Why stopping in public parks is called ‘loitering’

Where are Australia's piazzas?

When was the last time you went to a public space to demonstrate, meet other people or to simply be there?

Writing in The Conversation, La Trobe University PhD candidate Aaron Magro explains how our behaviour is influenced by design and why Australians don’t have wide, inviting piazzas in their towns and cities.

According to Aaron, when the colony was still in its infancy, Governor Richard Bourke instructed surveyors to design new towns without the feature he feared would promote rebellion – public squares.

Take Melbourne, for instance; the locals spend more time in laneways and streets than they do in the local gardens. They walk through public parks to get somewhere but don’t see any reason to stop. Interacting with public spaces was never encouraged, as is evidenced by the word used to describe this behaviour – loitering.

Governments and citizens communicate to each other through public spaces. As Aaron points out, the town square is historically a place where authority has been both challenged and forcefully established. Where is Australia’s Tiananmen Square, or Tahrir Square?

Even when it came to celebrating the end of World War II, we didn’t fill the squares or parks, we filled the streets. When we march in protest, our parks are the places where the rally or public gathering dissipates (often with a sausage sizzle).

Many of our public gardens were originally built with gates and iron fences, with access ‘rationed’ to citizens during daylight hours. The message was clear; enjoying this space doesn’t include staying there.

The rise of Melbourne as a ‘liveable’ city (not just where we work 9-5) has not seen the locals come up with a new call for a mass public space. Instead, they have turned to the laneways, pubs and clubs as the places where they choose to meet.

So next time you’re strolling through a public park in an Australian city, stop and ask yourself, am I loitering or interacting?

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Province by Anton Novoselov via Flickr