Recognising an Ecological Ethic of Care in the Law of Everyday Shared Spaces

AuthorDonald McGillivray,Jane Holder
Publication Date01 June 2020
Recognising an Ecological
Ethic of Care in the Law of
Everyday Shared Spaces
Jane Holder
University College London, UK
Donald McGillivray
University of Sussex, UK
Law plays a vital role in the life and loss of open shared spaces, used and enjoyed on an
everyday basis by local people. In this article, we adopt an analytical framework based on
an ethic of care to critique the registration of land as a ‘town or village green’, using the
example of an inquiry into the greens status of an ancient woodland. Analysing written
and oral witness statements in this inquiry makes clear the centrality of such places in
many people’s lives, giving rise to community-based, and forward-looking, interests.
However, the legal focus upon quantitative assessments of individuals’ use of land in the
recent past means that the prospective consequences of losing such valued areas are
currently poorly acknowledged, and accounted for, in the registration process. This
leads to the question whether an ethic of care towards everyday shared spaces may be
better recognised via more deliberative plan-making regimes.
Deliberative theories, ethic of care, everyday shared spaces, feminist theories, knowl-
edge claims, local greens, witness statements
Corresponding author:
Jane Holder, University College London, Bentham House, 4-8 Endsleigh Gardens, London WC1H0EG, UK.
Social & Legal Studies
2020, Vol. 29(3) 379–400
ªThe Author(s) 2019
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/0964663919858703
Easily accessible and shared areas of land hold great communal value for local people,
and the prospect of losing such places through development and decline is often a matter
of serious concern and distress, leading to protests and legal action. In this article, we
address the role of law in the life and loss of such spaces, specifically town or village
greens, and critically assess the current legal provisions for registering and designating
land as a green. This analysis is rooted in the law on greens in England and Wales. This
may evoke an archetypal grassy village green, characteristically featuring a cricket
ground or football pitch and other communal pursuits. However, the ‘green’ designation
also, less typically, embraces coppiced woods, unplanned urban and suburban spaces,
sites within and between housing estates and beaches (Farley and Symmons Roberts,
2012; Grindrod, 2017), owned and managed by local government, land trusts or private
owners (Clarke, 2006; Mackay, 2014; Pieraccini, 2010).
In this article, we examine the significance and meaning of such areas of land for
people living nearby and their use of law to protect them. These issues arise in many
different contexts, frequently forming part of, or triggering, broader social and environ-
mental movements of protest and resistance and calls for justice (Beitel, 2013; Blomley,
2004; Cooper, 2013). In short, ‘greens’ have considerable polemical and political power,
offering a physical site within which battles over the desirability of alternative and future
lived environments are envisaged and played out (Kirwan et al., 2015).
An example of the working of law in this area, and the na ture of the consequences for
local people and communities, is the following case study of a public inquiry to help a
local authority decide whether to register as a green Smithy Wood, an ancient wood-
land lying on the outskirts of Sheffield, England. This case study appr oach, supporting
sociolegal research based on interpreting a range of materials, events and encounters,
allowed us to draw together different perspectives of how people relate to, and value, a
local green space and to judge the extent to which such relational aspects can inform
decision-making outcomes. The aim of this case study is not to represent a ‘typical’
application process; instead, its value lies in enabling analysis of how certain theories
and perspectives manifest themselves in a set of events and procedures (Mitchell,
1983: 188), with consequences for the ‘lives people live’ and the injustices they are
subjected to (Sen, 2009: 10).
Analysis of the witness statements submitted as an essential part of the inquiry into
the registration of the wood as a green revealed a close and multi-faceted relationship
with ‘nearby nature’ (Brennan, 2016: 9), characterised by longevity, depth of feeling and
resistance to reductive assessments of the development potential of the wood. In partic-
ular, during the inquiry, it became clear that the statements perform an important func-
tion of recording social and community-based declarations about how local people relate
to the land and seek to protect and care for it. In this article, we present several dominant
and recurrent themes drawn from the witness statements, such as futurity and legacy,
knowledge and learning, heritage and identity and care and responsibility, and relate
these to theories of environmental and ecofeminist ethics.
In analysing these themes schematically, we identify a broad distinction between the
expression and reception into the legal procedures for registering a green of
380 Social & Legal Studies 29(3)

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