Woolwich, on a crisp autumnal evening. There’s life in the town square…
…but not the kind of life the council wants. Greenwich has responded to problems apparently caused by skateboarders in the recently-revamped General Gordon Square with that most terrifying of sanctions, a letter to the News Shopper, in which regeneration cabinet member Denise Hyland calls it “an inappropriate and unacceptable activity for such a busy place”.
It’s taken over a year for the council – and contractor Volker Highways – to finish doing up General Gordon Square. Builders remain on site, despite a “spring 2011” finish being promised. But gone are the cat-sized rodents which used to prowl the square, and a fountain much beloved by dossers, as the council staff who used to clear it of their turds each morning will tell you. If skateboarding is “inappropriate and unacceptable”, heaven knows what Denise Hyland thinks of what used to go on.
With all the lighting, the new square looks pretty smart. Chalk this one up as a victory for the council. But there lies the problem. It does look like a bloody good skate park. Woolwich actually does have a “proper” skate park – and here it is, at 8.15pm last night.
“There remain alternative venues in the borough for skateboarders to have fun – and the message is that the square is definitely not suitable.”
Here’s where skateboarders are expected to have fun in Woolwich. Dark, deserted, and with a chilly wind blowing in off the Thames, the Royal Arsenal Gardens skate park was only fit for retiring to with a bottle of White Lightning, matches, and some old copies of Greenwich Time.
Back to the square, then, if you’ve a skateboard and any sense. The main problem with the skateboarders, as far as I can tell, is the damage they’re causing to the surface of the square, which you can see below in a photo taken by day just before the square’s official launch.
The open design of the square, with slopes and steps, makes its adoption by skateboarders and other wheeled warriors inevitable. After dark, they’ve nowhere else to go. Could a more hard-wearing surface have been chosen? I don’t know, but the scratches and scrapes on the square feel more like a self-inflicted wound than criminal damage by the skateboarders. How do you stop them? You can’t, unless you stick a police van there every night for a fortnight, or build a fence around the square.
To be fair, they do bring a bit of life to the square. After all, no police or wardens are keeping an eye on the square, so the skateboarders seem to be the ones looking after it, and the rest of us. At least they’re not out thieving, and their presence may well have prevented wrong-doers from entering the square. It’s practically floodlit, so feels safer than just about anywhere else around it. I cycled down into Beresford Square shortly after taking the photo above, and it struck me how dark and gloomy it was.
So how does the council go about solving its problem? I suspect it’ll involve working with the skateboarders instead of writing letters to newspapers condemning their actions as “inappropriate and unacceptable”. Because if the council doesn’t give them somewhere decent to go – and the Royal Arsenal skate park certainly isn’t that – they, and the people of Woolwich may just have to learn to love the skateboarders.