Public Interventions

Historical Context

Phantom Railings / Videos


Cast iron railings are an ubiquitous feature of London’s urban landscape. Their often ornamental appearance belies their austere function: to control the public use of city space. While railings allow visual access to the spaces they enclose, the suggestion of openness is at odds with the physical exclusion they enforce. Since London’s railings restrict access to private and public spaces alike, they have long been the subject of socio-political argument, and even physical contention.

A critical moment was reached during the Second World War, when railings were removed from many of the city’s green spaces. The avowed motive was to recycle the metal for munitions manufacture, but the fate of the railings is now better understood as wartime propaganda. Under a worthy pretext, the scrapping of the railings made for what George Orwell hailed as a “democratic gesture”. With railings removed, so too were the restrictions on access to parks and gardens. As Orwell himself describes it: :"When the railings round the parks and squares were removed, the object was partly to accumulate scrap-iron, but the removal was also felt to be a democratic gesture. Many more green spaces were now open to the public, and you could stay in the parks till all hours instead of being hounded out at closing times by grim-faced keepers. It was also discovered that these railings were not only unnecessary but hideously ugly. The parks were improved out of recognition by being laid open, acquiring a friendly, almost rural look that they had never had before. And had the railings vanished permanently, another improvement would probably have followed."

These newly-accessible green spaces became available to people of all social classes, not just the privileged, key-holding few, and many commentators of the time praised the newly-open green spaces as a victory for democracy and social progress. As the war drew to a close, the Greater London Plan of 1944 (known as the Abercrombie Plan) formalised the principle of universal access to green spaces in the centre of London, granting local authorities the right to purchase these private open spaces and maintain them for the benefit of all. It seemed that modern tastes and ideals really had prevailed.

However, in a turn back towards Victorian values, during the later part of the twentieth century the keepers of these public green spaces in the middle of the city began to raise money (from the Heritage Fund as well as other sources) to reinstate the railings around many London squares. One-by-one these public squares were re-enclosed with metal railings, and once again access to green spaces in the city was controlled.

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