consumerism lifestyle wealth

Every child on their own trampoline

When the country went into lockdown last year and the schools closed, I made a parenting decision. I overturned my previous objections and ordered the kids a trampoline. It has been the source of more joy than possibly anything else I have done as a parent. In the sunny days that followed, the children were on it for hours. Work was done uninterrupted as they disappeared into the garden and amused themselves.

However, there are reasons why I didn’t buy them a trampoline the first time they asked. Or the second, or the 34th. There is something that makes me a little uncomfortable about it, and it’s more than the aesthetics or the safety.

Looking out of my daughter’s bedroom window, I can see a grand total of seven different trampolines in back gardens. Almost every family with children has one, of varying sizes and quality. Some are used all the time, some rarely. But it seems to be almost universal now. Every family has its own trampoline.

Meanwhile, the playground round the corner falls apart quietly. It’s usually empty when we go there. When the swings broke years ago, the council took the frame down rather than replace them.

There a number of issues in play here, including the loneliness of childhood during a pandemic. But the thing I wanted to highlight is the difference between private and public affluence. Private affluence is individuals gaining things for themselves – possessions, nice homes and experiences, trampolines. Public affluence is money spent lavishly on things that are shared – libraries, parks, buses, playgrounds.

Capitalism pushes us towards private affluence. We aspire to acquire our own things. Shared things are seen as second best, something of an inconvenience. Politics responds accordingly, prioritising economic growth and ‘more money in your pocket’, rather than shared goods and services. So everyone has their own lawnmower while the grass grows long in the park. People get their own exercise bikes or rowing machines, and the gym at the local leisure centre starts to look tired and under-funded. The wealthy pay for childcare or hire a nanny, but the early years nursery closes down.

Having access to your own things looks like progress, but there is a cost. Community is one of the victims. Shared spaces are places where community happens, where people mix and meet. Nobody makes new friends on their own rowing machine, in front of the TV. Inequality is another. Those who can afford their own won’t notice, but those on lower incomes rely much more on shared resources. When a library closes, it’s those on the margins of society who lose access to books, internet access, or a warm place to sit and do their homework. There is also an environmental cost, as private ownership means endlessly duplicated goods, many underused objects across many owners rather than a few well used objects that are shared.

There’s a balance to strike here of course. Not everything should be shared, and there is a dignity in having your own toothbrush. Ownership can be a sign of belonging and inclusion, that you have a stake in the economy. But where does that balance lie? And have we tipped too far towards private consumption?

What if all the thousands of pounds locked up in private trampolines on my street were spent on the playground instead? What if, instead of aspiring to create our own safe spaces at home, we demanded safer streets and crossing places for children? What if we turned away from ourselves and our own possessions, and rebuilt the community that would look out for our children as they played out by themselves?

Public affluence builds community, saves resources and reduces inequality. In an advanced economy such as Britain’s, public affluence is one of the best ways to increase quality of life without increasing environmental damage. “Public affluence”, writes urbanist Mike Davis, “represented by great urban parks, free museums, libraries and infinite possibilities for human interaction – represents an alternative route to a rich standard of life based on Earth-friendly sociality.”

I won’t begrudge my children their trampoline. But perhaps their own children will in time benefit from a world with less traffic and more trust, high quality public spaces and greater freedom, less private consumption and more public affluence.

More on public affluence:

What is public affluence, and why does it matter?

How can we improve people’s lives without increasing consumption? That’s a question for those of us that want to challenge consumerism and economic growth. People want to feel that life is getting better, if not for themselves then for future generations. I believe the key lies in pursuing quality rather than quantity, an economy that […]

What is generous architecture?

One of the best antidotes to the destruction of consumer capitalism is ‘public affluence‘. As the name suggests, this is affluence that is for everybody. Not private wealth, but shared amenities of the highest quality, open to all. For developed countries that are already consuming more than their fair share of the world’s resources, public […]

How driverless cars open up public space

I’ve written before about whether there are environmental benefits to driverless cars or not, which is quite a complicated question. I suspect there’ll be a powerful rebound effect. With the stress of driving gone, and the freedom to do other things during the journey, many people might choose to use the car more rather than […]

28 comments

  1. So true. We’re consuming more, and isolating ourselves even within our homes, with each glued to a private gadget. There are health issues here, as well as environmental, social and psychological.

  2. 1960s urban planners thought the large shared green spaces between tower blocks would be better than the little gardens behind terraced houses. Those well tended gardens were bulldozed and unfriendly windswept field of broken glass replaced them.

    1. Yes, though the footlands of tower blocks aren’t an argument against shared space. They’re an argument for better design, and for not treating people like stackable units.

  3. Thank you, Jeremy for pointing this out: the Commons are crucial to our health as a society, and looking after public infrastructure, from libraries, to trains to playgrounds to community gardens makes us all healthier. We just need more of them, and more empathy.
    Stay safe,
    -Shira

  4. This is 100% how I feel about public vs private swimming pools, a topic I never see talked about anywhere. Pools have other ethical issues involved (ex: environmental impact–water usage, safety, race and discrimination), but private consumption and public affluence are huge. Thanks for this great essay!

  5. I’m onboard with the gist of this essay, but think that the object chosen (trampoline) is questionable. Free public trampolines would be a nightmare and, sad to say, an insurance issue. I’m old, but have been around kids quite a bit (lifeguard, camp counselor, childhood neighborhood anarchist), and the kinetic energy unleashed by this particular piece of equipment is enormous and, again, sad to say, dangerous. There are a lot of young sociopaths out there: ’twas eve thus.

    1. Agreed, public trampolines would be ambulance magnets as well as a litigation nightmare. I’m comparing them to play facilities more generally, so private trampoline vs local playground.

    2. Is it such a nightmare? I know of a couple of playgrounds in South London that have ground level trampolines. Together with slides, those trampolines are the most likely play facility to gather kids around waiting for their turn. Every playground should have one. And yes, plenty of terraced houses around have trampolines, but it’s in the playground that the other kids are. Learning the value of community and shared facilities can start early in life.

      1. You’re right, I’d forgotten the ground level park versions. We have a couple nearby and they are indeed well used. They’re only big enough for one person, which avoids accidents.

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