Top of the PoPS: can privatised public space be inclusive?

1 August 2017

Inclusive public spaces are vital for a healthy, thriving city. They enable everyone to participate equally in public life. But in recent years there has been much debate over the rise of “PoPS” – privately-owned public spaces – and their potential to diminish the inclusivity of the public realm. But is the situation so black and white? Matthew Carmona,  Professor of Planning and Urban Design at the Bartlett School of Planning, shares his thoughts with us.

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?

Many publically owned and managed spaces are highly restrictive in how we can use them.  The public space in front of one city hall that I visited just last week had a list of 32 bye law 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.  Other spaces have no such restrictions and, as long as you are within the law and not causing a nuisance (which is the key test), you are free.  

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 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 latter cases, it is very difficult (although not impossible) to change such matters retrospectively.  

In my view, 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. I set out a simple Charter of public space rights and responsibilities that would represent a good starting point for local discussions on such issues, and ideally for adoption in policy. This includes the rights of all public space users to roam freely, rest, demonstrate peacefully, busk and skate – and the responsibility of space owners and managers to respect and protect the rights of users and keep spaces open and unrestricted.

The very term “privatisation 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 in urban design. This rarely occurs. Instead, what we more often see is the opening up of formally private (or semi-private) areas to public use as part of large-scale redevelopment schemes of former industrial areas. Most of this space never was public in the sense that it was never publically accessible. So bringing it properly into public use, even if it remains in private ownership, is potentially a very significant public gain.

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 managed by a private corporation. If, following construction, they had been immediately passed over to the public sector to own and manage, they would certainly have been built to a much lower specification with standard, easy to maintain materials – and without the dynamic fountains and playful lights that attract a wide array of families.

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 role it is often not taken nearly seriously enough.