“Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out”
- Robert Frost
The Rise of Privately Owned Public Space
The public realm has slowly been shrinking in size as more and more of our shared space becomes privatised and policed. This mass privatisation of public space has come about for a number of reasons. In the period of time after World War II up to the 1970s, many of the economic powers of the world were run according to Keynesian policy. Due to economic decline, amongst other factors, many countries started moving towards neoliberal economics. Neoliberal policies rely on the free market to stimulate growth through competition and to regulate itself, with governments and public institutions taking a step back. As a result the private sector became more responsible for urban development and, in turn, the public sphere. This had a detrimental effect on the public realm because the private sector ‘was interested in those aspects of urban development which would ensure a return on its investment.’ Creation of new public spaces fell into decline as they were not a source of profit in the private sector and the required maintenance and upkeep was seen as an unnecessary liability on diminished city budgets.
At the smaller scale, issues arise when private landowners infringe on their surrounding public realm, in what is known as ‘café creep’. This term is used to describe the gradual, subtle commercialisation of the public realm. It originates from cafés and restaurants who invade part of the public street with their tables and chairs. Although the provision for public seating may be seen as a positive addition in the beginning, the problem arises when this seating is only available to the paying customer, further isolating different members of society from each other. Examples of this can be found in Dublin and around the world – the café’s on Millennium Walk or restaurants around Grafton Street are two examples that come to mind.
Importance of Public Space
The provision of good public space is essential to the health of a city. Public space provides citizens from all classes a place in which they can interact and observe one another. Cities which support ‘anarchy, diversity, and creative disorder’ can ‘bring into being adults who can openly respond to and deal with the challenges of life.’ Public spaces help to ‘offset the mutual fear… fostered by segregation’ and help to foster a sense of solidarity amongst people of different groups. Public space also provides the stage for democracy from which we can challenge and question, where minority arguments can find a foothold in public conscious.
This idea of a stage for democracy is one that is in part based on our historic understanding of public space. The public realm originally provided the space for essential everyday trade and socialising. One of the fundamental issues with public space in the modern city is that the metropolis has grown past the stage of familiarity; it is a huge network of anonymous users. This alienation of the modern city has led to public spaces being a source of an ‘overload of encounters and emotional stimuli’ and becoming ‘residual places of avoidance rather than encounter.’ This is not a call to return to sentimentalised, historic public spaces – which were not without their own problems – but instead an understanding that the modern metropolis is a new animal, with its own vices and merits.
This raises the question of what role does privatisation play in the dynamic development of the public realm? Due to the neoliberal tendencies of government bodies, more often than not private developers are behind the construction, maintenance and regeneration of public spaces in our cities. As an increasing amount of our public space falls into the category of Privately Owned Public Open Space (POPOS), with minority individuals and ideas banished from view, issues such as homelessness or drug abuse are made harder to solve. It is only through visibility in the public realm that such issues are brought to the fore of conversation and, hopefully, resolution.
The consequences of the increase in pseudo-public space were highlighted by the Occupy Movement protests which took place around the world in the wake of the recent financial crisis. As people took to the streets, intent on staging a sit in protest against social and economic inequality, their attempts to occupy presumed public space were thwarted by private landowners. In London, protestors were thwarted by investment banks refusing access to their privately owned land, resulting in the protest being relocated to St. Paul’s Cathedral. The transfer of land from public entities to private companies opens up the possibility for governments to enact anti-democratic laws, using private landowners as their proxy.
The Future of our Cities
As we look toward the future, it is important to understand the fluid, dynamic state of our cities. We have moved from a city centred on public spaces of political, social and economic activity, to one that has lost its autonomy to globalisation and it’s populace to the suburbs. While the urban narrative of our cities is naturally slow to change, the rapid rise of privately owned space in our cities, combined with threats such as motor transport, is detrimental to the future health of our cities.
As the private sphere expands, swallowing up more and more of the public, it squeezes the parts of the city that are accessible to all. If the squares and streets are the lungs of our city, then privatisation is choking our public realm. Public spaces are necessary for the full spectrum of urban life to take place and the growing trend of POPOS could herald a future where the ability to engage, socially, democratically and politically, is restricted by private owners – hindering our development as a society and stunting the growth of our cities.
1. Frost, R., “Mending Wall”, North of Boston, New York, Henry Holt And Company, 1917, pp. 2.
2. Palley, T.I., “From Keynesianism to Neoliberalism: Shifting Paradigms in Economics”.
3. Madanipour, A., Whose Public Space? International Case Studies in Urban Design and Development, Oxon, Routledge, 2010, pp. 3.
4. Kayden, J.S., Privately Owned Public Space: The New York City Experience, New Jersey, John Wiley & Sons, 2000, pp. 85.
5. Sennett, R., The Uses Of Disorder: Personal Identity And City Life, New York, WW Norton & Company, 1992, pp. 108.
6. Kohn, M., Brave New Neighbourhoods: The Privatisation of Public Space, London, Routledge, 2004, pp. 8.
7. Madanipour, A., Whose Public Space? International Case Studies in Urban Design and Development, Oxon, Routledge, 2010, pp. 6.
8. Kohn, M., Brave New Neighbourhoods: The Privatisation of Public Space, London, Routledge, 2004, pp.14.
9. Sackman, S., “The Occupy London result raises the thorny issue of property v protest”, The Guardian, 18 January 2012, http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/libertycentral/2012/jan/18/occupy-london-eviction-freedom-expression-private (Accessed 9 December 2015).
10. Garrett, B.L., “How to make our cities open and democratic”, [online video] 2015 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UOyJZ5owags (Accessed on 10 December 2015).