It is curious to consider the function of town/city squares, whose importance is central to understanding social movements in history according to Don Mitchell in ‘The Right to the City’ (2003). Take the Agoras of Ancient Greece – a larger area than a London square, but still a public space specifically created to facilitate discussion and political debate. While they were not necessarily intended for the expression of contentious or transgressive political views, they were still politicised from the outset.
The garden squares of London (such as Russell Square, St James’ Square, etc) were originally designed to be accessed only by the residents of the surrounding houses, and were therefore private. They were never intended as a meeting place and certainly never a space for the mobilisation of protestors or any form of contentious politics – instead, they acted as a symbol of wealth and power, a reminder of the exclusivity of those neighbourhoods and the importance of their inhabitants. On the other hand, most stone squares – most notably Trafalgar Square – were intended for public use from their creation. As they are usually much larger and more accessible than garden squares (which are fenced off and have a handful of narrow entrances), they’ve been regularly used for rallies, marches, sit-ins, and political gatherings of various kinds. Trafalgar Square in particular has often been used for this, despite the large amount of space taken up by the fountains as a deterrent.
One event particularly interests me in its use of space in London, and that’s Pride. One’s experience of Pride can be radically different depending on whether one is marching, and where exactly they march. I’ve been able to march twice at Pride in London, and see it once from the sidelines. The first year (2014) I marched with Bisexuals of London, who were in party part of the parade. The march mostly consisted of a lot of smiles, pop music, waving flags and throwing glitter around. This was really fun, but wouldn’t be considered particularly contentious (unless you share Mike Pence’s views). In 2015, some friends and I marched with LGSM (Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners) and other activist groups in the political end of the parade. This consisted of angry chanting, waving placards, and the singing of unionist and socialist songs.
(Me at Pride 2015, on the left with the Defy Tory Rule placard. From what I remember, we were chanting ‘Stone/wall-was-a-ri/ot; we-refuse-to-be-qui/et!’ at this point.)
London is the perfect place for Pride, both due to its large size and the long winding streets (which create good march routes) and the large squares and parks (which allow for people to assemble). Every year, the people of Pride start to get together in Regent’s Park and eventually end near Trafalgar Square, where events and performances follow. Since 2006, Regent Street and Oxford Street have been closed off to traffic for the Pride march to pass through. The shops on these streets are still accessible to the general public, but the roads themselves are closed off and can only be crossed on foot at certain points (with significant delays). According to Henri Lefebvre’s ‘Conceptual Triad of “Social” Space’ (in ‘The Production of Space ‘, 1974), the ‘representational space’ has changed, as the streets are now used in a different way to what they were originally intended. Although they are technically sites of informal encounter, the existence of the march means that the shops lining either side of the street are disrupted in their ability to be sites of social exchange (as defined by Fran Tonkiss in ‘Space, the City and Social Theory’, 2005). During Pride one year in the 1980s, the march routed down Oxford Street illegally as a form of protest, which is an excellent example of ‘counter-spaces’ and protest over societal space. This was a direct and unsanctioned challenge to the power-holders (the British government) which asserted the use value of the street over its exchange value.
(A photograph from the first Gay Pride March in 1972, which was almost entirely politicised while modern pride is more of a party)
Trafalgar Square is particularly important as a place for political demonstrations and protest, as it holds national significance and is a ‘site of collective belonging’. Since modern ‘Pride London’ was formed in 2004, there have been political rallies held in the square following each march (although in the last 2 years, there have mostly been performances and more positive events).
It is worth noting that other squares and streets in London provide events on the day of Pride, even though they aren’t on the march route. In 2016 Soho Square was surrounded by stalls, most run by LGBTQ+ organisations and support groups. Several days beforehand, a vigil had been held in nearby Old Compton Street for the victims of the Orlando Nightclub shooting.
- Lefebvre, Henri, Trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith, The Production of Space (Oxford: Blackwell, 1974)
- Tonkiss, Fran, ‘The Politics of Space: Social Movements and Public Space’ in Space, the City and Social Theory (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2005)