Doncaster is trying to marginalise street performers – but such policies threaten its all-important sense of play

Doncaster. Image: Frees/Wikimedia Commons.

In January this year, a video of a 15-year-old musician busking on the streets of Doncaster was posted on YouTube. Alfie Sheard’s cover of Tracy Chapman’s Fast Car went viral and led to him performing on the Ellen show in LA.

In his interview with Ellen, Alfie says that he loves busking because he likes to see people smile and that he invests the money he makes busking back into his music, taking the pressure of his mum. His dream is to come home one day and tell her she can stop working because he can now support her with his music.

If the highly controversial new powers sought by Doncaster Council had been in place when Alfie was busking, he would have been committing a criminal offense punishable by a fine of up to £1000 – for “requesting money, donations or goods, including through placing of hats, clothing or containers”.

As Cohen and Greenwood describe in their History of Street Entertainment, street performers have been a near-ubiquitous feature of the everyday life of our towns and cities for centuries. Such performers have always, and rather unfairly, been seen as existing on the margins of polite, or even acceptable, society. During the Middle Ages, minstrels were thought of as "lecherous and irresponsible fly-by-nights”, and we retain today a sense that those who either make their living or their play in public places are somehow disreputable.

Doncaster Council’s proposals would give police and council officials the power to ban people from the town centre if they merely believed them to be likely to cause nuisance or annoyance. Such fear of unregulated public play has a long history in Britain. Historically, concerns about public noise and annoyances came to a head with the street music debates in parliament through 1863-64. These debates reflect two major fears that are still prominent today: the fear of foreigners on British streets, and middle-class annoyance at working-class play.

The fear of street performers is connected to the fear of the poor, the itinerant, and the homeless. Doncaster Council would make it a criminal offense to sleep rough with or without a tent. The council claim that such powers are designed to help vulnerable people engage with services. In fact, they will impose punitive fines and criminal records upon highly vulnerable people with a wide range of complex social needs.

Underlying these laws is a culture of fear that has infected the public and the council officials are responding to baseless fears in a thoughtless manner. The gutter press publishes a stream of scare stories that lead us to believe that our towns and cities have become violent hellholes.

In reality, Britain has seen a steady and dramatic decline in lawbreaking in recent decades. Since 1995, the number of crimes has more than halved, vehicle theft has dropped by 86 per cent, burglary by 71 per cent, violent crime by 66 per cent, and robberies by more 50 per cent. There has been an increase in some crimes in the last year, but those are mostly related to swathing cuts in public services not to street performers or the homeless.


Street performances have always used theatrical danger to draw a crowd. Fire breathing, escapology, tightrope walking, juggling knives, wobbling around on tall unicycles. This theatrical danger is inherently exciting even if it is mostly illusory. Councils like Doncaster, Chester, and Oxford who have sought to introduce ill-considered laws to control public play seem to make the mistake of confusing theatrical danger with real danger. They have, to some extent, fallen for the illusion of danger inherent in many forms of public play.

The preeminent play-theory scholar Brian Sutton-Smith always said that the least understood, yet most important, kind of play is rough-and-tumble play. Play that is often naughty, rude, risky, and annoying. Play that pushes us to take risks, to explore boundaries, and to come home with bumps and scrapes. In an essay reviewing a lifetime devoted to the study of play, he suggests that perhaps his whole career was driven by an attempt to convince his mum that the rough-and-tumble play he and his brothers indulged in was absolutely normal and good for them.

It is worth asking whether our towns and cities can ever be made completely safe without taking away their sense of play. When grown-ups go out to play in the city they aren’t always looking for healthy, clean-living, logical, respectable, sporty activities: they are sometimes looking to challenge themselves, to be surprised and enchanted by the rough edges of the city.

Cities are full of rough-and-tumble play. It is part of their attraction and their romance. To have a rich variety of play in cities we need to design for danger. We can have safe cities or we can have playable cities. We can’t have both.

Stuart Nolan is a research magician and will be speaking on a session on Who Can Play, at the Making the City Playable Conference on Thursday 19 October. 

 
 
 
 

To beat rising temperatures, Vienna launches a network of 'Cool Streets'

A Vienna resident cools off at one of the city's new Cool Streets installations. (Courtesy Christian Fürthner/Mobilitätsagentur Wien)

Over the past several months, Austria has recorded its highest unemployment rate since World War II, thanks to the economic aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic. With no job or a suddenly smaller income – not to mention the continued threat of the virus – many Viennese will opt for a staycation this summer.  

At the same time, last year, Austria’s capital experienced 39 days with temperatures of over 30°C (86°F), one of its hottest summers in history according to the Central Institute for Meteorology and Geodynamics.

Climate experts expect a similarly sizzling 2020 season, and city officials are now doubling down on efforts to combat the heat by launching a “Cool Streets” initiative as well as a new, state-of-the-art cooling park.

“As the city councilwoman in charge of climate, it is my job to ensure local cooling,” Vienna’s deputy mayor Birgit Hebein proclaimed at the opening of one of 22 new “Cool Streets” on 22 June.

“In Austria, there are already more heat deaths than traffic fatalities,” she added.

Hebein was referring to the 766 people the Austrian Agency for Health and Food Security included in its 2018 heat-associated mortality statistics. The number was up by 31% compared to 2017, and in contrast to the 409 people who died in traffic collisions the same year.

The project includes 18 temporary Cool Streets located across the city, plus four roads that will be redesigned permanently and designated as “Cool Streets Plus”.

“The Plus version includes the planting of trees. Brighter surfaces, which reflect less heat, replace asphalt in addition to the installation of shadow or water elements,” said Kathrin Ivancsits, spokeswoman for the city-owned bureau Mobilitätsagentur, which is coordinating the project.


Vienna's seasonal Cool Streets provide shady places to rest and are closed to cars. (Petra Loho for CityMetric)

In addition to mobile shade dispensers and seating possibilities amid more greenery provided by potted plants, each street features a steel column offering drinking water and spray cooling. The temporary Cool Streets will also remain car-free until 20 September.

A sensor in the granite base releases drinking water and pushes it through 34 nozzles whenever the outside temperature reaches 25°C (77°F) . As soon as the ambient temperature drops to 23°C (73°F), the sensor, which operates from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., turns off the water supply.

The sensors were included in part to allay concerns about legionella, a pathogenic bacteria that can reproduce in water.  

“When the spray stops, the system drains, and therefore no microbial contamination can develop,” said Dr. Hans-Peter Hutter, deputy head of the Department of Environmental Health at the Center for Public Health at Medical University Vienna, in a televised interview.

Hutter also assured the public that there is no increased risk of a Covid-19 infection from the spray as long as people adhere to the one-meter social distance requirement.


But Samer Bagaeen of the University of Kent's School of Architecture and Planning notes that air cooling systems, like the ones used in Germany at abattoirs, have been found recently to be a risk factor for Covid-19 outbreaks.

“The same could be said for spay devices,” he warned.

Vienna’s district councils selected the 22 Cool Street locations with the help of the city’s Urban Heat Vulnerability Index. The map shows where most people suffer from heat by evaluating temperature data, green and water-related infrastructure, and demographic data.

“Urban heat islands can occur when cities replace the natural land cover with dense concentrations of pavement, buildings, and other surfaces that absorb and retain heat,” as the US Environmental Protection Agency states.


A rendering of Vienna's planned park featuring a Coolspot, which is scheduled to open in August. Click to expand.
(Courtesy Carla Lo Landscape Architecture)

Vienna’s sixth district, Mariahilf, is such an area. The construction of the capital’s first “Cooling Park”, a €1 million project covering the 10,600 square-metre Esterházypark, is designed to provide relief. 

Green4Cities, a centre of excellence for green infrastructure in urban areas, designed the park’s main attraction, the “Coolspot”. The nearly 3.40-metre high steel trellis holds three rings equipped with spray nozzles. Textile shading slats, tensioned with steel cables, cover them.

The effects of evaporation and evapotranspiration create a cooler microclimate around the 30 square-metre seating area, alongside other spray spots selectively scattered across the park.

The high-pressure spray also deposits tiny droplets on plant and tree leaves, which stimulates them to sweat even more. All together, these collective measures help to cool their surroundings by up to six degrees.

The landscape architect Carla Lo and her team planned what she calls the “low-tech” park components. “Plants are an essential design element of the Cooling Park,” Lo says. “By unsealing the [soil], we can add new grass, herbaceous beds, and more climate-resistant trees to the existing cultivation”.

Light-coloured, natural stone punctuated by grass seams replaces the old concrete surfaces, and wooden benches meander throughout the park.

Living near the park and yearning for an urban escape close by, Lo says she’s motivated to ensure the park is completed by mid-August.

“If we don't do anything, Vienna will be another eight degrees Celsius hotter in 2050 than it already is,” Hebein said.

Vienna recently came in first in the World's 10 Greenest Cities Index by the consulting agency Resonance.

“There is no one size fits all on how cities respond to urban heat,” says the University of Kent’s Bagaeen, who points out that Vienna was one of the first European cities to set up an Urban Heat Islands Strategic Plan in 2015.

In the short term, prognoses on the city’s future development may be more difficult: Vienna votes this autumn.

Petra Loho is a journalist and photographer based in Austria.