Podcast: Sound and vision

El Gat Del Raval (the Raval Cat), Barcelona – the work of Fernando Botero. Image: Valgui/Wikimedia Commons.

It’s very easy (or at least, it is if you’re me) to fall into the trap of seeing cities as physical things – a matter of streets and buildings and transport infrastructure.

But they’re about more than that: they’re also about the people inside them, and the things that they create.

So this week, in a break from our usual schedule, we’ve decided to get cultured. To that end, we talk to Shain Shapiro, director of the consultancy Sound Diplomacy, and founder of the Music Cities Convention. He tells us what makes a music city, and why live performance matters to city life. (You can read some of Shain’s articles for us here.)


That’s “sound”. For “vision”, we talk to festival producer and arts professional Sara Doctors, about how the people who re-built Britain’s towns after the Second World War wanted to put public art at the heart of every community – and why it never quite came off. The segment includes discussion of “Madonna’s Tits”, the local name for a pair of Thomas Heatherwicks you can find in the unlikely location of a roundabout in Barking.

(Some full disclosure here: Sara, as well as being incredibly knowledgeable about the arts, is also, er, my wife. At one point she mentions a giant cat statue in Barcelona’s the Rambla de Raval. It’s the one at the top of this page, it was designed by Colombian figurative artist by Fernando Botero, and we met him on our honeymoon.)

In our new “your city” segment we hear from Canadian listener Victoria, who tells us what she loves about Toronto, and what she’s rather less keen on. She’s on Twitter here. If you’d like to contribute to this segment in future, get in touch by email.

Last but not least, our map of the week is Katie Kowalsky’s pop art map of the world (above) on which Barbara and I have, shall we say, differing views.

If you want to subscribe to the podcast (which you obviously do), you can find us on Acast or iTunes, or put this RSS into the podcast app of your choice. Or you can find more episodes right here.

Enjoy. 

 
 
 
 

“Every twitch, breath or thought necessitates a contactless tap”: on the rise of the chain conffeeshop as public space

Mmmm caffeine. Image: Getty.

If you visit Granary Square in Kings Cross or the more recent neighbouring development, Coal Drops Yard, you will find all the makings of a public space: office-workers munching on their lunch-break sandwiches, exuberant toddlers dancing in fountains and the expected spread of tourists.

But the reality is positively Truman Show-esque. These are just a couple examples of privately owned public spaces, or “POPS”,  which – in spite of their deceptively endearing name – are insidiously changing our city’s landscape right beneath us.

The fear is that it is often difficult to know when you are in one, and what that means for your rights. But as well as those places the private sector pretends to be public space, the inverse is equally common, and somewhat less discussed. Often citizens, use clearly private amenities like they are public. And this is never more prevalent than in the case of big-chain coffeeshops.

It goes without saying that London is expensive: often it feels like every twitch, breath or thought necessitates a contactless tap. This is where Starbucks, Pret and Costa come in. Many of us find an alternative in freeloading off their services: a place to sit, free wifi when your data is low, or an easily accessible toilet when you are about in the city. It feels like a passive-aggressive middle-finger to the hole in my pocket, only made possible by the sheer size of these companies, which allows us to go about unnoticed. Like a feature on a trail map, it’s not just that they function as public spaces, but are almost universally recognised as such, peppering our cityscapes like churches or parks.

Shouldn’t these services really be provided by the council, you may cry? Well ideally, yes – but also no, as they are not under legal obligation to do so and in an era of austerity politics, what do you really expect? UK-wide, there has been a 13 per cent drop in the number of public toilets between 2010 and 2018; the London boroughs of Wandsworth and Bromley no longer offer any public conveniences.  


For the vast majority of us, though, this will be at most a nuisance, as it is not so much a matter of if but rather when we will have access to the amenities we need. Architectural historian Ian Borden has made the point that we are free citizens in so far as we shop or work. Call it urban hell or retail heaven, but the fact is that most of us do regularly both of these things, and will cope without public spaces on a day to day. But what about those people who don’t?

It is worth asking exactly what public spaces are meant to be. Supposedly they are inclusive areas that are free and accessible to all. They should be a place you want to be, when you have nowhere else to be. A space for relaxation, to build a community or even to be alone.

So, there's an issue: it's that big-chain cafes rarely meet this criterion. Their recent implementation of codes on bathroom doors is a gentle reminder that not all are welcome, only those that can pay or at least, look as if they could. Employees are then given the power to decide who can freeload and who to turn away. 

This is all too familiar, akin to the hostile architecture implemented in many of our London boroughs. From armrests on benches to spikes on windowsills, a message is sent that you are welcome, just so long as you don’t need to be there. This amounts to nothing less than social exclusion and segregation, and it is homeless people that end up caught in this crossfire.

Between the ‘POPS’ and the coffee shops, we are squeezed further by an ever-growing private sector and a public sector in decline. Gentrification is not just about flat-whites, elaborate facial hair and fixed-gear bikes: it’s also about privatisation and monopolies. Just because something swims like a duck and quacks like a duck that doesn’t mean it is a duck. The same can be said of our public spaces.