Beaches - Governance

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Charles Leadbeater:

"Beaches are ordered without being controlled. No one is in charge. Beaches are model civic spaces: tolerant, playful, self-regulating, democratic in spirit, mildly carnival-like. Underlying the beach’s appeal is a simple idea: the beach is a commons where people can self-organise in play. As a day on the beach unfolds everyone takes their spot, adjusting minutely to where everyone else has pitched their towel, tent or windbreak. There are no zoning regulations, fences nor white lines to tell you where to go (admittedly this is not true of some beaches in France and Italy.) The order emerges as each new family joins the throng. Yet that order will not be exactly the same two days running. On the most popular beaches people spend all day in close proximity but they are generally civil and considerate. They do not interfere with one another and disputes between neighbours are rare. Excessive noise is frowned upon. People generally avoid stepping on one another’s towels or invading impromptu football pitches. Other than the odd lifeguard to look after safety no one is in authority. Perhaps precisely because there is no one in control people take it upon themselves to self-regulate. Parents look out for one another’s children. Complexity theorist have a fancy name for this: they call it emergence, when an overall order emerges from a system with many participants; no one person is in charge; each participant is adjusting to their local conditions (the people on the towel next to them); yet a stable organisation emerges from these thousands of interconnected decisions.

Adaptive and self-organising communities rely on more than good communications between neighbours and peers to make sure everything works. An overall order emerges from a mass of localised decisions only if there are some simple norms and goals to provide a skeleton structure. On the beach those norms stem from the common goal of having a good time, relaxing with your family and friends, not being at work. It is easy to understand what everyone else is trying to achieve. That is what helps people to get on. Beaches are egalitarian in spirit. That is not to say there are no posh resorts. But generally a beach is a bad place to show off social status, armed with only a towel and trunks. There is no room for BMWs, Mont Blanc pens and other signifiers of wealth and prestige. Beaches are places where ages, sexes and classes mingle. Both Karl Marx and Queen Victoria liked a trip to the Isle of Wight.

Beaches are democratic because barriers to entry are almost non-existent: having a towel helps but even that it is not essential. People take pleasure not just in their physical surroundings but the atmosphere in which everyone else is having a good time. People read on beaches in droves but few work. Thankfully beaches are hostile to most forms of modern technology. Beach life is egalitarian because the technology is resolutely cheap and simple: buckets and spades, nets and kites, good for toddlers and grandparents. The technological acceleration that has so enriched and disrupted the rest of our lives in the last thirty years has passed the beach by.

Not only do we like what beaches do for us an individuals we like the kind of society we become on a beach: civil and playful, active and open, above all self-regulating. There are neither managers nor guardians telling us what to do. The public beach is an example of self-organising, peer-to-peer, commons-based production of pleasure. And of course it is not alone: public spaces of all kinds thrive on this ethic of mass self-regulation and participation: festivals, carnivals, parks, libraries exhibit many of the same features." (