Minding the Gap

Many of you who have been to London will recall signs such as the one above, warning passengers on the Underground, or Tube, to be careful of the space between the platform and the train when boarding. Signs such as these, as well as the one below advising pedestrians which way to look for oncoming traffic, are all over London.

Or one of my favorite signs, from Greenwich, forbidding itinerant ice cream sales.

No doubt for many people such signs are fun and interesting mementos of English life, as the t-shirts sold in gift shops with the “Mind the Gap” phrase on them attest. But I think they also point to another aspect of space in London, one that should help us think about how space is designed, debated, contested, and controlled. On a more subliminal level, many of these signs also point to assumptions the English seem to be making about the social contract and the purpose of organizing and controlling space.

Clearly, “Mind the Gap,” “Look Left,” and other such signs warn people about possible dangers, and by doing so hope to prevent accidents and injuries. Especially in spaces such as central London, where tourists unfamiliar with English driving patterns abound, street signs warning pedestrians about unfamiliar traffic patterns will save lives. At the same time, such warning signs point to a design of space that recognizes competing demands on the space. In other words, “Look Left” is not only to facilitate pedestrian safety, but it also acknowledges that the space of a road and sidewalk is multi-use space for vehicles of many types. If the road were only for cars, there would be no need of such signage.

“No Itinerant Ice Cream Sales” announces a prohibition, communicating that the space of the public street and the activities permitted on the street are limited. More than that, the sign tells us that traveling ice cream sales were, at one time, a problem on the streets of Greenwich. Since we saw ice cream carts in other places in Greenwich, the prohibition is specific to the area of the sign, suggesting that the problem was localized. Although my colleagues and I speculated about a possible “ice cream mafia” in Greenwich, the more likely explanation is that street vendors in this small, tourist-oriented area were disrupting the orderly movement of people. So in this example, the sign points out a contested space, one in which local authorities have intervened to end the conflict.

The signs controlling these spaces and the behaviors in them also suggest assumptions about the social contract and the role of government in London. The careful attention to safety and order in public space reveals a primary concern for human welfare, one that is properly facilitated through government actions such as signs advising people what they can and can’t do. In other words, official signage and the messages it conveys speak to values about the role of government in controlling space and the purpose of controlling space. Here that role seems to be one centered on safety and order accomplished through guiding the movement and actions of people in public space.

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