Recently there has been much hyperbole about the so called ‘privitisation of public spaces’ in London, spearheaded by The Guardian in a series of pieces that set out to map and denounce the privately owned and managed spaces that featured at the heart of many regeneration projects across the city. Yet cities are full of privately owned but publically accessible space, and always have been. Morally and pragmatically it matters little who owns and manages public spaces, what matters is how ‘public’ they are. In other words what are our rights as citizens within space, and what are the responsibilities to us of those who own and manage them.
Looking at the issue from a different perspective, many publically owned and managed spaces are highly restrictive in how we can use them. The public space in front of one Victorian city hall that I visited just last week had a list of 32 byelaw restrictions, including, strangely, on the use of metal detectors, flying model aircraft, lighting fires, and stealing birds eggs, but also on political demonstrations and meetings, collecting money, any form of performance, begging, and the use of obscene language. Trafalgar Square has an even longer list including, interestingly, the taking of any photograph without prior written permission “for the purpose of or in connection with a business, trade, profession or employment”, which presumably includes journalists or academics like myself taking a picture for the purposes of research.
Others have no such restrictions and, as long as you are within the law of the land and not causing a nuisance (which is the key test), you are free to do as you will. The same goes for privately owned but publically accessible space. Some have needless restrictions over matters such as taking photos, but many do not. In London, for example, one of the most active and animated places in the city is the river walk along the south bank of the Thames. Here the spaces brim with economic and social exchange of all types and there is no sense of restriction, but the spaces you walk through are a hotchpotch of public, private and semi-public ownerships.
We can find similar situations right across the UK, some public spaces are owned by institutions such as universities or churches, some by corporations and businesses, some by a range of charitable trusts, and the vast majority of our public spaces, still, by the public sector. All have a role to play in the sum total of urban life.
What detracts, however, are the sorts of spaces that should be open, unrestricted and free to use but for various reasons are not. When such spaces are publically owned and managed we can usually blame the over-zealous instincts of our regulators for whom (incorrectly) restriction may seem a safer option than freedom. When they are private, we can blame our planning system for not ensuring that rights and responsibilities are properly agreed and enshrined in perpetuity at that point when planning permission was given. In the later cases it is very difficult (although not impossible) to change such matters retrospectively.
Whether spaces are public or privately owned and managed, we should oppose all needless and petty restrictions on use in public spaces unless there are very good reasons to do otherwise. This can be done care of a simple Charter of public space rights and responsibilities that could be adopted in London-wide planning policy and form the basis for all future planning permissions incorporating a new or refurbished public space.
In reality the very term ‘privatization of public space’ is itself hugely confusing because it assumes that once public spaces are becoming private in a sort of new wave of enclosures (this time urban). This rarely occurs. Instead, what we have seen in London over the past three decades is the opening up, through redevelopment of formally private, walled and gated off areas to public use as part of large scale redevelopment schemes of former docks, industrial areas, bits of redundant infrastructure and even our post-war housing estates. Most of this space never was public in the sense that it was never publically accessible. Or, in the case of too many post-war housing estates, was space to be avoided at all costs with little or no public (or private) value to speak of. So bringing it properly into public use, even if it remains in private ownership, is potentially a very significant public gain. What we have witnessed is the ‘publicisation’ of private space!
The huge Kings Cross development in London represents a case-in-point where the spaces being created from these former railway lands, have very quickly become well used and highly valued as a new and distinctive quarter of London. At the same time they are very well managed by a private corporation in a manner that gives much back to society. If, following construction, they had been immediately passed over to the public sector to own and manage (as the neighbouring streets were), they would, by necessity, have been built to a much lower specification with standard easy to maintain materials and without the dynamic fountains and lights that attract so many families. They would certainly not have the rich programme of events that provides so much of their character and which engages Londoners and tourists alike.
Cities are diverse places, diversity is in their nature and is their essence. We should not restrict them (and their public spaces) into a one-size-fits-all design and management approach, simply for narrow political and dogmatic reasons. At the same time we do need to safeguard the rights and responsibilities of all, and that is an important public sector role that relates to all space, regardless of its ultimate ownership and management. Unfortunately, this responsibility it is often not taken nearly seriously enough.
Professor of Planning & Urban Design
Bartlett School of Planning, UCL