81. The Nine Elms Park charter, safeguarding the public-isation of private space

After a long gestation, the new Nine Elms Park is gradually emerging and is being celebrated as part of this year’s London Festival of Architecture.  When completed this 4.5 hectare linear park will wind its way from Vauxhall to Battersea offering a rare example of a major new parkland space in the heart of London.  Unlike London’s other major 21st Century parkland space – Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in Stratford – Nine Elms Park will be 100% privately owned and managed.  In fact it will meander through five separate private ownerships: R&F Properties; Royal Mail Group; New Covent Garden Market; Battersea Power Station; and Ballymore, and link to public space around the new American Embassy.  The question facing the London Borough of Wandsworth, in whose patch the park sits, was how should this be managed in-perpetuity in order to ensure an appropriate level of ‘publicness’ whilst at the same time meeting the ambitions of their development partners?

NIne Elms Park
The proposed Nine Elms Park

Arguments for and against

The question raised once again the thorny issue of the – so called – ‘privatisation of public space’.  Debates over the rights and wrongs of this have raged for some time and crudely can be represented as a tussle between two contrasting positions.  On one side the debate has been spearheaded by The Guardian newspaper which has argued that privatisation of public space is always bad because:

  • London (like other large cities) is increasingly reliant on large powerful developers to create its public realm
  • These developers build the city in their own interests and are effectively privatising large parts of the city by retaining ownership and management responsibilities for streets and public spaces in perpetuity
  • They do so at the expense of citizens’ rights, some of whom are effectively excluded from freely using these spaces whilst other activities are restricted.

Less often voiced publicly, but articulated privately by certain development interests, a counter argument claims that the privatisation of public space is often desirable and should be welcomed.  The argument goes:

  • In a climate where the public sector increasingly struggles to devote adequate resources to the creation, let alone the management of public spaces, developers and investors have a legitimate interest themselves in helping to fill the gap
  • In so doing they are protecting their own investments by prioritising the needs of their clients (the occupiers) and will bring entrepreneurial spirit and innovation to the task
  • Privatisation also helps to save money for tax payers by taking on the cost of managing public spaces.
UCL sign
This sign on the side of a UCL building denotes that part of the pavement – about half of it – is in fact private property.  Few passers-by notice either the sign or the distinction

My own research has tended to support a third position based on the pragmatic view that the situation is more complex than either of the polemical positions suggest.  Like other cities, London is full of privately owned but publicly accessible space, and always has been.  Much of the city was built by private interests and whilst most streets are now in public ownership and management, public spaces are owned by a huge diversity of public authorities, public institutions, charitable trusts, private institutions, resident groups, private corporations and individuals.  The upshot is that users move between ownerships and management responsibilities, often without realising it, suggesting that arguments to i) ban the private ownership and management of public space, or ii) require it, would equally depart from historical practices and evidence about the everyday experience of users.  Research has shown that this is typical in other European cities as well.

Be angry?

In July 2017 The Guardian ran the headline ‘These Squares are Our Squares, Be Angry about the Privatisation of Public Space’.  To support their arguments they published a map of 57 spaces that, they suggested, had been “sold to corporations – privatised – without explanation or apology”.  Using historic maps and planning records to test the assertions revealed a somewhat different picture.  In fact only nine had been publicly accessible previously, as already privately owned and managed spaces.  Of the remaining 48, all had been inaccessible to the public, either because the sites were fully developed with buildings, were being used as private open space (e.g. private gardens or allotments), or, most frequently, were in industrial uses (e.g. docks and railyards).

The new analysis suggests that the term ‘privatisation of public space’ is often confusing and somewhat a misnomer because it implies that once publicly owned and managed space is becoming private, something that rarely happens, at least in the UK.  Instead, we have seen what I have previously termed the ‘public-isation of private space’.

Tower Hamlets space
Needless restrictions apply in this privately owned space outside the Town Hall of the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, here the security guard is saying “no photos allowed” to me!
Westminster public space bylaws
Spaces in the City of Westminster are covered by byelaws dating from 1906.  As well as everyday stewardship measures restrictions apply to the racing or training of dogs, hanging out of linen to dry, selling letting or hiring of anything or otherwise soliciting or collecting money, distribution of literature of any kind, delivery of public speeches or sermons, playing music, shooting firearms, flying model aircraft driven by combustible substances, and people in a “verminous or offensively dirty condition” lying on or occupying seats. 

The huge Nine Elms regeneration with its linear park represents a case-in-point, a truly massive project covering some 227 hectares and incorporating the massive Battersea Power Station development.  If high quality and appropriately managed, the public spaces and notably the park being carved out and offered for public use represent a major potential public gain.  Equally, there have been many cases were this public-isation has not been wholehearted and explicit, with many stories of the petty restrictions being enforced in privately owned and managed developments, often for little apparent reason and certainly undermining their publicness.

Here, it should be noted that there are equally petty lists of restrictions – sometimes much longer – relating to entirely publicly owned and manged spaces, often enacted through historic local byelaws designed to limit behaviours.  Such restrictions have the potential – if enforced (which often they are not) – to just as profoundly impact on perceptions of how ‘public’ spaces feel.

Towards a charter of rights and responsibilities

To overcome such concerns and maximise publicness, regardless of ownership, it seems reasonable to oppose all needless and petty restrictions on the use of public spaces unless there are very good reasons for their imposition such as the safety of users during the current pandemic.  This was the conclusion of London-wide study of public space that I conduced some years back and which argued for the adoption of a ‘Charter of public space rights and responsibilities’ in order to guarantee fundamental rights.  Whilst it is easy to blame the private developers and managers of spaces when publicness is not guaranteed, culpability must also be shared with the public sector for failing to sufficiently ensure that long-term rights and responsibilities were properly agreed and enshrined in perpetuity at that point when consent for development was given, after which it is too late.

The study concluded by proposing a ‘straw man’ charter to encourage debate.  More important than the exact wording were the series of principles underpinning the proposal, namely that:

  • With rights come with responsibilities
  • Principles should apply regardless of ownership
  • It is about safeguarding freedoms, not restricting behaviours
  • A charter should be simple and should not attempt to control more than necessary
  • Keep it clear.

In 2017, reflecting the renewed debate in London stimulated by The Guardian, the then new Mayor instructed that provisions should be incorporated into the London Plan to address the concerns that had been raised.  Following presentation of the ‘straw man’ charter to the London Plan team, the idea was taken up in the London Plan, background research was commissioned from the Centre for London,  and in 2020 a Public London Charter was produced.  This advocates a “public realm that is open and offers the highest level of public access irrespective of land ownership, with landowners promoting and encouraging public use of public space for all communities”.

Positively, the Mayor’s charter has incorporated the key principles advocated through the straw man charter, notably that it applies regardless of ownership, a welcoming rather than restricting attitude (avoiding petty rules and limiting restrictions “to those essential to the safe management of the space”), and an emphasis on treating all users to the same high standards.  Less apparent was the notion that with rights come responsibilities and that public spaces users – alongside managers – have responsibilities to ensure the true publicness of public space.  Also, rather than an enforceable document, the charter was proposed to have the status of guidance, offering eight generic principles for public space as – “a benchmark for good practice”.

Trailing a voluntary charter at Nine Elms

Whether adoption of the principles in the Public London Charter will prove effective is likely to depend on whether its content gets incorporated into the local plans of London’s 33 Boroughs, and from there into the development management decision making associated with new or regenerated public spaces.  Beyond new projects, there is also the question of whether such a charter could be made to apply retrospectively to existing spaces already in use.  It would require encouraging or otherwise incentivising public space owners and managers to voluntarily adopt the Charter’s principles.  Some clues about how a voluntary approach might work can be garnered from a charter I was recently commissioned to write by the London Borough of Wandsworth for Nine Elms Park.

The starting point was the presentation and discussion of the straw man charter with the five private parties (and later the American Embassy) at a workshop brought together by Sharon Malloy Smith of the London Borough of Wandsworth.  Quickly it became apparent that not only could a charter safeguard public interests, it could also safeguard the interests of the different private parties against each other given that the shaping of a successful place was not solely within any one party’s hands, but instead dependent on the actions of all working together.  Remarkable consensus was therefore quickly built around both the need for a charter and its key principles, and the exact content was refined over time in consultation with all parties.

Nine Elms Charter
The Nine Elms Park Charter

Ultimately, all parties agreed on promoting a culture of openness, equitable access, permissiveness, and shared rights and responsibilities, although the private landowners were also concerned that any activities sanctioned in the park should not impact negatively on local residents (their clients).  In order to balance these two perspectives – the new charter is more detailed than the straw man.  The charter contains very few prohibited activities and many more that will be actively encouraged, including some such as trading, busking, events, and so on that will be coordinated through a mechanism of permissions granted by the proposed park management company on which the Borough will be represented.  The presence of the American Embassy on the park and as one of the signatories necessitated a greater awareness of security issues than would normally be the case, but this is balanced against the permissive ethos of the charter and a recognised need, written into the charter, for ongoing community involvement in the park’s management.

The charter will be given enforceable status by, first, agreement between the private interests, each of whom will sign up to implement an agreed Management Plan care of the single management company for the whole park, and second, as part of a Section 106 legal agreement between the landowners and the London Borough of Wandsworth.  The charter will be posted at entrances to the new park and the Metropolitan Police have agreed to sign up to the principles, thus ensuring that all parties with a management interest are on board.

Public spaces beginning to emerge around Battersea Power Station will eventually link into the linear park

The agreed approach bears strong resemblance to that now advocated in the Mayor’s proposed Public London Charter and has the potential – if fully applied – to ensure the publicness of the park and the rights of users in perpetuity within this privately owned and managed public space.  The final impact, of course, will remain unknown until the park is constructed and the charter is operational, but the experience of its preparation shows the potential of a voluntary approach as long as i) a proactive local authority is in place to require that such a charter is adopted, and ii) the private landowners themselves see the benefits and are willing to engage with the process.  Where these conditions are not in place a greater degree of compulsion may very well be necessary.  This will of course be difficult if spaces are already built and in operation.

Final thoughts

Cities are diverse places, diversity is in their nature and is their essence.  Contrary to dogmatic positions that public spaces should always be either publicly or privately owned and managed, morally and pragmatically it matters little who owns and manages them.  Instead, what matters is how ‘public’ they are and how freely access and permissive use is guaranteed over time.  In other words what are our rights as citizens within spaces, and what are the responsibilities to us of those who own and manage them.

In a post coronavirus world, property investors will have to work even harder to attract clients to their developments and key amongst the amenities on offer will be privately owned and managed public spaces.  If these are high quality, accessible and inclusive, then cities will be foolish to pass them up simply for narrow dogmatic reasons.  The public-isation of private spaces has much to offer, and with appropriate safeguards in place, perhaps care of a local charter of public space rights and responsibilities, such spaces should be embraced and added to the diverse mix.  Ensuring that the right balance is struck is ultimately a critical task of the public sector.  It is one that too often is not taken nearly seriously enough.

Note: A more complete discussion of this work can be found here

Matthew Carmona

Professor of Planning & Urban Design

The Bartlett School of Planning, UCL


June 2021