Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Prison Yard

Z. lives on a council estate. Three U-shaped buildings of four storey flats around an empty space. City planners must have spent many meetings discussing what to do with the secluded space in between. They thought: the people living in the flats need green parkland. They need some benches and a pick nick table. They need a playground for the children.
So they went to work. Grass in the middle, and curved borders full of bushes. An occasional tree to offer some shade. A pair of swings here, a slide over there. The city planners must have been very pleased with the result. They have created a beautiful garden for the tenants of the flats.
Being city planners they also foresaw that on a council estate not all residents really show the respect for their environment that they should. So they made sure the fourth side of the yard was shut with a very high iron fence with spikes on the top. Thus the garden can only be reached through a gate.
Yesterday Z. and I went there with the children. It was a glorious autumn day, mild and sunny. The children loved it. They swung on the swings and ran through the grass.
They were the only ones. No other children, no adults sitting on the benches exchanging gossip. No one, except cats and pigeons.
And no wonder. The place feels like a prison yard dressed up as a park. Once you’re inside there is no way out. And all the while you’re there, you are watched by the nosy neighbours who are lurking behind their luxaflex. The playground is no playground; it is just a few apparatuses scattered about. What mother would let her child play in such an inaccessible place?
On my way home I passed another playground. It was in a small square between the terraced houses. Children were running around. Mothers could watch them from their front doors. There were no trees and no bushes. No beautiful parkland.
But it was welcoming and effective.

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