Should Summer in the City Be Free?
Posted July 17, 2012
Cooling off in the Bronx, 2011. Source: Charles Brigand
Sleeping on a fire escape in New York, 1938. Source: Weegee Collection
Too poor to escape to the Hamptons, working class New Yorkers transformed available public spaces into impromptu vacation spots. Today, city officials and entrepreneurs attempt to provide options aimed at both locals and potential tourists. Capitalizing on a certain fetishistic obsession with "authenticity," they appropriate working class spaces and practices and regulate them or present them as fashionable. Sharon Zukin, an urban sociologist and staunch critic of New York's gentrification, refers to this as "pacification by cappuccino," a scenario in which urban space is "imagineered" as entertainment event for the consumption of those who can afford it.
Paris Plages on the Rive Droite. Source: Choblet et Associés
This phenomenon is taking place worldwide, and what better season than summer to capitalize on people's use of city space. An urban summer staple, Paris Plages is perhaps the most famous and chic of European city beaches. Many Parisians abandon the city in summer for the fragrant south of France or countryside vacations. Since its inauguration in 2002, the month-long transformation of the Seine's banks (with the recent addition of La Villete) is meant to offer a comfortable recreation space for those who remain in the city. The attractions of Paris Plages are mostly free and open to all. An "open air drinking ban" has meant, however, that those who once brought a home-made picnic and bottle of wine might now be forced to avail themselves of the many and, according to some, overpriced Paris Plage brasseries instead.
Amsterdam City "Beach" on the roof of the NEMO Museum. Source: Tino Morchel
Beyond the issues raised by the commodification of public space, critics have questioned the environmental impact of carting in large amounts of sand for such a brief period of time. However, several European capitals can now proudly present their summer residents and visitors with at least one human-made beach. In Amsterdam, Berlin, Copenhagen, Moscow, Prague and Vienna — to name just a few — city spaces are being converted for a few weeks every summer into sandy urban oases. Amsterdam boasts no less than four city beaches, while Copenhagen's most famous summer splash spot is a riff off Copacabana, at least in name. While London has so far resisted the trend, one can still enjoy sand in the shape of a couch in front of the Globe Theatre on the South bank — before the tide of the mighty Thames wipes it away. Alternatively, during those brief spells of good weather, for £1.50 you can lounge for an hour in a Hyde Park deck chair.
Sculpting the sand on London's South bank. Source: Normco
Deck chairs in Hyde Park. Source: Andy Pallister
In Moscow the range of choices is by no means poorer. Russia's capital is known for turning into a boiling cauldron in summer. Until recently, most sunbathing and swimming spots were appropriations of existing river banks and parks rather than eventified realms. Now from Kirovsk and Strogino to Serebryany Bor (a long time favorite for nudists), Muskovites can enjoy refurbished sporting and barbecue areas equipped with WiFi.
Serebryany Bor sunbathers. Source: In Moskau
There is nothing evil in providing city dwellers with options for an urban vacation. However, there is something disconcerting about government officials allowing corporations to reap financial benefits from social activities that were once free and improvised, as public space becomes more and more scarce.
Sustainable Cities Collective