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In Dr. Georgiana Varna’s lecture ‘Measuring Public Space: The Star Model’, she outlined the wide theoretical background that exists in relation to the topic of public space, whilst also introducing the notion that public space is a ‘slippery’ concept. In essence, she was referring to the fact that over many years there have been countless variations in the definition of ‘public space’, as it can involve such a wide range of diverse factors, and it is, therefore, very difficult to generate one unifying definition.

Out of all the factors, however, I believe that the emergence of privately owned ‘public space’ is a particular aspect that is making it even harder to truly define what ‘public space’ is in the modern-day. This is predominantly because private ownership of ‘public’ spaces is often an invisible characteristic that lurks in secrecy, only revealing itself when exercising measures of social control.

A precedent for this materialised in October 2011, when protestors from the ‘Occupy London’ group attempted to set up a camp outside of the London Stock Exchange in Paternoster Square.[1] Whilst there was nothing to suggest that this space was any different from the location outside St. Paul’s Cathedral, where one of their other camps was based, the protestors were ordered off the premises almost immediately after they had set up their tents. The reason for this swift ejection being that Paternoster Square was in fact owned by the Japanese investment company ‘Mitsubishi Corporation’, and was in reality a privately-owned ‘public’ space.[2]

Figure 1: Paternoster Square, London – A Privately Owned ‘Public’ Space

In terms of powerful international companies such as Mitsubishi, I feel that the exertion of social control in this context is reflective of how much they prioritise their image, and ultimately dispel anything or anyone who may jeopardise it. In ‘Social Exclusion and Space’, Ali Madanipour echoes this when considering the effects that the finance industry has had on the built environment and social freedom, stating that ‘large-scale developers and financiers expect their commodities to be safe for investment and maintenance’, and so therefore, they seek to ‘reduce as much as possible all the levels of uncertainty which could threaten their interests’.[3] In essence, any activities that are deemed to be detrimental to their international identity, will be prohibited without hesitation.

Although reputation through image is clearly very important to the private owners of ‘public space’, ironically, I feel that a lack of image clarity from the perspective of the general public is, as alluded to earlier, one of the major issues with defining public space. In ‘The Image of The City’, Kevin Lynch introduces the concept of ‘imageability’, which he defines as the ‘quality in a physical object which gives it a high probability of evoking a strong image in any given observer’.[4] This is fundamentally based on the perception of the urban environment and how the legibility of various factors influences someone’s ability to read the city. In summary, the more distinctive these physical features are, the easier it will be to construct a higher quality mental image of the city.[5] One of five physical elements that Lynch highlights later in the text is ‘districts’, which are areas of the city that the ‘observer mentally enters “inside of,” and which are recognisable as having some common, identifying character’.[6] Whilst the ‘districts’ that Lynch is referring to are most likely larger than typical areas of privately owned public space, I believe that his theory on imageability is still very relevant to the point at hand. Ultimately, it is often the case that no clear distinguishable features exist informing someone passing through the city that they are moving from a truly public space into a privately owned public space, an issue which is made even more complicated as many city spaces bleed into each other. A cities investigation by The Guardian also made this observation, stating that privately owned public spaces, or ‘Pops’, ‘appear unrestricted to the average person as long as they are behaving in ways that corporate landowners approve of’.[7]

Furthermore, The Guardian’s investigation also revealed that after contacting fourteen local authorities representing Britain’s major cities, only two were actually willing to share details of privately owned public space within their district.[8]

Taking this all into account, a situation arises where people’s perception of public space is at risk of complete deception, and some of the most popular ‘public’ spaces in a city may actually prove to be privately owned. Especially if local authorities are shying away from showing transparency on the extents of privatised public space. Consequently, I believe it could be argued that the definition and future of ‘public space’ is becoming increasingly uncertain, particularly as the privatisation of public space continues to spread through cities in what is being described as a new era of ‘urban enclosure’.[9]


References:

[1] BBC News, Occupy London Protests In Financial District (2011), <https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-15322134> [Accessed 11 January 2019].

[2] Design Build Network, The Privatisation Of Public Space (2017), <https://www.designbuild-network.com/features/featurethe-privatisation-of-public-space-5776190/> [Accessed 11 January 2019].

[3] Ali Madanipour, ‘Social Exclusion And Space’, in The City Reader, ed. by Richard T. LeGates and Frederic Stout, 4th edn (Abingdon: Routledge, 2007), pp. 158-165 (p. 164).

[4] Kevin Lynch, The Image Of The City (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1979), p. 9.

[5] Ibid., p. 10.

[6] Ibid., p. 47.

[7] The Guardian, Revealed: The Insidious Creep Of Pseudo-public Space In London (2017), <https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2017/jul/24/revealed-pseudo-public-space-pops-london-investigation-map> [Accessed 11 January 2019].

[8] The Guardian, ‘It’s Really Shocking’: UK Cities Refusing To Reveal Extent Of Pseudo-public Space (2017), <https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2017/sep/26/its-really-shocking-uk-cities-refusing-to-reveal-extent-of-pseudo-public-space> [Accessed 11 January 2019].

[9] The Guardian, Revealed: The Insidious Creep Of Pseudo-public Space In London (2017), <https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2017/jul/24/revealed-pseudo-public-space-pops-london-investigation-map> [Accessed 11 January 2019].

Featured Image Reference:

The Guardian, These Squares Are Our Squares: Be Angry About The Privatisation Of Public Space (2017) <https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2017/jul/25/squares-angry-privatisation-public-space> [Accessed 11 January 2019].

Figure 1 Reference:

Lipton Rogers, Paternoster Sq (2019), <http://www.liptonrogers.com/case-study/paternoster-square-ec4/> [Accessed 11 January 2019].

School of Architecture
Planning and Landscape
Newcastle upon Tyne
Tyne and Wear, NE1 7RU

Tel: 0191 208 6509

Email: nicola.rutherford@ncl.ac.uk


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