41. Neo-liberal public space, in London (and beyond)

The period since 2000 and the election of London’s first city-wide mayor has seen a reinvigorated London-wide governance as an increasingly strong counter-balance to the 33 local boroughs and London’s powerful development sector.  The national election of Labour in 1997 followed by Ken Livingstone as the first London Mayor, with his reputation for radical left-wing politics, might on the face of it have portended a return to a less favourable market environment.  But to the surprise of many, Livingstone fully adopted the precepts of neo-liberalism and, from the start, signalled his intention to work closely with the business sector and to pursue an agenda for London based on growth.

Although the London Plan that followed in 2004 addressed both this growth agenda and a seemingly contrasting environmental one, it was not the wider environmental debates that tempered the drive for growth, but instead the design-led urban renaissance ideas of the Mayor’s Advisor on Architecture and Urbanism, Richard Rogers. The years that have followed have seen momentous change in London, not just in the structure of its government, but in the attempt to find a new accommodation between market and state.  Although neither Livingstone nor his successor – Boris Johnson – would admit it, this has been cast in a new political accommodation in which, for example, Boris Johnson has noticeably sung from many of the same hymn sheets as Ken Livingstone, including adopting much of the substance of his London Plan, and supporting the long-term drive to intensify the city (the latest GLA Annual Monitoring Report for the implementation of the London Plan shows that almost two-thirds of all development has breached the plan’s density guidelines; a common outcome under both Mayors).

Whilst the lack of development of any sort during Johnson’s first term put a spoke in the wheels of this strategy, in his second term huge urban redevelopment schemes in Battersea / Nine Elms, central Croydon, Kidbrooke, Brent Cross, Blackhorse Lane, E20 (around the Olympic Park), Elephant and Castle, and, most recently, Earl’s Court and Mount Pleasant are now moving ahead.  Common amongst these is the almost complete reliance on the private sector to deliver the actual development, and, in most cases, this sits within an overall vision established in all its essentials by the private sector.  It is a situation shared by other cities around the UK, as high profile projects such as New Islington in Manchester, Brindleyplace in Birmingham, or Liverpool One in Liverpool testify.

Liverpool One, private / public space

In London, as elsewhere, this builds on long established precedents such as the building of Bloomsbury and other now historic parts of London by the great estates, and more recently by schemes as diverse as Canary Wharf, Paddington Basin, King’s Cross, Stratford City, and Greenwich Peninsular.  These are all mega-developments in which the state has depended on the proceeds of growth and private sector innovation and resources to subsidise diverse public interest objectives, such as the delivery of affordable housing, infrastructure, and public space.

A key question then flows from this reliance: are the public goods delivered by these means as ‘good’ or as ‘public’ as we might desire?

In my own area, urban design, the literature is replete with discussions criticising the privileged position that policy and practice has seen to give to the market; most vociferously around the idea that the public spaces of the city are becoming commercialised, privatised, securitised, homogenised and exclusionary, as they are shaped by the narrow interests of the few (the developers) instead of the many (society as a whole).  The arguments even extend to those public spaces that are owned by the public sector on the basis that they are subject to similar pressures because of the way their management is increasingly contracted out or unduly influenced by the private sector, for example through the auspices of Business Improvement Districts, of which there are now 36 across London.

Tapping into a resurgence in the provision of new and regenerated public spaces across London, my own recent book – Capital Spaces[1] – reports on a project which aimed to achieve a better understanding of such critiques.  Two and a half years of detailed research across London revealed:

  • The doom-laden assessments of such critiques are far from the mark and should be challenged
  • Contemporary public spaces find a ready constituency of users who greatly value these spaces
  • The creators of public spaces, both public and private, generally have complimentary aspirations to deliver long-term social, economic and environmental value
  • The sheer diversity of public space types in London – corporate, consumption, civic, community, domestic, and residual – is a feature of this and other large cities
  • Spaces of difference and diversity can be accommodated that don’t all cater for every public space purpose or section of society.

This positive picture sits within a political economy in which society has increasingly demanded more and better quality public spaces (not least via planning policy), although has not always been willing to either deliver or manage those spaces itself.   Instead, on the back of a successful business model in which public space is increasingly viewed as a critical value-adding asset to a range of economic, infrastructural, social and cultural concerns, the private sector and a range of pseudo-private organisations have risen to the challenge – latterly alongside a rejuvenated public sector in places such as Acton Town Square, General Gordon Square (Woolwich), and Barking Town Square – to usher in a new generation of public spaces (several hundred across London since 1980).

On occasions, the critiques of contemporary urban design are clearly motivated by an ideological position that crudely equates private development with profiteering and a disregard for socio-economic context, and views public sector attempts to emulate such practices through active management as cut from the same cloth.  The research, however, revealed that such perspectives fail to take account of both the economic incentives for private interests to deliver something better and more sustainable, but also the profound interest of professionals closely associated with projects (often for many years) to create something of lasting value.  The reality is also that many of our contemporary urban development schemes are anyway shaped by complex partnerships between a wide range of players – public, pseudo-private and private – and sweeping generalisations about motives run the danger of being misconceived.

Fundamentally, the research suggested, there is nothing wrong with helping people feel safe and secure, or providing clean and commercially vibrant environments for people to enjoy.  Nor is there anything inherently immoral about privately owned and managed public spaces.  In essence the private and pseudo-private processes of space creation are nothing more than the contemporary reincarnations of the opportunities that such interests have always found in London (and of course other cities) and which have become set in stone (quite literally) in the public spaces of the city.  Therefore, unless the political economy of the city radically changes (which seems unlikely in the near future) then the variety of place shaping processes unpacked in Capital Spaces show every prospect of continuing, as do some of the dangers of over-design and over-management that they periodically give rise to.

Indicative charter of public space rights and responsibilities

On this final point, although the research found generally little explicit evidence of such behaviours, during our London-wide surveys I was prevented from taking photographs on a number of occasions (once in an entirely public space), a ready indicator that petty and seemingly unjustified management practices do exist.  So whilst evidence from the research suggested that calls in some quarters to ban all new private or pseudo-private public spaces in favour of an under-resourced public sector would be both unnecessary and undermining of the tradition of opportunity that has informed so much of London’s built environment; there does appear to be a case to adopt a clear Charter of Public Space Rights and Responsibilities.  Such a Charter would apply to all spaces, both existing and those still to be built, that a reasonable person would regard as public, whether privately or publically owned.  This would cover all spaces that during daylight hours are (usually) open and free to enter.

Clearly whilst some projects leave much to be desired, in general the quality of urban design that has been delivered across London in the neo-liberal era has been high and continues to improve, for example Windrush Square in Brixton or Granary Square at Kings Cross (one public, one private).  At the same time, if we wish to tie down the sorts of rights and responsibilities that we as a society expect when it comes to our public spaces, we need to act early before the types of huge developments identified above (and others) are built.

Granary Square and surrounds, Kings Cross

The planning process is the where private aspirations and the public interest are ultimately reconciled (or not) and is therefore the key to ensuring that this form of public good (and many others) is as ‘good’ and as ‘public’ as we would desire.  For public spaces this means that this is where the sorts of rights and responsibilities articulated in a public space charter would need to be guaranteed ad infinitum through being negotiated and tied down with enforceable weight and precision as part of the development management process.  Once planning permission is given, it is too late.

Matthew Carmona

Professor of Planning & Urban Design

Bartlett School of Planning, UCL


Jan. 2014

[1] Capital Spaces: The Multiple Complex Public Spaces of a Global City is published by Routledge: http://www.routledge.com/books/details/9780415527095/