How are privately owned public spaces changing how cities function?

When 432 Park Avenue, the tallest residential building in the world, topped out at nearly 1,400 feet, it was described as “an undeniable feat of excess” by The New York Times.

The building dominates the New York skyline and houses luxury condos of up to $95m. It may be an extreme example but, all around the world, cities are changing. Luxury developments—often criticized as remaining unoccupied once purchased—are sprouting up in most major cities (Guardian).

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The rise of privately-owned public spaces are also changing how cities function. Squares and plazas, often appear to be public but are actually owned and controlled by developers, are subject to their owners’ rules, which operate differently to genuine public space. Protests are usually banned, as are reporters asking questions, or unauthorized photography and filming.

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We want to know your experience of new developments and the changing face of your cities. How has it affected you and people you know? Are they providing much-needed investment and regeneration to deprived areas, or are they pushing out long-time residents for the benefit of corporate giants and the mobile superrich?

“It’s been a little more than a year since Alphabet (then Google) and I launched Sidewalk Labs. Larry Page and I shared a view that a combination of digital technologies — ubiquitous connectivity, social networks, sensing, machine learning and artificial intelligence, and new design and fabrication technologies — would help bring about a revolution in urban life. Their impact will be as profound as the steam engine, the electric grid, and the automobile, the three previous technological revolutions that have largely defined the modern city.” – extract from Sidewalk Labs development submission to Toronto to develop the Toronto Waterfront (

And Rohit Aggarwala, also of Alphabet, said in 2016, “But the things that will make urban life easier are things that consumers cannot do on their own: incorporating technology into central systems like transit agencies, or tackling the very real challenges of balancing privacy and security in public spaces, or developing tech-enabled approaches to public consultation. This means that the costs of density will decline at a rate that depends on the public sector. And that rate, often, is very slow. That’s the risk to cities from technology. It’s not that AVs will lead to sprawl, or that virtual reality will keep people in their homes. The main risk is that urbanites will not move quickly enough to use technology to make it easier to live in cities. And that is what I have most clearly taken away from this thought experiment.”

The exponential deployment of censored data, the datafication (Kitchen, 2017) of society and the governance environment is leading us along a pathway of either acceptance (via preference transfer and T+Cs) or encouraging a new epiphany as society rejects data’s ‘candy’. Public space is an obvious target, its seeming ‘publicness’ and anonymity / freedom projects an ‘open platform’ for public observation, suggestion, nudging. The very real possibility that a private landlord (in this case the giant Alphabet) might manage and direct such public (and private space) is eery, almost Westworld. One of Sidewalk’s declared objectives is suggested by their public statement (2017) around the data platforms embedded in the new Toronto built environment: “Good platforms focus on enabling others to extend the platform in ways that cannot be predicted ahead of time. Platforms should function as meritocracies that provide priority, resources, and acclaim to the most talented, engaged, and valuable participants”. Finally as Hannah Arendt warned (1958) “The trouble with modern theories of behaviourism, is not that they are wrong but that they could become true.”

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