Public Space Where Everyone Benefits

22 / 11 / 2014

In this First Person, writer Susanna Nelson provides us with this piece on the latest attempt to siphon off child-free spaces (which, as Susanna explains, often translates as also meaning ‘female-free’). What’s missing amongst the same recycled debate on this issue, Susanna writes, is a proper discussion about public policy – and how businesses can actually be part of a wider push to create much-needed public space – for everyone’s use. This is Susanna’s first piece for Sheilas – welcome aboard! 

By Susanna Nelson

We hear the argument trotted out regularly in opinion pages – children shouldn’t be allowed on planes, in cafés or anywhere where they can cause discomfort to their adult counterparts. Café owners should have ‘the right’ to refuse entry to parents with small children. A recent revival of this discussion covered familiar territory. The defenders of childless space argue that people are entitled to enjoy their boutique sashimi or single-origin coffee in peace; children, and the people (mainly women) attached to them, are obstructions.

The arguments, both for and against, are mired in the language of individual – read, consumer – choice. It’s a seductive line. If enough people with children want child-friendly cafes, child friendly cafes will materialise all over town, leaving the childless in peace. It’s all about personal preference – vote with your feet and business owners will listen. But this discussion often fails to address the structural inequity that underpins the concept of child-free spaces. More often than not, child-free spaces become woman-free spaces.

Public policy is the elephant in the room. Why should business have so much power to shape our landscape? The loss of access to publicly owned space also affects choice – it limits the choice of many new mothers to become part of their community once again, as well as the opportunity for children to be treated as functioning members of society rather than sources of irritation for other consumers.

There is a pernicious way that our society manages to corral women into prescribed spaces. It’s rife for women without children – consider the constant warnings that assail us about going out alone – and it becomes more pronounced when we accompany children or breastfeed. Certain places are acceptable – the warm womb of the shopping centre, where we can fulfill our duty to capitalism and spend up big; playcentres and cafes; cars and the home. But venture into the city on a weekday with small, noisy children and watch the busy suits twitch in discomfort on the tram. Without legislation to enforce access – that is, without government intervention – some businesses would happily prevent this discomfort by barring certain undesirable customers from turning up. And the word for this is discrimination.

Public space – that is, non-commercial civic space that is available to all – is an ever-diminishing resource. True public space is walkable, connected, interactive, social, creative, accessible, green and free. Places like libraries, galleries, civic centres, parks and gardens are available to all members of the public as citizens rather than paying consumers, and most are protected or funded by government to some degree.

Without government support, these free public spaces, like other government-funded services, shrivel up and die – land gets carved up and sold off in expensive little parcels to the private sphere. Before long, taking the place of civic centres, playgroups and libraries – all spaces where discrimination is proscribed and consumption mostly unnecessary – are places to spend money and places to drive your car. Oh, and the sort of café that doesn’t want child patrons because children are not the target market.

The main drag of my suburb consists of a few car parts outlets, a Sexyland ‘adult’ centre, a Rivers, a Target and an ageing clock tower. There’s a new shopping centre going up in the image of Chadstone – a cream-coloured monolith – with a car park that is going to take up as much space as the mall itself. Tellingly, the public library has moved twice to make way for this ever-expanding development. There are also a number of children’s playcentres, obviously targeting people like me, housed in industrial business parks. One of them shares building space with the aforementioned adult centre. The disparity in the social function of these commercial ventures is almost comical. The overall impression of this and countless other suburbs is that there is little crossover or cohesion between its elements. The one place where diversity thrives is the large reserve on the edge of town – and it’s no coincidence that it is also the last large, publicly owned space in the area.

Let’s take a wild guess at who tends to use public space. The unemployed? The elderly? Differently-abled people? Children? Women? Bingo. People who need to use communal space in a way their able-bodied working counterparts might use the lunchroom or the water cooler. I know that as a bewildered and isolated new mother I needed the park, the library – and a welcoming local café – to keep me connected to the outside world. Without these communal spaces I didn’t feel anchored to reality and community. Moreover, I’d like to think that without mothers and their children, these spaces were missing out on the diversity that makes up a fully functioning community.

Our society’s preoccupation with the individual – and individual spending power – has squeezed out community. Late capitalist society doesn’t offer much opportunity for hanging out without paying for the privilege. This ‘user pays’ mentality is evident across the board – from those hermetically sealed, pay-per-minute playcentres offering parents a temporary reprieve and children a chance to wade in tubs of plastic balls, to the ‘family friendly’ cafeteria at Ikea, where you can stuff your child with meatballs, mashed potato and jelly and cream and purchase some plastic detritus to keep the children amused and earn a stamp on your parking ticket.

An added effect of these ‘family’ focused establishments is to stratify society further. Instead of socialising children by allowing them to sample diversity and culture at an early age, we’re inculcating a notion of the child (via parent) as paying consumer – we’re identifying children as a separate target market. If it isn’t brightly coloured, built like a padded cell and filled with toys, it isn’t for kids. This approach is limiting for children, and it’s unhealthy and isolating for adults – with or without children. Surely the aim is to foster a society that accepts people from across the spectrum of life?

While I think a return to publicly-owned spaces is essential, there is no reason why businesses can’t form a vital part of this community mix. I remember fondly the cafes and pubs I frequented in the 1990s that didn’t extract more than the price of a cup of tea in exchange for hosting the social and creative endeavours of a diverse range of people, including students, the unemployed and a fair few parents and their children. When I lived in the UK I found that many pubs were welcoming not only to adults but to children and pets. But it seems that, today, many businesses, aided and abetted by the individualistic mentality promoted by our current government, are becoming more venal in their approach to the paying customer – they’re concerned with not just whether they pay, but from what segment of the market they derive. In other words, debates about who is a worthy customer play right into their hands.