Private or public? by Keith Baker

The arrival of the summer coupled with discussions about what it means to be European have made me think about how we use our outdoor spaces, both public and private, and how that differs from the ways our counterparts across the Channel do?

It’s quite common to see people carrying on their everyday activities in the streets and squares of southern Europe. This is something we don’t see much of in the UK and if we do, it often appears strange (with the exception of drinking take-out coffee and using our smartphones).  And whilst we may stop off for a drink or a coffee on pavement café nowadays we don’t have anything like the leisurely Italian passeggiata or at least not outside seaside towns with promenades. However, the moment the sun comes out we do congregate in city parks and beer gardens, so clearly there is an appetite for outdoor living, although often coupled with eating and drinking.

Obviously, this has a lot to do with our climate, more often than not you will have no sooner settled yourself on a bench (because the grass is invariably too wet) than the sun goes in or it starts to rain and you’d find yourself running for cover and feeling foolish. I think it also has something to do with our notions of privacy and how we like to define our territory.

Our front gardens are often seen as ‘public’ spaces, or at least public-facing; kept neat and used to display our taste and values to the world in much the same way as clients of ‘Capability’ Brown, Kent or Bridgeman used the landscapes surrounding their homes to display their values, taste and even their ideas. In dense, medieval European towns front gardens are in short supply and life spills out into the street.

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We very rarely use our front gardens to relax in, preferring to do this in our rear gardens, if we have them, which are altogether less public. Only our very closest friends gain admittance to this area as it often requires access through the house or a locked side-gate. With land at a premium and new properties getting less outside space, if any at all, perhaps we will start to see a shift in how this space is used and have to get used to seeing more deckchairs on front lawns and redefine our notions of what a front garden is.

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