Planned Environments in an Uninterested World?

I wear many hats. On this occasion I write as a Trustee of the Planned Environment Therapy Trust, dedicated to supporting planned environments where the shared living experiences and the enormous healing potential of both group and individual relationships are brought together for therapeutic ends.Of course, while our efforts are directed in service to the deeply emotionally hurt in need of such special provision and healing, few of us would feel that the principles and purposes underpinning our attention to planned environments are irrelevant to the environments we inhabit more widely in our society. Indeed they are inextricably linked.

Therefore I have been noticing over recent years a phenomenon that causes me concern. I call it the degradation of public space, and while it is most apparent in this public sphere it ultimately has a direct and damaging ‘local’ impact upon our population of severely emotionally troubled children and young people with whom many of us work in our communities, day and outreach centres.

Going West

Let me explain – and I regard this as a preliminary communication and welcome feedback and conversations from readers to clarify and develop this further. For many years with countless others I have regularly travelled in and out of London through Paddington Station. For the most part we all pass through the station quickly, our minds on our ultimate London destination or in a frequently frantic rush to catch our departing train. Certainly I didn’t attend to the station’s “transformation into a modern transport hub” over the last ten years, beyond the occasional fleeting glance.

Yet after a time it was impossible for me not to notice something very significant was happening. The wide, spacious (if sometimes cold) concourse through which we poured in large numbers had disappeared. Now what was once called the Lawn – even if it was concrete – is enclosed and given entirely over to shops, cafes and fast food units. Between the platforms and exits to the streets and underground such units have also sprung up, and continue to do so in ever increasing numbers, including weekly temporary exhibits for mobiles, computers, cars, drinks, chocolate bars or some other newly launched product.

In all, the space to enable free-flowing movement or patient waiting for one’s train is now dramatically reduced. We daily risk crushing and crashing into one another as we negotiate our way across the station, in large part ignoring one another and concentrating solely on our destination. This solitary journey is made all the more of a challenge in this limited space by the extensive use of WMD, “weapons of mass disruption”, those cases large and small which we now pull on wheels behind us. So we are continually dodging not only people in reduced space but the off-track rolling stock of luggage and laptops/work materials as well. Certainly there is no room any longer for the performance on the Lawn by the then British Rail orchestra (itself long gone, I’m sure), playing for commuters as it did each Friday evening at the end of our long working week.

Control to achieve compliance?

At one level this example I offer is lightweight and might be regarded simply as an exercise in nostalgia for an idealised past. Perhaps so. But only in part; there’s something else too. This is only one example of many whereby the public space for people to move, meet and if not socialise then feel a social being, a part of a society larger than one’s self, has been diminished and altered. So much of that space where we can meet in public, and as the public, has been given over either to selling or to control; there are countless regulations and byelaws declaring what we can, but more often what we must not, do (Read the notices at the entrance to every hospital). Ostensibly this ‘controlling’ is for the preservation of public order, in the face of terrorism, ‘wild’ political activism and, perhaps above all, anti-social behaviour.

Yet I do wonder whether the real intention is to produce compliance, ultimately full compliance, with not so much an orderly as an ‘ordering’ society. And this is the point where the issue moves to pervade all aspects of our living. An orderly compliance with many government agenda is constantly being presented as necessary and beneficial; hence these agenda are ‘driven’ relentlessly.

Failure to comply has, or will have, consequences. Every school knows the impact which compliance with targets, curricula and performance has upon the community of learners and teachers; it is any sense of community that is too often driven out of minds. Equally every residential setting knows the drain imposed by attending to the plethora of minimum standards which, as in education, often bear little relation to the heart of the matter of living and learning together.

Too little space

It is not that there is no place for standards to help children learn and to keep them safe and well. It’s more that, despite official pronouncements to the contrary, not only is there little room for manoeuvre and different approaches, there is also too little space to learn from experience, from trial and error and trying again, about what it means to be a person, whole and wholesome in oneself and in relation to others, responsible for self and one’s actions and responsive to the needs and circumstances of these others as well as to one’s own. In effect there is too little space, literally and figuratively, to become a citizen with rights and responsibilities, recognised and enacted willingly by oneself rather than entirely to be compliant with that which is externally ‘ordered’.

Many years ago Winnicott wrote about Delinquency as a sign of hope. Yesterday’s delinquent is often today’s anti-social ‘yob’ in popular culture and ‘conduct disordered’ problem in the professional settings of health, education and social care. It’s perhaps timely for us in society to consider whether these children and young people too, in their resistance to demands for rigid compliance, represent something hopeful which we in turn would do well to attend to.

Perhaps in the first instance we might reflect upon what kind of society we seek to produce and sustain – one framed by selling, consuming and dull unthinking compliance or one where order is the external expression of healthy personal and social relationships, one that will celebrate public space as our environment planned for living, learning and relating?

The abundance we would then have would be quite different and, dare I say it, better than the abundance of material “goods” and regulations which we must negotiate now – whether across Paddington Station or in society generally. A little bit of Planned Environment can go a long way, in our Communities and in the community.

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