Cherishing our public spaces

We need to cherish our public spaces argues Green councillor Chas Booth

I’m told that some senior councillors think that dog fouling, litter and street cleanliness are beneath them. They want to focus on loftier matters.

Indeed, there are some major decisions for the city – joining up of health and social care services, for example, or the way the economy evolves through a “city deal”, or agreeing on a strategy for land use in the city, in the form of a Local Development Plan.

It is essential that Edinburgh gets these big decisions right. But if you are a wheelchair user whose afternoon is blighted by someone else’s irresponsible dog-handling; or the parent of a toddler who is picking her way through broken glass in the park – then you cannot help but feel let down.

That is why the latest Edinburgh People’s Survey is such a wake-up call to the council and to the city to take more pride in our public spaces. We have some great people working on frontline local services in the council – in our parks, libraries and on our streets. And we have some fantastic community groups and volunteers too. But maintaining public space still feels like a battle.

Cllr Chas BoothAnd it’s not a battle about trivia. As someone who is strongly on the progressive side of Scottish politics I believe public space fosters social solidarity. If we want a society where people look out for each other, then we must cherish those spaces where people interact: libraries, community halls, parks and streets. And those services – like public toilets – which offer dignity to residents while they are out and about.

If we want to follow the worst examples of US cities, we build gated communities, withdraw public services and let neighbourhoods rot. Watch people become fearful and withdraw to the privacy of their TV. And witness social isolation mount.

Or we can protect and enhance our public spaces. Clean up the litter and dog mess, and support responsible citizens to do likewise. Ensure that everyone, no matter their income, has access to good quality green space, since this contributes to good physical and mental health.

That means prompt street cleaning to remove the debris. This is essential to avoid ‘broken window syndrome’ where dirty streets encourage more dirt. We need encouragement of responsible behaviour – issuing more fines to persistent offenders, and making it easier for people to do the right thing. And we need to be innovative, too – are there opportunities with the introduction of compulsory microchipping of dogs next year, for example? Can we learn from best practice in other councils, both in the UK and around the world?

We won’t get high-quality and well-maintained public spaces with action from the council alone. Our city is lucky to have an army of volunteers doing their bit, whether that’s organising litter-picks and street clean-ups or promoting responsible behaviour to dog owners and school kids. The council needs to get more consistent about supporting these volunteers, to ensure we maximise the work they put in.

And, yes, I understand the funding gap. Since 2010 Scottish Government funding for councils has fallen by almost 10% – a kick in the teeth for those who depend most on public services. But that simply cannot become an alibi for neglect of public space.

Properly cared-for, our public spaces make for stronger, liveable communities. If we neglect them, we do so at our peril.

This blog was first published in the Edinburgh Evening News