Is Inner London actually more green than Outer London?

And was London builded here in England's green and pleasant land? Yes, pretty much. Image: Maxwell Hamilton

For all the stereotypes of London – the dark star, the big smoke, the hellish swirling cloud of pollution and desperate millennials scrowling the concrete jungle for their next avocado fix – it's a pretty green city. In fact, you can quite literally see from space just how green London is. 

It has a very low population density relative to other major world cities – think in particular of the high-rise cacophony of Hong Kong, New York, or Tokyo – and is packed with green spaces. 

There are the big blockbusters in the centre of town – Hyde Park, The Regent's Park, Green Park, St. James's Park – and the delightful larger expanses further out, such as Hampstead Heath, Richmond Park, and Victoria Park. 

This is without mentioning any of the tiny, often council-run, public green spaces that are dotted around the capital. Within a 30-minute walk of my standard zone-2-type place, I can easily access 11 such spaces. That's good going. 

But a City Hall report this month warns that green things in London aren't as peachy as they seem – and this map shows that pretty well. 

The seven, cross-party London Assembly members who compiled the report warned that "half of London households live too far away from the nearest green space – more than the maximum recommended distance of 400m in the London Plan".

And what's obvious is that, counter-intuitively, you're more likely to live within the recommended distance of a public green space if you're further into London. 

The bits of London that aren't 'close' to a public green space. Image: London Assembly.

The red patches on the map are all the places where you're more than 400m from the nearest green space – and those are largely splodged further out, in boroughs such as Bromley, Havering, and Enfield. What's going on here? 

The obvious answer is that residents of further-out boroughs will be more likely to have their own gardens – green space alright, but not public green space. 

This map, from the same report, shows that pretty well. 

The total green space - including private - in London. Image: London Assembly.

The pale whiter spaces in the centre of London show the areas where there's not really any green happening at all – public or otherwise – while the gradual greening intensifies until the outermost reaches of London are basically just huge green swathes with occasional houses dotted around. 

Indeed, half of London is green space – which is a phenomenal figure. So, does the relative lack of public green space in outer London really matter? 

It does. Arguments that it doesn't all rest on the assumption that everyone in those outer boroughs lives in an entire house with a garden, which – though lovely as a thought – is clearly not true. 

This deer feels dubious about the assertion of the headline. Image: Berit Watkin.

The lack of public green space provision in Outer London means that people living in flats – either in blocks, above a shop, or in one or two floors of a semi-detached or terraced house – are left out of loop. 


What's more, aside from the obvious benefits of parkland – fresh air, space for exercise, heatlh benefits and so on – they're also great for mixing people together socially. While your private garden in Bromley might be great for you, it means you're less likely to rub up against the world and his uncle (and his dog) in the park – whether they're taking the kids out to play, walking the dog, or just taking a stroll. 

And though that can't necessarily be quantified empirically, the effect on an individual's outlook, and approach to life, is probably not a fantastic one. 

So rejoice, inner Londoners. You might live cheek by jowl in the big smoke, but at least you've got space to walk the dog you don't have in the park round the corner. 

Jack May is a regular contributor to CityMetric and tweets as @JackO_May.

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Owning public space is expensive. So why do developers want to do it?

Granary Yard, London. Image: Getty.

A great deal has been written about privately owned public space, or POPS. A Guardian investigation earlier this year revealed the proliferation of “pseudo-public spaces”. Tales of people being watched, removed from or told off in POPS have spread online. Activists have taken to monitoring POPS, and politicians on both sides of the pond are calling for reforms in how they are run.

Local authorities’ motives for selling off public spaces are normally simple: getting companies to buy and maintain public space saves precious public pounds. Less straightforward and often overlooked in this debate is why – given the maintenance costs, public safety concerns and increasingly unflattering media attention – developers would actually want to own public space in the first place.

To answer that question it’s important to note that POPS can’t be viewed as isolated places, like parks or other public spaces might be. For the companies that own them, public spaces are bound up in the business that takes place inside their private buildings; POPS are tools that allow them, in one way or another, to boost profits.

Trade-offs

In some cities, such as Hong Kong and New York, ownership of public space is a trade-off for the right to bend the rules in planning and zoning. In 1961 New York introduced a policy that came to be known as ‘incentive zoning’. Developers who took on the provision of some public space could build wider, taller buildings, ignoring restrictions that had previously required staggered vertical growth to let sunlight and air into streets.

Since then, the city has allowed developers to build 20m square feet of private space in exchange for 80 acres of POPS, or 525 individual spaces, according to watchdog Advocates for Privately Owned Public Space (APOPS).

Several of those spaces lie in Trump Tower. Before the King of the Deal began construction on his new headquarters in 1979, he secured a pretty good deal with the city: Trump Tower would provide two atriums, two gardens, some restrooms and some benches for public use; in exchange 20 floors could be added to the top of the skyscraper. That’s quite a lot of condos.

Shockingly, the current president has not always kept up his end of the bargain and has been fined multiple times for dissuading members of the public from using POPS by doing things like placing flower pots on top of benches – violating a 1975 rule which said that companies had to provide amenities that actually make public spaces useable. The incident might suggest the failure of the ‘honour system’ under which POPS operate day-to-day. Once developers have secured their extra square footage, they might be tempted to undermine, subtly, the ‘public’ nature of their public spaces.

But what about where there aren’t necessarily planning benefits to providing public space? Why would companies go to the trouble of managing spaces that the council would otherwise take care of?


Attracting the ‘right sort’

Granary Square, part of the £5bn redevelopment of London’s Kings Cross, has been open since 2012. It is one of Europe’s largest privately-owned public spaces and has become a focal point for concerns over corporate control of public space. Yet developers of the neighbouring Coal Drop Yards site, due to open in October 2018, are also making their “dynamic new public space” a key point in marketing.

Cushman Wakefield, the real estate company in charge of Coal Drops Yard, says that the vision of the developers, Argent, has been to “retain the historical architecture to create a dramatic environment that will attract visitors to the 100,000 square feet of boutiques”. The key word here is “attract”. By designing and managing POPS, developers can attract the consumers who are essential to the success of their sites and who might be put off by a grubby council-managed square – or by a sterile shopping mall door.

A 2011 London Assembly Report found that the expansion of Canary Wharf in the 1990s was a turning point for developers who now “assume that they themselves will take ownership of an open space, with absolute control, in order to protect the value of the development as a whole”. In many ways this is a win-win situation; who doesn’t appreciate a nice water feature or shrub or whatever else big developer money can buy?

The caveat is, as academic Tridib Banerjee pointed out back in 2001: “The public is welcome as long as they are patrons of shops and restaurants, office workers, or clients of businesses located on the premises. But access to and use of the space is only a privilege and not a right” – hence the stories of security guards removing protesters or homeless people who threaten the aspirational appeal of places like Granary Square.

In the US, developers have taken this kind of space-curation even further, using public spaces as part of their formula for attracting the right kind of worker, as well as consumer, for nearby businesses. In Cincinnati, developer 3CDC transformed the notoriously crime-ridden Over-The-Rhine (OTR) neighbourhood into a young professional paradise. Pouring $47m into an initial make-over in 2010, 3CDC beautified parks and public space as well as private buildings.

To do so, the firm received $50 million  in funding from corporations like Procter and Gamble, whose Cincinnati headquarters sits to the South-West of OTR. This kind of hyper-gentrification has profoundly change the demographics of the neighbourhood – to the anger of many long-term residents – attracting, essentially, the kind of people who work at Procter and Gamble.

Elsewhere, in cities like Alpharetta, Georgia, 3CDC have taken their public space management even further, running events and entertainment designed to attract productive young people to otherwise dull neighbourhoods.

Data pools

The proposed partnership between the city of Toronto and Sidewalk Labs (owned by Google’s parent company Alphabet) has highlighted another motive for companies to own public space: the most modern of all resources, data.

Data collection is at the heart of the ‘smart city’ utopia: the idea that by turning public spaces and the people into them into a vast data pool, tech companies can find ways to improve transport, the environment and urban quality of life. If approved next year, Sidewalk would take over the mostly derelict east waterfront area, developing public and private space filled with sensors.

 Of course, this isn’t altruism. The Globe and Mail describe Sidewalk’s desired role as “the private garbage collectors of data”. It’s an apt phrase that reflects the merging of public service and private opportunity in Toronto’s future public space.

The data that Sidewalk could collect in Toronto would be used by Google in its commercial projects. Indeed, they’ve already done so in New York’s LinkNYC and London’s LinkUK. Kiosks installed around the cities provide the public with wifi and charging points, whilst monitoring traffic and pedestrians and generating data to feed into Google Maps.

The subway station at Hudson Yards, New York City. Image: Getty.

This is all pretty anodyne stuff. Data on how we move around public spaces is probably a small price to pay for more efficient transport information, and of course Sidewalk don’t own the areas around their Link Kiosks. But elsewhere companies’ plans to collect data in their POPS have sparked controversy. In New York’s Hudson Yards development – which Sidewalk also has a stake in – ambiguity over how visitors and residents can opt out of sharing their data when in its public square, have raised concerns over privacy.

In Toronto, Sidewalk have already offered to share their data with the city. However, Martin Kenney, researcher at the University of California at Davis and co-author of 2016’s ‘The Rise of the Platform Economy’, has warned that the potential value of a tech company collecting a community’s data should not be underestimated. “What’s really important is the deals Toronto cuts with Sidewalk may set terms and conditions for the rest of the world," he said after the announcement in October.

The project could crystallise all three motives behind the ownership of POPS. Alongside data collection, Sidewalk will likely have some leeway over planning regulations and will certainly tailor its public spaces to its ideal workers and consumers – Google have already announced that it would move its Canadian headquarters, from their current location in Downton Toronto, into the first pilot phase of the development.

Even if the Sidewalks Lab project never happens, the motives behind companies’ ownership of POPS tell us that cities’ public realms are of increasing interest to private hands.

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