Monday, October 17, 2016

Street tunes vs the IPNAS genie

Street musician amazes and entertains in New Orleans
Traveling across the country in recent weeks I enjoyed street musicians from one coast to the other. They came in the form of brass jazz bands in New Orleans to piano players on the Venice Beach Boardwalk in Los Angeles.

Every urban center in the world features street musicians - also called buskers - those performers who provide entertainment for handouts.  In France, they are Troubadours and in Mexico Mariachi bands wander the streets and beaches.

Buskers have been part of city life for centuries, probably dating back to antiquity. England’s Henry VIII first licensed them as minstrels. And among their numbers, you can count Benjamin Franklin, Josephine Baker, Tracy Chapman, Rod Stewart and Guy Laliberte, the founder of Cirque du Soleil.

Many cities license buskers, such as Toronto and London where they must audition to play on subway platforms. Most cities regulate them to ensure they are not a nuisance or hazard.

Venice Beach Boardwalk street entertainers - a top tourist destination in LA
From a street safety point of view, they offer the opportunity to bring some legitimate eyes onto isolated areas and activate dull spaces with interesting life. A few years ago Steve Woolrich blogged here about the successful Red Deer, Alberta street piano.

Little attention is paid to busking in the crime prevention literature. But our experience suggests that properly applied to key areas, street musicians can activate public places and make them safer. If anything it is usually the buskers who are victims of theft, not the other way around.


My concern in recent years has been the over-regulation of buskers like street musicians, especially considering the UK’s newest law, the Anti-Social Behavior Crime and Policing Bill.

Under the oddball acronym IPNAS - Injunctions to Prevent Nuisance and Annoyance - the new law heaps a cornucopia of rules on everything from irresponsible dog ownership to border security and terrorism. And like all omnibus bills, they are a Genie out of the bottle once they get into the hands of local authorities with bizarre predispositions (aka Ferguson).

New Orleans brass jazz band - a beloved local tradition 
I understand attempts to cast a wide net of hyper-regulation over the streets of UK cities, especially when threatened by street thugs, drunks, and hooligans.

But for every action, there is a reaction. This action could also limit the ability to activate streets with human entertainment and instead replace it with cold, mechanical CCTV eyes with the promise of a safe viewshed on downtown streets, a strategy with mixed empirical results in the UK and even more questions in the US.

Then I found a review of the IPNAS laws in The Guardian. It brought to mind the stories of some of our greatest cultural contributors, Benjamin Franklin, Rod Stewart, Tracey Chapman and Guy Laliberte:
These laws will be used to stamp out plurality and difference, to douse the exuberance of youth, to pursue children for the crime of being young and together in a public place, to help turn this nation into a money-making monoculture, controlled, homogenised, lifeless, strifeless and bland. For a government which represents the old and the rich, that must sound like paradise.


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