This piece is part of a weekly series of articles curated by Voluntary Arts and authored by cultural thinkers and doers. The series will be published between November 2017 and March 2018. It is being shaped in response to the emerging practice of cultural commoning and as a way of articulating ideas that have arisen in conversations about Our Cultural Commons over the past two years across the UK and Republic of Ireland.

Our intention is that the series will help make visible the cultural commons in action and will encourage new approaches to sustaining creative cultural activity in local places. And we hope that the articles and the conversation they stimulate will contribute to the forming of ever more enabling cultural policy.

I became interested in thinking about ‘the commons’ in relation to cultural policy through my involvement in the project*, ‘Understanding Everyday Participation – Articulating Cultural Values’ and, more specifically, in relation to how participants in this research expressed their relationships with parks and open green spaces. The project has been investigating the practices and values of ‘everyday participation’ and the ways in which individuals and communities’ participation helps structure and shape their lives and their relationships to local governance and local place.

Through mixed methods of enquiry, it aims to re-evaluate radically the value of cultural participation from the perspectives of participants rather than the perspectives policy-makers or institutions. The intention is to resist a common ‘deficit model’, and to present the means for more culturally democratic management of and access to resources.

Woodlan Festival, Inverleith ParkAnalysing transcripts from household interviews and drama-based workshops with young people in North Manchester and East Salford, it soon became clear that parks are spaces that express a breadth of different values within the localities they are based. Parks appear to have more salience to people’s everyday lives that the types of assets and amenities we normally associate with cultural participation and value - such as theatres, museums and galleries. The uses to which public parks are put by these participants in our research, the values that were attached to their use (and their avoidance), are multi-form and multiple. People use parks with families and friends, in facilitated sports and recreation, for access to nature, to play and to day-dream, spend-time on one’s own, or save time through taking transversal routes to other activities. Parks and green spaces in the city are not just a central part of everyday cultural participation, but also mark time and generate value through their part in people’s memories of childhood days, as well as through the value they connote to their existing neighbourhoods [1].

These findings suggested to me Linebaugh’s [2] description of the commons as that which is constituted through participation, as the gerund of ‘commoning’ rather than the fixed asset of space. People bring their own values, meanings and resources to their participation in parks, and in doing so generate further value for their neighbourhoods and communities.

The activity of commoning is conducted through labor [sic] with other resources; it does not make a division between “labor” and “natural resources”. On the contrary it is labor which creates something as a resource, and it is by the resources that the collectivity of labour comes to pass.

(Linebaugh: 2014: 13)

People sitting by pond in a parkHowever, the commons are not neutral spaces or empty vessels waiting to be filled. As places where many different communities share public space, parks act as contact zones [3][4] and can exacerbate both social cohesion and conflict. On the one hand, they provide opportunities for encounters, the formation of social networks, intercultural integration and the articulation of both public and private concerns. On the other hand, they can also highlight tensions between different social groups and are vulnerable to exploitation, for example from commercial use which may privilege private capital over public value, e.g. when festivals take over parks temporarily but change their use- permanently; or when space becomes branded by private interests through sponsorship [5]. Furthermore, public parks are under threat in the UK, as austerity measures are forcing the local authorities that own and maintain them to look at other income models or face the closure or sale of parkland: over 90% of park-keepers predict budget cuts, and 40% are expecting their parks to significantly decline as a result (Heritage Lottery Fund, 2016). As common-pool resources, distinct from common-pool property - since they are not statutory services which local authorities are duty-bound to keep open and so are not truly owned by the public - they face enclosure.

The public park has its roots partly in the enclosure movement of the 18th and 19th century. Our archival research on the establishment of public parks in Manchester and Salford, the first municipal parks in the country, has revealed that the history of these ‘green lungs’ is intertwined with debates over the moral and physical health of the newly urbanised poor, and that campaigning for accessibility for spaces for ‘public walks’ resulted from the taking over of common land as an economic as well as physical resource [6][7]. Previously the private spaces of the elite, symbolic of their wealth and power [8], parks came to be adopted by local public corporations as central devices within urban cultural strategies. These cultural policies included the encouragement of ‘rational recreation’ and public promenading (promoting the adoption of behaviours displayed by the ‘better classes’), the housing of new art museums and temporary exhibition spaces, and the promotion of live music economies and propagation of cultural tastes through bandstand concerts subsidised by Park Committees. Parks were at least important as the new museums and library reading rooms of the day, as spaces for regulation and governance of the public body, for introducing proper behaviour and cultural education to the working classes and keeping them from less savoury forms of entertainment, such as music halls. Arguably, parks still maintain this function in urban cultural policy, and they do this particularly well because of their mass appeal and through the spaces they offer for everyday cultural participation.

Person on path in a parkSo how can these conceptual connections and shared historical origins help us to imagine and create more equitable and culturally democratic policies? From my perspective they remind us that policies for arts and cultural participation should be not just about provision of public cultural spaces or about audience development in the educative sense. These policies should consider how participation in cultural commoning brings the capitals, norms and values of the participants together as common-pool resources. As debates about free museums policies and their visitor demographies suggest, it is not so simple as “build it” or “make it free” and all will come. Commons are made. They can also be enclosed, so that those who do not identify with these attributes or who do not have the same capitals, are left outside or excluded. Commons are also threatened by private interests. Rees Leahy [9] argues, for example, that the cultural policy efficacy of museums is related to tensions between the governance of bodies of work – collections - and the production of social bodies. And so generating public good and social improvement through museum participation is always in tension with the protection and curating of works of art.

Parks remind us how the everyday negotiation of shared spaces is important and valuable to both people and places, and that public policies should promote forms of participation valued by all. The next stage in the history of their role in urban cultural policy must see a shift to statutory duty of maintaining access to these common-pool resources and protecting them from private enclosure.

Dr. Abigail Gilmore
University of Manchester

Dr. Abigail GilmoreDr. Abigail Gilmore is Senior Lecturer in Arts Management and Cultural Policy and Head of the Institute for Cultural Practices at University of Manchester, leading postgraduate programmes in these interdisciplinary subject areas. Her research concerns local cultural policies, strategies and participation practices and their impact on place, frequently involving collaborative initiatives with cultural partners to inform teaching, knowledge exchange and public engagement. She is Co-Investigator and lead for the Manchester-Salford case study of Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded Connected Communities ‘Understanding Everyday Participation – Articulating Cultural Values’.

1. Gilmore, A (2017): The park and the commons: vernacular spaces for everyday participation and cultural value, Cultural Trends, DOI:10.1080/09548963.2017.1274358 - OA
2. Linebaugh, P (2014): Stop Thief! The Commons, Enclosures and Resistance: Spectre
3. Clifford, J. (1997) ‘Museums as Contact Zones’, in Clifford, J. Routes: Travel and Translation in the Late Twentieth Century, Cambridge, Massachusetts and London: Harvard University Press pp.188-219
4. Askins, K. & Pain, R. (2011) ‘Contact Zones: Participation, Materiality, and the Messiness of Interaction’ Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, Vol 29, Issue 5, 2011 pp.803-821
5. Smith, A. (2014) ‘Borrowing’ Public Space to Stage Major Events: The Greenwich Park Controversy. Urban Studies. doi: 10.1177/0042098013489746
6. Gilmore, A. & Doyle, P (2018, forthcoming) ’The history of public parks as cultural policies for everyday participation’ in. Gibson, L. and Belfiore, E (eds) Culture and Power: Histories of participation, values and governance, Palgrave
7. Howkins, A. (2011) The Commons, Enclosure and Radical Histories’, in Feldman, D and Hyde, L. (2012) Common as Air: Revolution, Art and Ownership London: Union Books
8. Elsborough, T. (2016) A Walk in the Park London: Jonathan Cape

Heritage Lottery Fund (2016) State of the UK Public Parks II procurement document, London: Heritage Lottery Fund
9. Rees Leahy, H. (2013) Museum Bodies: The Politics and Practices of Visiting and Viewing. Farnham: Ashgate
10. Ostrom, E (1990) ‘Governing the Commons: the Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action’ Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

* - Funded by the Arts & Humanities Research Council 

Next week, on Wednesday 7 February, Tom Jones of No. 11 Arts in Birmingham shares an example of cultural commons in practice.

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This article is published under a Creative Commons CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 license.
Images: Richard Webb, (Wikimedia Commons); CC0 (Pexels); CC0 (Pixabay)