The Grove is a grassroots challenge to the privatisation of public space – it tells us a lot about how we can best use our cities
What kind of person is most engaged with their city? Not architects, or even planners – it’s skateboarders.
The first ‘sidewalk surfers’ emerged in California in the 1950s. Perceived as dangerous, and forbidden from large swathes of urban space, they quickly learned to skate curbs, ramps and rails, appropriating urban fragments from within prohibitive cities. Even today, skaters provide an excellent lens through which we can interrogate the commodification of our cities and better understand what is truly public space.
In 2017, an investigation by Guardian Cities identified the rise of privately owned public space, or POPS, in London. Superficially identical to public space, its ownership is opaque and restrictions on public behaviour are rarely communicated. This infringement on public land was echoed by a 2015 government plan to privatise the Land Registry itself. Although abandoned, the proposal revealed how public land ownership is being eroded – not only by market influences, but also by public policy.
The material condition that emerges in London is one of rampant spatial inequality; our ability to participate in the urban realm depends increasingly on personal wealth. Public space becomes yet another environment for consumption – a city-wide cover charge. This inequality disproportionately affects the young: within the lifespan of a 23-year-old, median house prices have risen 259% while median wages have risen just 68%. Under-50s own just 18% of the UK’s land wealth, compounded by the huge portions of wages lost to rent.
From squats to raves, London’s youth are devising ways to reclaim private land; typically illegal methods that the authorities define as trespass and criminal damage. They are an inevitable reaction to hostile urban conditions, namely a lack of social housing and public amenities. One group based in south London has made this critique an explicit component of its extra-legal occupation – The Grove.
Some skaters felt this was like the child that becomes interested in a toy only when another begins to enjoy it
No Public bar: The Grove is still active today, available for you to occupy and enjoy without spending a penny.