The Private-Public Frontier

Clint and I spent a few days in London in July. Since the trip was an anniversary gift to each other, it was fitting that we returned to the UK, which is where we started dating 9 years ago. This time we forewent the touristy stuff (did most of it the first time) and spent our days there catching up with friends we made in Japan, crisscrossing London from the increasingly gentrified East End to the loftier West End to gritty-but-fun Brixton on the south side.

Our friend Ellie graduated from the Royal College of Art while we were in town. We spent most of our first afternoon there wandering the degree show, where each student exhibited the final outcome of their master’s projects. Ellie created a pretty great entry-level incinerator (which I did not know was a thing) called Metablaze. She designed it to disrupt the circular economy by sourcing complex materials from waste for reuse instead of allowing those materials to lay as waste in the ash. (If that also sounds super cool to you but you need some context like I did, here’s the project report.)

Ellie’s project was part of the college’s Innovation Design Engineering program. Other graduates focused on architecture, textiles, auto design, synthetic-made-from-nature materials, and social media platforms, among other topics.

One project I particularly liked, and which this post is named after, is a collaboration between Will Yates-Johnson and Julinka Ebhardt called Private Frontiers. Mr. Yates-Johnson explains the project on his website:

Private Frontiers uses light to visualise the growing phenomenon of privately owned public space in London. Through a series of actions, objects and installations, we explore the border between public and private land and the resultant change of rights. These privately owned public spaces are an oxymoronic invention which is changing the shape and atmosphere of our civic culture.

Privately owned public spaces, or POPS in industry jargon, isn’t a sexy topic. Or even a topic that most people think about at all. Perhaps the most famous U.S. example of a POPS is Zuccotti Park in Manhattan. Zuccotti Park was the stage for the Occupy Wall Street protest camp in 2011. Private management, the NYPD, and activists clashed for weeks over the activists’ long-term occupation of the park and the resulting sanitation problems.

Zuccotti Park
Zuccotti Park in November 2011. The City of New York’s planning department defines POPS as “an amenity provided and maintained by a private developer for public use, in exchange for additional floor area.” // Photo by Alex Moore at Death and Taxes magazine.

Mr. Yates-Johnson’s and Ms. Ebhardt’s don’t conceal their opinions on the increased use of POPS by local government, and they used this project to illustrate their views. They show how unclear the division between publicly owned and privately owned public space often is.

From the Private Frontiers collection. Photo by Will Yates-Johnson.
From the Private Frontiers collection. Photo by Will Yates-Johnson.

POPS have social consequences: they can include or exclude people at will (e.g. anti-homeless benches), define their own scope of acceptable activities (busking? skateboarding? napping?), and limit on-site political and democratic functions of public space. “As such,” writes Jeremy Németh in an abstract for Urban Studies, POPS “have deleterious effects on concepts of citizenship and representation, even as they become the new models for urban space provision and management.”

Despite Western cities’ reinvestment in downtowns and other urban nodes, public and private sectors in some cities use disturbing tactics to criminalize some of the most vulnerable people: the homeless.

In August the U.S. Department of Justice ruled against the City of Boise, Idaho, that banning the homeless from sleeping outside is unconstitutional. From the Washington Post:

According to a NLCHP report last year that surveyed 187 cities between 2011 and 2014, 34 percent had citywide laws banning camping in public. Another 43 percent prohibited sleeping in vehicles, and 53 percent banned sitting or lying down in certain public places. All of these laws criminalize the kind of activities—sitting, resting, sleeping—that are arguably fundamental to human existence.

But besides being a cruel and unusual punishment, such laws are also a violation of choice:

When adequate shelter space exists, individuals have a choice about whether or not to sleep in public. However, when adequate shelter space does not exist, there is no meaningful distinction between the status of being homeless and the conduct of sleeping in public. Sleeping is a life-sustaining activity — i.e., it must occur at some time in some place. If a person literally has nowhere else to go, then enforcement of the anti-camping ordinance against that person criminalizes her for being homeless.

The sight of homeless people reminds individuals of a culture that exists in nearly every city in every developed country. It’s a culture of destitution, and it’s a reminder that we have, to varying degrees, let down our own humanity.

This is just one reason why truly equal public space is important for all members of all communities.

The Space Hijackers' super authentic sign.
The Space Hijackers’ super authentic sign.

A London-based activist group called Space Hijackers demonstrated this at their City Hall, which, perhaps allegorically, is managed and owned by a private real estate company that leases it the property back to the city. According to Space Hijackers, “Not only have they removed all bins and cycle racks from the area, their security stop cyclists along the riverside, move on skateboarders and keep the area ‘safe and secure for everyone.’ Everyone, that is, provided they approve of your presence.”

And what would a private, for-profit company want from the public it serves? Profit, presumably. The increase in corporate investment in urban renewal as a business strategy tends to bleach urban fabrics, and the public gets sorted accordingly as potential consumers.

“Do we want our cities,” the Space Hijackers ask, “to turn into places where nothing but tourism and shopping (perhaps one and the same thing) are allowed?” The decline of some types of publicly accessible privately owned places, like shopping malls, is giving way to a more plebeian type of POPS, such as the city plaza; while anyone can enter a mall, at least the place made no bones about it being meant for the consuming public. What happens to a community when plazas, squares, parks, halls and other ostensibly public spaces meant to be for all members of the public get privatized? What happens to a local culture when the city government, in a fit of creativity, sells slivers of sidewalk space to the highest bidder like Los Angeles is doing?

London may be a rule or an exception to the future of urban POPS. As a contrast to London’s seemingly extreme situation, former NYC Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe wrote an op-ed in the New York Daily News about POPS as as parkland in the U.S.’ densest place. I had written almost all of this draft, and it seems like Mr. Benepe’s piece responded directly to what I was thinking:

They claim there is a new, troubling trend toward private-sector investment in public space. They oppose engaging companies or rich individuals to help fund parks, fearing a lack of equity or simply opposing any kind of commercial activity in these spaces. […] But the truth is that our city has long encouraged and celebrated private contributions to education, health care, social services, arts and culture, and, yes, public parks — particularly when it comes to providing open, inclusive spaces for the performing arts.

I don’t think an increase in POPS will follow far the slippery slope of allowing only a certain class of people (the one with money!) access to parts or the whole of a city. But I do think if city governments are going to cooperate with corporations to maintain or create new POPS, citizens should be given the choice in determining how much and/or which of their public spaces can be ceded to private control. Some places are worth the taxes or fees.

My attitude toward public-private collaboration is still generally positive, yet I’m sympathetic to the featured Londoners’ complaints, which Yates-Johnson sums up well: “These [POPS] are an oxymoronic invention which is changing the shape and atmosphere of our civic culture.” Maybe profit should not be the driver at so-called public spaces. Maybe our views of what is appropriate in the public realm is increasingly being defined by the rules that private ownership has over cities. Maybe the disintegration of social diversity in POPS is symptomatic of greater snags in the urban fabric.

Public space is invariably a part of life for city dwellers, which as of 2008 is half the world’s population. The global urban population is projected to reach 66% by 2050, adding another 2.5 billion people to our oldest cities and cities that don’t even exist yet. Managing urban areas will be one of this century’s major challenges. As geographer Bradley Garrett recalls of David Harvey: “the freedom to make and remake our cities and ourselves is … one of the most precious yet most neglected of our human rights.” (Garrett’s August article on POPS in London is very insightful, and I highly recommend it if you want to know more about the topic.)

How a city chooses to create, recreate, and manage its public space will inform the unity or division of its population. My hope is that local and regional governments choose to do so for all of their citizens.


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