The rise of privately-owned public spaces

  1. Critics describe POPS as one more step in the corporatization of public life.
  2. POPS aren't subject to normal bylaws, but rather rules drawn up by their owners.

The number of privately owned public spaces, commonly known as POPS, is growing in cities across the world. These apparently public squares and streets are accessible to the public, but owned by private developers, who operate them according to their own rules enforced by private security.

From large squares to garden terraces to thoroughfares, many people are unaware that some of their city’s public spaces are owned by private developers, and that POPS are spreading through cities from London to San Francisco.

A 2017 Guardian investigation documented what it called the “insidious creep” of POPS around the British capital. From the critically acclaimed Granary Square development in King’s Cross (owned partly by an Australian pension fund) to Bishops Square (property of the investment bank JP Morgan), the research, conducted in conjunction with the Greenspace Information for Greater London CIC, mapped POPS around the British capital for the first time, counting more than 50.

In San Francisco, WikiTribune community member Kat O’Neal points out that the idea for POPS was first built into the city’s official downtown plan in 1985 (CityLab). Many San Francisco parks and terraces built since then have been praised, but their owners have been criticized for not conforming to requirements.

Critics denounce POPS as anti-democratic, calling their proliferation one more step in the corporatization of public life. Supporters argue they’re better run than publicly owned public spaces, and bring needed vitality to previously derelict areas.

Should city residents resist or welcome POPS?

The case for POPS

On the surface, POPS seem innocuous. Walk into one from a publicly accessible space, such as an adjacent road, and little will appear different. The POPS may be cleaner and better maintained, but most people would be hard-pressed to tell the difference between privately and publicly owned public spaces.

For this reason, Matthew Carmona, a professor of Planning and Urban Design at University College London’s Bartlett School of Planning, is generally supportive of POPS.

“(POPS are) open and flexible, and everybody can use them, and they add a lot of vitality to the city, so they can be very positive,” he says. “In my view, well-designed, well-managed, open, and free-to-use spaces, even if produced and managed by private organizations, are very welcome, and can add a lot to cities.”

Carmona adds: “As long as our basic rights and responsibilities are safeguarded – which is absolutely key – including rights of access, there is no reason why spaces should not be privately owned and managed.”

Public spaces built for public ownership are “by necessity … built to a much lower specification” than POPS, Carmona wrote in a 2017 blog post.

Carmona points out that POPS are hardly a new phenomenon.

“Cities such as London have really always been made up of private and public space,” he says.

POPS can also be a cost-saving measure. They’re growing in number in part because local authorities cannot afford to pay for new public spaces themselves, says Sarah Gaventa, founder and director of Made Public, a public space consultancy. A less-than-ideal new public space is still a new public space, and as most people cannot tell the difference, cash-strapped local governments approve them.

The case against POPS

Critics see POPS as representing an insidious creep toward corporatized, hostile city environments, where citizens are treated as permanent guests in increasing numbers of public spaces. Owen Hatherley, author of Trans-Europe Express, argues that POPS represent “the return of how cities were developed before the introduction of democratic local government,” when public squares were fenced off and their access regulated.

One of the greatest criticisms levied at POPS is that they limit democratic rights, in particular the right to protest. The private developers who own the spaces are within their rights to limit access only to people they approve of, for purposes they approve of. This rarely includes protesting.

An example often used in the debate around POPS is the 2011 attempt by the Occupy London movement to camp outside the London Stock Exchange on the privately owned Paternoster Square. The Mitsubishi Estate, which owns the square, prevented protestors from doing so (Financial Times).

“You are allowed to use these spaces, provided you stay within a certain amount of specific uses … pickets, protests and so forth are treated with very short shrift,” says Hatherley.

London’s Paternoster Square is owned by the Mitsubishi Estate. Photo by gren (Self-published work by gren) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Hatherly says it’s “fairly disturbing” that rules governing certain seemingly public areas are comparable to shopping malls, “where you can enter at certain times to do certain things, otherwise you don’t have the rights you would otherwise have.”

“The thing that people hate about (POPS) is that our public spaces are our only democratic spaces left,” says Gaventa. She rejects the argument that POPS are better run than publicly owned public spaces, arguing that architects are too focused on aesthetics and tidiness.

“I don’t think all public space needs to be that neat,” she says.

Homeless people others deemed undesirable are often unwelcome in POPS, says Tom Copley, a Labour Party member of the London Assembly, London’s seat of government, which itself sits on a POPS owned by the Kuwaiti sovereign wealth fund. POPS are “dystopian,” he says.

“Even if you’re not doing anything wrong, you can be escorted off one of these privately owned public spaces,” says Copley. “Where does the homeless person go? Just because someone might appear to be someone who’s going to cause trouble doesn’t mean that they actually are.”

Gaventa agrees. She calls POPS “white collar spaces.” She recalls being in a privately owned public space in the City of London financial district watching two men in overalls taking seats on a bench to eat their lunch. A security guard ordered them to leave. The guard later explained his actions to Gaventa, saying the mens’ clothes could get dirt on the benches, which could spoil the suits of the City workers who might later sit on the benches.

Transparent regulations needed

One area critics and supporters of POPS meet is on the need for greater transparency in the rules governing their use. At present, POPS aren’t subject to normal bylaws, but rather rules drawn up by their owners. These rules are typically not required to be publicized and have been criticized as restrictive.

Carmona has been campaigning for a charter governing the use of all new public spaces in London, whether private or publicly owned.

“There needs to be a charter, so that anybody producing new public (spaces), whether they’re privately or publicly managed, should subscribe to certain principles to ensure that the rights of citizens are protected,” he says.

A charter would protect the rights of citizens to use all apparently public space, Carmona says, while also safeguarding the existence of POPS and their professed advantages, such as their perceived greater cleanliness. He says London mayor Sadiq Khan has agreed to produce such a charter, which he hopes will be in effect for new public spaces “in the next couple of years.”

Copley agrees a charter would be a step in the right direction, but says that “as a matter of principle, we should be trying to ensure that as much of what appears to be public space is actually public space.” If this means having local governments take over POPS, “it’s a good idea to leave the option open, absolutely,” he says.

“It does come down to this point of principle,” says Copley. “Who should own and be responsible for our open spaces?”

The King’s Cross Development Partnership, responsible for the development of the King’s Cross area, did not respond to an interview request for this story.

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