebrated. Complete with uniform. I think neighbourhood wardens are a genuine success story because they fit snugly in the problematic vacuum between informal local social relations and formal services. There's a DVD about the Hull Community Warden Service which was produced last year by ODPM (available from), which articulates this extremely well. Just because I'm hugely suspicious of the mentality of uniform is no reason to disparage such initiatives, and I've no intention of doing so. A good socialist friend of mine helps run boy scouts locally and she's very clear about the benefits offered. But I do think we have to be cautious about the association of uniform with the instilling of values, discipline, respect, authority etc. For some young people there will be enormous benefits in terms of confidence and social skills; possibly at the risk of exaggerating gaps and differences within age groups. I'd like to think there will be close links with lots of non-uniformed activities going on. And I just hope no-one thinks uniforms have a place in the youth volunteering that was scheduled to be an important part, I'm not sure how, of the respect agenda.

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