Managing the awful precipice: law at the edge in my new article in Area

“By the extent of its prospects, the awfulness of its shades, the horrors of its precipices, the verdure of its hollows, and the loftiness of its rocks, the ideas which it forces upon the mind are the sublime, the dreadful and the vast. Above is inescapable altitude, below, is horrible profundity.”

Dr Samuel Johnston, (1816) A Diary of a journey into North Wales, in the year 1774, p.40

My latest article is inspired in part by the curated – intentionally sublime – landscape formed upon the steep cliffs of Hawkstone Park in Shropshire. The reason Dr Johnston went there (and visitors do still to this day) is to draw close to the vertiginous edges: to admire the views and to experience the thrill of standing at the limit point of safety. Here is is intended that the visitor feel a thrill, and then safely step back. In my article I attempt to explore how honouring this imperative of sublime thrill is reconciled with wider notions of safety culture. In short, in my article, I ask what happens in those situations where law has to share space (physically and conceptually) with other strong drivers, like landscape aesthetics. How does the person responsible for curating that place come to know what an appropriate point of balance looks like there?

To summon an image of intentional, sophisticated place-managers curating place in a way that requires notions of law and safety to be balanced alongside other drivers is rather rebellious – because academic commentators (from a law perspective) would normally assume that the normative drivers of law and safety fully (or at least largely) determine how the risks of place are managed, whilst a critical geographer might choose to foreground an intrepid thrill-taker’s guile in illicitly grasping a moment of thrill by finding and exploiting fragments of opportunity unintentionally left available by an uptight, risk-averse place-manger.

In my article I seek to explore a middle path, by pointing to the place-manager’s code-shifting between competing normative pressures, and thereby becoming an edgeworker: someone who deftly navigates the edge at which compliance, safety and thrill find a point of balance.

My article, entitled ‘Reconsidering law at the edge: how and why do place‐managers balance thrill and compliance at outdoor attraction sites?’ is available (free to access) in pre-publication form here, and will be formally published in the journal Area soon. Here’s an extract:

“At outdoor attraction sites, a delicate balancing act is entailed – these places must appear to be open and unencumbered – but they must also be reasonably safe. As a past senior member of the Visitor Access in the Countryside Group (a group that develops and promulgates best practice interpretation amongst public sector attraction sites in the UK) has put it, the place-manager is required to:

“…pull off the ‘con trick’ of balancing the need of visitors to feel the unrestrained freedom that is essential to the countryside experience…while in reality secretly try[ing] to manage their activities within tight legal and corporate parameters“ (Marsh 2006, 4)

The “con-trick” here is not a matter of deception – place-managers’ safety concern is genuine, but it is also a matter of user experience. Finding the balance, is often a matter of making the safety controls appropriately integrated into the setting. Thus, a visitor to an iconic ruin site declares “I would rather have come here as a trespasser”, revealing the general sentiment of the audience to an artistically augmented open day. Such visitors must be left to feel that they have roamed without constraint. But this is an impression, not a reality, to be achieved. The ruin had many perilous edges from which visitors might fall, so an event plan was made, that saw visitors led through safe areas by both human guides and a light show. Thereby, visitors’ vulnerable bodies and the ruin’s precipitous edges were reconciled in a way that achieved (in the place-managers’ view) both safety (legal compliance) and met visitors desires (the thrill dictated by sublime aesthetics) through design of an appropriate atmosphere for the event.  

At attraction sites the provision of safety (and thus the performance of legal compliance) must often be concealed lest the apparatus of safety otherwise become obstructive: literally or figuratively blocking the thrilling view, or an increasingly kinetic engagement with edges via an increasingly “accelerated sublime” (Bell & Lyall 2002). And this urge to have open communion with an unfettered edge, has been a matter of sublime aesthetics since (at least) the Enlightenment. However, whilst conventional writing about recreational, counter-cultural, edgeworkers tends to present the thrill as that of rule-breaking, the root of the sublime in landscape aesthetics does not actually set up safety and thrill as opposites. Indeed, Jean Jacques Rousseau, doyenne of the Romantic movement and all counter-cultural access-takers that have come since, revealed in 1781, that at the heart of his formulation of the landscape sublime was a requirement for safety, thus:

“Along the side of the road is a parapet to prevent accidents, which enabled me to look down and be as giddy as I pleased; for the amusing thing about my taste for steep places is, that I am very fond of the feeling of giddiness which they give rise to, provided I am in a safe position.” (Rousseau 1996, 167)

Accordingly, the place-manager is faced with the practical conundrum of how to co-create both safety and sublime, edge-embracing thrill. At a clifftop heritage landscape attraction site, the place-manager deftly addressed thrill and safety simultaneously through signage that pointed out how high up the cliff was and urged reflection on that.

The viewers’ reflection simultaneously fed the sense of thrill and the need for maintaining a respectful distance from the perilous edge. And, in a further subtle ploy that simultaneously underpinned an achievement of both safety and the sublime, that exposed escarpment was presented on the site map as “The Awful Precipice”, the doubling of thrill and safety messaging reflected in the designer’s depiction of the letters of the desiccated place name as they appear to tumble over the cliff’s abrupt edge.  

Thus, an attraction place-manager must learn to creatively and effectively codeswitch between (at least) two normative domains – that of safety/compliance and that of thrill/entertainment. An attraction site must give what its users desire of it but must do so safely. The ability of place-managers to shuttle between these seemingly incompatible frames is quite a sight to behold. But it would be wrong to give an overly autonomous impression of place-managers, for just as the place-manager may have to code-shift within their own minds to find the workable balance of safety and thrill, this balancing also plays out within management groups within place-managing organisations. Thus, a place-manager must advocate for their local safety/thrill balancings – they must act as interlocutor between others who may either not see the force of law’s safety/compliance command or may not see the value of access and thrill. The point of balance ultimately selected, may be the outcome of interpersonal negotiation within an organisation, or between a variety of stakeholder entities each with their own distinctives ways of measuring risk and benefit.

To be a place-manager, striving to find a locally workable balancing of safety/compliance and access/thrill, is a demanding, emotionally draining task. But the affective weight of that pales into insignificance when set against the emotional burden of involvement in the aftermath of an accident. Experience matters, and the affective experiences of place-managers affect how their edgework calculus is subsequently performed. Judging what is ‘reasonably safe’ at a particular site is, at least in part, a reflection of the individual (and organisational) prior experience of those involved in making that assessment. It is always open to reconsideration and adjustment, as witnessed in the reflection by architect Kathryn Gustafson upon her experience of an unexpectedly high volume of visitors to the Princess Diana Memorial Fountain in London’s Hyde Park, shortly after it opened in 2004. As “a flicker of remembered dread passes across her otherwise serene face” (Jeffries 2004, n.p.) Gustafson recalls:

“When it first opened, 5,000 people an hour came to see it. How could you anticipate that? …there was no precedent. The turf around the oval couldn’t survive those kind of numbers. The level of management has had to be increased because of the level of people. We really underestimated that. I thought we had a guardian angel over the project; I really wish she’d come back.” (quoted in Jeffries 2004, n.p.).

And the continual re-assessment of a site’s safety/thrill balancing is simultaneously backwards and forwards looking. The experiences of the past shape inputs to the ‘reasonable safety’ calculus, as do anticipations about the future. Schatzki (2002, 28) talks of this goal-facing, affectively driven desiring of the future as the “teleoaffective” order of practice.  The iterative calculus of ongoing place-management acts towards a simultaneously desired and feared future, and its risk assessment protocols require the place-manager to conjure the ghostly premonitions of all of the things that might go wrong there, an apprehension of all of the ways in which visitors and the site’s edges might come into harmful contact with each other.”

Image Credits

(1) Caspar David Friedrich (1818) Wanderer above the Sea of Fog: (2) Sign at Hawkstone Park, Shropshire:; (3) Hawkstone Park ‘Swiss bridge’ sign, anon (4) extract from site map, Hawkstone Park c.2009.