Abi Gilmore, Institute for Cultural Practices
Abi Gilmore considers how the COVID-19 crisis is shaping cultural participation and the practicing of public space in urban parks. She reflects on how it is also reshaping a current research and public engagement project in a Manchester park, Platt Fields, and its co-located museum, Platt Hall.
The phrase “the new normal” has now become a new normal in social media discussions, media articles and policy debates around the world. The term describes a state brought on by Covid-19 that we are moving towards, that has unclear dimensions and duration, and uncertain consequences. It is, I think, a tacit and collective admission that things are changing irrevocably but we don’t yet know in what form these changes will solidify. The phrase evokes one of Donald Rumsfeld’s known unknowns, a transition to an equilibrium where new terms and conditions apply to society which are not yet bounded or established.
Under lockdown conditions, our current new normal is being at home, not using public transport, washing our hands (and our shopping), increased proximity to our households but remoteness from family, colleagues and friends excepting the small rectangular views through computer and phone screens. Public parks all over the world have become a much needed pressure valve, through which we can not only get exercise and access to nature and fresh air, but also see and interact with others in movement and from a safe distance. Along with the doorstep Thursday clapping for the NHS and the angst of queuing for essentials shopping, visiting a park is one of few public spaces where we can share a moment of common humanity.
I’ve been researching how public parks comprise part of local cultural ecosystems, as agents of public policy and sites of everyday participation. The park’s role in the crisis therefore comes as no real surprise, not least since the origins of urban park design lie in policy responses to pandemics as well as other public health concerns, such as access to nature and recreation, and deterrence from unhealthy and immoral pursuits (such as the pub and the music hall).
My interest in parks and cultural policy stems from the Understanding Everyday Participation – Articulating Cultural Values research project, where it became clear from empirical research that parks and green spaces hold a wide range of cultural values for those who use them and live near them. When explored within the historical context of their establishment, they also have a range of ‘policy attachments’ (Gray 2009) which serve the interests of urban corporations, public funders, and national government, as well as local communities. By providing space for sports, recreation and play, for education, self-improvement, well-being, regulation and surveillance, historically and contemporaneously parks ‘do’ a lot for public policy, and also for citizens. They provide ways for citizens to live alongside each other and tacitly implicitly recognise and navigate difference and diversity (whether socio-economic, cultural, ethnic, gender andage) within public space. They are places which ‘mediate conviviality’ (Barker, 2017) and allow the practice of ‘locational citizenship’ (De Masso, 2015), associated with feelings of legitimation, belonging and acceptance within the public sphere.
When researching everyday participation, I observed that people are aware of social and cultural differences when they participated in their local parks, and that they often draw boundaries around the spaces and times when they used them, to negotiate with other users the legitimacy of their participation practices. Certain practices – sunbathing, exercise, pigeon-feeding – take on different meanings according to religious belief and convention, requiring and strengthening community ethno-cultural identities and boundaries as they are practiced. For example, in some orthodox Jewish communities youth were deterred from attending the park at times which may lead to more mixing with gentiles, and other communities may avoid summer times when park-goers are in states of undress. Anyone who regularly visits a public park will be aware of the temporal and spatial zones which are ‘teenage time’, when groups of young people hanging out takeover the play park or descend on the skate park.
There were also many cases where participation in parks transcends social difference: people are proud of the places where they live if there were well-managed green spaces nearby as it visibly demonstrates that neighbourhoods are cared for by the community. They are places for nostalgic reminiscence, even when they are no longer visited, as they contain memories of childhood, friendship, discovery and family affection, the sociality of sports and recreation and the benefits of creative solitude and reflection. They are performed public spaces, Merx (2011), offering through diverse forms of participation the means to ‘practice’ everyday life and place (de Certeau, 1984).
These different processes of co-existence, recognition and legitimisation offer conviviality. They can help in community engagement, something which cultural institutions based in parks have operationalised, for example in the pioneering work of the Whitworth Art Gallery and their Cultural Park Keeper, Francine Hayfron. Convening participation programmes with art, nature and wellbeing, cultural park-keeping presents a way to mediate difference and engage with local communities, building and legitimising positive associations with the art gallery, its collections and its mission.
This March I was about to begin some public engagement activities as part of a collaborative project with Manchester Art Gallery and their curatorial and learning team based at Platt Hall in South Manchester. The Hall is the former Costume Gallery based in an old mansion house in Platt Fields Park, and is currently closed to the public for building restoration, collections management and development. It nestles in the Rusholme corner of the park and over its 250 years has had diverse functions, from private manor house to tea room, wartime labour camp, art school and police headquarters. First established as a branch museum in 1925, intended to bring art outside of the centre to the neighbourhoods of South Manchester, it houses collections of costume, textiles, handicrafts and domestic objects and is one of four sites that MAG manages. The project, supported by The Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund and Paul Hamlyn Foundation, and led by Liz Mitchell, aims to work with these collections to engage surrounding communities in decision-making and planning for a future ‘constituent museum’ in Platt Hall, generated through the relationships with its users, or ‘constituents’. However, the building is currently in a state of ‘in-between’, needing renovation to make it sound, and funds to make it sustainable. There are many existing memories attached the museum’s previous status as a Costume Gallery which are important to some of these constituents (but not others). The museum’s future is also bounded by Manchester Art Gallery’s institutional needs and pressures.
Platt Fields is a few miles south of Manchester city centre amidst the wards of Moss Side, Rusholme and Fallowfield, and serves diverse communities mixing students with longer-term residents. Like the area surrounding it, the Park is characterised by diversity, with many different zones, amenities and user groups. It was created following a campaign to save private parkland from housing development in the beginning of the twentieth century, when it was bought by Manchester Corporation. It is the site of many public events, including the Manchester Food and Drink Festival, Park Life music festival (before it moved to Heaton Park), and more recently an eco-festival, Envirolution. Alongside the Hall, the park hosts a community allotment, an orchard, a terraced garden managed by the Friends of Platt Fields Group, a boating lake, cycle hire and repair shop, meeting room, teenage shelter, and BMX track.
To help with the Platt Hall community engagement project, I’ve suggested bringing the park into the process, or rather taking the museum out into the park, to explore how the building, its contents and uses might be better understood in the context of local everyday life and the diversity of community interests and values which are articulated there. We were soon to begin a number of participatory activities in Platt Fields, assembling groups of people to take part and surveying park users, zones and communities to explore how we could engage better with them as potential constituents of the museum and its collections. We were in discussions with Manchester Parks teams about creating active participation in the park alongside cultural engagement with Platt Hall through a digital heritage trail curated by local communities and exhibited through the Love Exploring app.
Covid-19 has of course brought a halt to these plans, or rather a pause and reset as it has to most public arts and culture. Like parks all over the UK, Platt Fields is governed by social distancing measures. Local authorities are being urged to keep parks open, but it will be some time before restrictions are lifted. Meanwhile people are learning to use parks in these different ways, policing themselves and each other to stop the spread of the virus. Parks’ use for ‘daily exercise’ has increased massively, as one of the few legitimated forms of cultural participation under lockdown. Now more than ever they are viewed as essential although it is unclear whether this will change the long-term underinvestment or their non-statutory status as public services.
This raises questions for research on the value of parks in everyday life, and their future sustainability as part of cultural ecosystems. In the ‘new normal’ what meanings will people attach to their public parks now and in the future, post-Covid? What will be the impact on parks business models and management? How will participation practices change and what implications will this have for affective and inclusive public spaces? Will the park be more valuable (again) for cultural policy than the pub, the theatre, or even the museum?
With the team at Platt Hall, we are reconfiguring the project so that it can take place safely through digital participation, and thinking of ways to continue the engagement work with the park’s users, histories and memories. This will need to take into account these changes, and be sensitive to the multiple pressures on the many different constituents of the park and the museum. We will work with the new normal, whatever it brings.
Barker, Anna (2017) “Mediated Conviviality and the Urban Social Order: Reframing the Regulation of Public Space”, The British Journal of Criminology, Volume 57, Issue 4, July, 848–866.
de Certeau, Michel (1984) The Practice of Everyday Life, Berkeley, California: University of California Press.
Di Masso, Andrés (2015) “Micropolitics of Public Space: On the Contested Limits of Citizenship as a Locational Practice“, Journal of Social and Political Psychology, Vol. 3(2), 63–83.
Gilmore, Abigail (2017) “The park and the commons: vernacular spaces for everyday participation and cultural value“, Cultural Trends, 26:1, 34-46.
Gray, Clive (2008) “Part 1: Intellectual and political landscape Instrumental policies: causes, consequences, museums and galleries”, Cultural Trends, Vol. 17, No. 4, December, 209–222.
Merx, Sigrid (2011) “Public Pie Performing public space”, Performance Research, 16:2, 132-137.
Dr Abi Gilmore is Senior Lecturer at the Institute for Cultural Practices. Her research concerns local cultural policies, cultural institutions and their impact on place. She is currently researching the cultural policy values of public parks and is a researcher-in-residence at Platt Hall with Manchester Art Gallery (see www.platthall.org). From 2012-2018, she was Co-Investigator on AHRC Connected Communities ‘Understanding Everyday Participation – Articulating Cultural Values’. She is a Co-Investigator for the AHRC Creative Industries Policy and Evidence Centre.