Exceptional times, like those that we are living through, often highlight the shortcomings in our society. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed many, from the chronic underfunding of our health service to the inability to care for the most vulnerable amongst us. We have also seen the shutting down of green spaces, particularly in cities, on the grounds that people should simply stay home.
This is straightforwardly a class issue. Those with higher incomes are far more likely to live in houses with access to gardens, whilst those on lower incomes are more likely to live in flats with no gardens or, perhaps, small communal green spaces that are likely to be less safe, in terms of density of people per square metre, than public parks. The shutting of big, spacious parks makes locals less safe, not more.
This is, of course, an issue that stretches beyond the immediate crisis. The need for clean, accessible and plentiful open space should be seen as a key demand of a socialist feminist programme. There are very few leisure activities in modern capitalism that are free and non-commodified. Almost everywhere we go to spend time outside of the home, we are charged for the privilege - coffee shops, pubs, cinemas all offer leisure and spaces to spend time with loved ones; but only for paying customers.
The need for clean, safe, green space is especially important for those performing childcare. Today, this still overwhelmingly falls upon women, who often have to negotiate the strain of juggling waged work with domestic work. Let’s consider the case of a single-earning household with two young children, as an example: the weekend arrives and the kids are in need of activities and stimulation. Without a garden or the ability to pay for activities such as going to the cinema or a swimming pool, the park fills an essential role in allowing these children to keep active and engage with those outside of their immediate social circle at their school. If these parks and green spaces are shut down we deprive hundreds of thousands of working class families of access to spaces in which they can engage in affordable leisure and exercise on a regular basis.
Public parks have long been the target of assaults by the right and those who lament the use of land for broad social benefit rather than for luxury flats or office space. Parks have been decried as spaces of social decay: singled out as places where people drink, take drugs, engage in explicit acts etc., these are used as ways to justify the shutting down of parks and the privatisation of our common spaces (the image painted of parks here is of course reversed when the right wants to demonise travelling communities when they occupy land in public parks, at which point parks are lauded for their cleanliness and contribution to the wellbeing of the common good).
We should, as socialist feminists, resist all attempts at the privatisation of our spaces and campaign for the expansion of green, open, accessible spaces for all. Socialism is fundamentally about freedom and people’s ability to engage freely and equitably in all that life and nature has to offer. Publicly owned and maintained green spaces are a crucial part of the world we are fighting for.