“Public life in good quality public spaces is an important part of a democratic life and a full life”*… 

 

private space

Paternoster Square, pictured here from the top of St Paul’s Cathedral in London, is owned by the Mitsubishi Estate Company

 

In general, the privatisation of public space in the west accompanied the traumatic transition from an industrial economy to one based on financial services, shopping, entertainment and “knowledge”. This model began in 1970s America, where downtown waterfront areas that were former industrial heartlands were redeveloped into entertainment complexes: Baltimore’s Inner Harbour, described by the Urban Land Institute as “the model for post-industrial waterfront redevelopment”, is the prime example.

London’s Docklands, once the hub of the UK’s shipbuilding industry, became a centre for privatised financial services districts such as Canary Wharf, gated developments and private campuses such as the Excel, the enormous conference centre where the potential to “lock down” the site ensures it is well suited to host such events as the Defence and Security Equipment International Exhibition.

War very often leads to heavily privatised areas, too. In downtown Beirut, the rebuilding of the city centre provided the opportunity for Rafik Hariri, a billionaire businessman and the former prime minister, to form Solidere, a company that has remodelled a 200-hectare area of the city centre.

Jerold S Kayden at Harvard has coined the term Pops (“privately owned public space”) for these types of places, and found that there are 503 in New York City alone. One of the highest profile is Manhattan’s latest tourist attraction, the High Line, which also appears to be the model for London’s contentious Garden Bridge – an urban “park” that bans all sorts of activities, closes for corporate events, does not allow political protest and requires groups of more than eight people to book ahead.

Indeed, the key question in determining how “private” a city might be could be about access, rather than ownership. Zucotti Park, another Pops in New York, was for many months the venue for the Occupy Wall Street protests. Contrast that with London’s Paternoster Square, home to the London Stock Exchange, where Occupy was quickly evicted when the owners took out an injunction. Political activity has been almost entirely squeezed out of London’s square mile, and Occupy had no choice but to camp outside St Paul’s Cathedral, on the only genuinely public space left in the city.

So while it may be impossible to name a city or a place as the “most private” in the world, what we can say is that societies with high levels of inequality are also those where the privatisation of the public realm and life behind gates increasingly defines the urban fabric. In Britain and North America, where democracy remains the system by which we define ourselves, the spread of this kind of city space is extremely problematic…

More and more parts of more and more cities are becoming the equivalent of private clubs or airport lounges: “What is the most private city in the world?

Semi-related (but altogether fascinating): “Everything we’ve heard about global urbanization turns out to be wrong.”

* Jan Gehl

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As we try not to ask about access, we might recall that it was on this date in 1869 that John Muir set pen to paper to capture his experience of awakening in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California.  Published in 1911, My First Summer in the Sierra is based on Muir’s original journals External and sketches External of his 1869 stay in the vicinity of the Yosemite Valley.  His journal, which tracks his three-and-a-half-month visit to the Yosemite region and his ascent of Mt. Hoffman and other Sierra peaks, was instrumental in building public support for President Theodore Roosevelt’s conservation efforts, and for the formation of Yosemite National Park and the birth of the National Park Program.

jul-19-muir source