How leaving padlocks became a modern-day romantic ritual

A couple cross Cologne's Hohenzollernbruecke bridge in 2011. Image: Getty.

Cities as distant and varied as Moscow and Manchester, New York and Newport, Beijing and Blackpool all have one striking feature in common. Masses of padlocks, engraved with the names or initials of love-struck couples, bedeck notable landmarks such as bridges and fences – sometimes to the ire of local authorities.

The exact origins of the “love locking” practice are unknown, but it rapidly gained global momentum after emerging in Rome and Paris during the 2000s. The locks have become romantic tokens – universal symbols for the commitment, strength and constancy of a relationship.

Yet this symbol of unity has proven ironically polarising. Many authorities view the custom negatively, and collections of love locks have been removed from bridges following safety concerns. Such worries are not misplaced: in 2014, a railing on the Pont des Arts in Paris collapsed under the weight of its love locks.

Pont Des Arts: smothered in love. Image: Nik Boiv/Flickr/creative commons.

The following year, the bolt-cutters were out in force, and over one million padlocks (weighing 45 tonnes), were removed from the bridge to prevent further damage. Similar responses have been seen worldwide, from Leeds to Melbourne.

Forbidden love

But in many cases it’s not concern about a bridge’s structural integrity that sees authorities reaching for the bolt-cutters – it’s anxiety over aesthetics. In many cities, love locking has been classified an act of vandalism. Signs are erected on bridges to discourage the practice.

In Florence, the city’s council went so far as to criminalise it, sparking controversy in 2005 by threatening a fine of €50 for anyone caught attaching a padlock to the Ponte Vecchio.

Residents of some cities also disapprove of the practice. In Paris, two US expats founded the vociferous No Love Locks campaign, pushing for a ban on what they called a “destructive force”. And recently, in Bristol, an anonymous local resident fronted an online crowdfunding crusade to “lose the locks” on Pero’s Bridge.

Where is the love? Not in Leeds. Image: Ceri Houlbrook/author provided.

Members of the media have likewise boarded the anti-love lock bandwagon, with the Guardian’s Jonathan Jones proving particularly disparaging. The world’s cities, he lamented, are suffering from a “plague of padlocks”, thanks to a custom which he cuttingly condemns as “one of the shallowest, stupidest, phoniest expressions of love ever devised”.

And yet.

The one million love locks removed from the Pont des Arts amount to two million people who disagree with Jonathan Jones. And this is just the figure from one site – there are hundreds, probably thousands, around the world. Rather than regarding love-locking as a vapid act of vandalism, I’d argue that it’s a form of modern-day heritage.

Lock it down

Since 1972, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) has defined sites of world cultural heritage as being “of outstanding universal value from the historical, aesthetic, ethnological or anthropological point of view”. Surely, these masses of love locks – which represent what is probably the most widespread ritual deposit of the 21st century – constitute sites of outstanding universal value. So, why aren’t ethnographers, anthropologists, and cultural heritage specialists clamouring to preserve this custom, either in practice or in print?

Ageism is the likeliest culprit. Antiquity is often viewed as a virtue, lending “authenticity” and “value” to any object with a good few centuries behind it. The only thing that distinguishes love locks from other ritual objects such as Bronze Age river deposits, votive offerings on the Athenian acropolis, or Roman coin hoards is age. Patina ensures protection.

Love is timeless. Image: Sharada Prasad/Flickr/creative commons.

Yet UNESCO claims that “heritage is our legacy from the past, what we live with today, and what we pass on to future generations”. The objects and sites of today are just as much a part of our heritage as those of the past – perhaps even more so. The global spread of love locks makes them a part of everyone’s heritage: not exclusive to particular regions, cultures or classes, love locks can be attached anywhere, by anyone. Surely, this is culture at its most democratic.


I’m not suggesting that we encourage the practice – especially where it poses a safety risk – but we should be doing more to preserve this unique piece of our global cultural heritage. Heritage specialists should be engaging with love lock sites on a case-by-case basis; contemporary archaeologists should be cataloguing these ritual deposits before they’re disposed of. Rather than waiting for love locks to develop the heritage “value” that comes with age – so that future generations will have nothing to ponder over but remnants – we should be engaging with this custom now, while it’s still thriving.The Conversation

Ceri Houlbrook is a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Hertfordshire.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Coming soon: CityMetric will relaunch as City Monitor, a new publication dedicated to the future of cities

Coming soon!

Later this month, CityMetric will be relaunching with an entirely new look and identity, as well as an expanded editorial mission. We’ll become City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications coming soon from New Statesman Media Group. We can’t wait to share the new website with you, but in the meantime, here’s what CityMetric readers should know about what to expect from this exciting transition.  

Regular CityMetric readers may have already noticed a few changes around here since the spring. CityMetric’s beloved founding editor, Jonn Elledge, has moved on to some new adventures, and a new team has formed to take the site into the future. It’s led by yours truly – I’m Sommer Mathis, the editor-in-chief of City Monitor. Hello!

My background includes having served as the founding editor of CityLab, editor-in-chief of Atlas Obscura, and editor-in-chief of DCist, a local news publication in the District of Columbia. I’ve been reporting on and writing about cities in one way or another for the past 15 years. To me, there is no more important story in the world right now than how cities are changing and adapting to an increasingly challenging global landscape. The majority of the world’s population lives in cities, and if we’re ever going to be able to tackle the most pressing issues currently facing our planet – the climate emergency, rising inequality, the Covid-19 pandemic ­­­– cities are going to have to lead the way.

That’s why City Monitor is going to be a global publication dedicated to the future of cities everywhere – not just in the UK (nor for that matter just in the US, where I live). Our mission will be to help our readers, many of whom are in leadership positions around the globe, navigate how cities are changing and discover what’s next in the world of urban policy. We’ll do that through original reporting, expert opinion and most crucially, a data-driven approach that emphasises evidence and rigorous analysis. We want to arm local decision-makers and those they work in concert with – whether that’s elected officials, bureaucratic leaders, policy advocates, neighbourhood activists, academics and researchers, entrepreneurs, or plain-old engaged citizens – with real insights and potential answers to tough problems. Subjects we’ll cover include transportation, infrastructure, housing, urban design, public safety, the environment, the economy, and much more.

The City Monitor team is made up of some of the most experienced urban policy journalists in the world. Our managing editor is Adam Sneed, also a CityLab alum where he served as a senior associate editor. Before that he was a technology reporter at Politico. Allison Arieff is City Monitor’s senior editor. She was previously editorial director of the urban planning and policy think tank SPUR, as well as a contributing columnist for The New York Times. Staff writer Jake Blumgart most recently covered development, housing, and politics for WHYY, the local public radio station in Philadelphia. And our data reporter is Alexandra Kanik, whose previous roles include data reporting for Louisville Public Media in Kentucky and PublicSource in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Our team will continue to grow in the coming weeks, and we’ll also be collaborating closely with our editorial colleagues across New Statesman Media Group. In fact, we’re launching a whole network of new publications this fall, covering topics such as the clean energy transition, foreign direct investment, technology, banks and more. Many of these sectors will frequently overlap with our cities coverage, and a key part of our plan is make the most of the expertise that all of these newsrooms combined will bring to bear on our journalism.

City Monitor will go live later this month. In the meantime, please visit citymonitor.ai to sign up for our forthcoming email newsletter.


As for CityMetric, some of its archives have already been moved over to the new website, and the rest will follow not long after. If you’re looking for a favourite piece from CityMetric’s past, for a time you’ll still be able to find it here, but before long the whole archive will move over to City Monitor.

On behalf of the City Monitor team, I’m thrilled to invite you to come along for the ride at our forthcoming digs. You can already follow City Monitor on LinkedIn, and on Twitter, sign up or keep following our existing account, which will switch over to our new name shortly. If you’re interested in learning more about the potential for a commercial partnership with City Monitor, please get in touch with our director of partnerships, Joe Maughan.

I want to thank and congratulate Jonn Elledge on a brilliant run. Everything we do from here on out will be building on the legacy of his work, and the community that he built here at CityMetric. Cheers, Jonn!

In the meantime, stay tuned, and thank you from all of us for being a loyal CityMetric reader. We couldn’t have done any of this without you.

Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.