On the joys of being lost in a new city

Albert Dock: just one of the many places I'm planning to get myself lost this week. Image: Pixabay.

It's Sunday lunchtime. As I write, I am at London's Euston station, awaiting my train to Liverpool for this year's Labour party conference. And I am really, really looking forward to it. 

I always look forward to party conference season, of course: I'm just that sort of nerd. (Whole rooms full of wonkish people, arguing about housing policy!) But I realised yesterday I was particularly looking forward to this one, because – in between the fringe meetings about HS2 or social housing or wine-fuelled rows about Jeremy Corbyn – I'm going to have two days to explore Liverpool. And there are few things that give me greater pleasure than being dropped in a city I don't know particularly well, and left to get myself lost.

Some people like walking in the country, and fair play to them, but I've never quite seen the point. It's not that the countryside can't be beautiful– it's sometimes stunning, though perhaps not quite as often as its propagandists would claim. No, it's simply that there isn't a whole lot of stuff there. One field of sheep with some dry stone wall round it looks much the same as another.

Cities can often be beautiful, too – but even when they're not they are at least, filled with stuff. There's a density of incident that means it always feels worth walking onwards, just because you don't know what you're going to stumble upon next. In the countryside, you can find yourself stuck with the same view for an hour, and in that time even the most stunning of views can start to wear thin. 

In a city, though, if you don't like what you see, just walk around the next corner. You may not like that either, but at least you'll not be liking something new. (This, by the way, is why such walks are best done in cities where you can, literally, get lost. If you're not lost, you probably know what's around the next corner, and where's the fun in that?)

Liverpool is a relatively easy city to get excited about visiting. It has a lot of fine Victorian architecture, from its days as second city of the British Empire, and all sorts of more modern glories from its associations with the Beatles and so on. All this combines to give it the feel of a much bigger city than it actually is: Liverpool feels like it is somewhere. 

Liverpool's skyline, as seen from the Mersey. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

So in some ways it's a bad example to explain the joys of aimless urban wandering, precisely because it's the sort of place you might go to deliberately. But to get excited about visiting a new city, I don't need it to have anything like the myriad attractions of Liverpool. I find I can get excited about spending a day exploring all sorts of unpromising places.

Washington DC is loathed by most Americans, even – especially – some of those who live there. But I spent two days last spring wandering aimlessly between government office blocks and residential quarters, trying to get to grips with how the city's uniquely odd street grid functions, and I've rarely felt so contented.

I've had equally pleasant times wandering around Sheffield and Bradford and Wolverhampton, and they've been among the happiest days of my working life. It's not that these places are particularly beautiful or exciting or noteworthy. It's simply that they were unfamiliar, and even the most mundane of unfamiliar cities can keep me entertained for hours. Perhaps as a child I was bitten by a radioactive Bill Bryson or something. Who knows.

(There is a man in the Carlisle history museum, incidentally, who has spent a lot of time thinking about how their Roman centurion skeleton came to have a hole in his skull. I mean, a lot.)

There is a word for someone who engages in this sort of activity: the flâneur. The word has its origins in the more literary end of 19th century Parisian society, and means, literally, stroller or loafer. But it also implies a certain idleness, a rich man – always a man; a point of some contention – of leisure. Someone for whom wandering the streets of the city people-watching is somehow a radical act.

I hate that word. Partly because it implies a certain laziness – to my mind, if you're not clocking up the miles, you're wasting valuable time – but also because it turns wandering about into a branch of philosophy.

And all that feels a bit too grand. Walking is a form of exploration, I suppose, though even that sounds a bit pretentious, and anyway, it's the city I'm interested in exploring, not myself. When I walk, it's just because I want to know what this new place looks like. How people live here. Where they work, where they shop, how they move about. What this particularly slice of humanity has brought into being as a place to live their lives. And the reason I want to clock up the miles is because I want to see as much as I can, before I'm next required to be in a specific place at a particular time, which - as I get older - increasingly tends to be rather soon.

This slightly wonkish desire to understand how a city functions is a common phenomenon, I think, at least among the sort of people who read CityMetric. In its rawest form, it tends to show up as a love of maps, and especially metro or subway maps.

But think that's symptom, not cause, of something deeper – or perhaps a gateway drug, a way in. A metro map is simply the easiest way to understand how a city fits together. It's like reading the blurb on the back of a book – showing you things to explore, places you can go. The tube map is London represented in its simplest, most stripped down form. It's our easiest mental model for how something so big and complicated and full of people and history actually works.

(A thought. Perhaps that's why north Londoners have historically been so sniffy about the huge swathe of the the city that lies south of the river: its absence from the map means it's literally not in their London at all.)

At any rate, this is my first trip to Liverpool since July 2009 (another conference; that one involved nurses). And rather at lot has happened in those seven years – to me, to Liverpool, to the world.

So, for next two days, whenever I don't have a meeting to be in, I will be dedicating my time to wandering around the city and, gazing at bits of it. I'm going to check out the Ropewalks and the Baltic Triangle, which I've published articles on, but never actually seen. I'm going to wander around the private Liverpool One development, and see how it meshes with the older, real-er city around it. I may even, if I find the time, climb the hill at Everton Park, to help me see the whole city in one sweep.

And I am really, genuinely delighted about this prospect.

Do say hi if you spot me.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @jonnelledge.

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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.


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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