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Skaters do a 360 on public space

Charlie Edmonds

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

Building a volcano at the Grove.
Building a volcano at the Grove. Credit: Charlie Edmonds

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

In summer 2019, I visited The Grove DIY skatepark. The spot had been recently created by a local collective of skaters who, after their local skateparks had been closed, decided to build their own in the car park of a disused pub, The Grove – a space used only for fly-tipping. 
Since the skaters occupied the site, The Grove has been filled with a wealth of skateable objects: ramps, rails, ledges, and even a mini volcano were all fabricated from found objects and in-situ concrete. Architecturally, it is rudimentary, but it provides a home for a thriving urban community. 
Eventually the landowner informed the skaters that the site was to be developed and their work demolished; some skaters felt this was like the child that becomes interested in a toy only when another begins to enjoy it. In response, the group organised a jam (a kind of skating festival and competition) as part of its ‘Save The Grove’ campaign. Support from neighbours, skate shops, and even international foundations resulted in political pressure that allowed the group to resist eviction, and the quasi-activists have since operated as effective leaseholders and stewards of the site. 
Now there is more than just skating here: children learn to ride bikes, friends meet for barbecues, and a cross section of south London citizens come along. The Grove is testament to the comfort and joy that can be found by simply existing in shared space. With loose bricks and hand-mixed cement, skaters are fighting the creeping commodification of public space, an urban resistance that should inspire all architects. 

No Public bar: The Grove is still active today, available for you to occupy and enjoy without spending a penny.

Charlie Edmonds is co-founder of Future Architects Front and a designer at Civic Square