Want a Blue Plaque? Here's how to guarantee you'll get one

Could you be the next Dame Margot Fonteyn? Image: Getty.

How are you planning to make it to posterity? A statue? A shrine? Pass on your genes to your stupid kids?

Nah, if you never want to be forgotten, what you really want is a blue plaque, mate. So here’s how to increase your chances of getting one:

Be dead

Sorry, you’ll never actually get to see your own blue plaque. The rules of the English Heritage Blue Plaque scheme state you must have been dead for 20 years, unless it’s been a century since you’ve been born. Occasional exceptions have been made for very notable people: Gandhi had only been gone for 6 years when he got his.

This wasn’t always the case: the oldest surviving (but not the first) Blue Plaque was dedicated to the then very much alive Napoleon III. Bloody typical: one rule for emperors…

Still, at least Napoleon III’s plaque is actually blue: there was a bit of experimenting before a standard size, material and shape was settled on. The oldest ones were mostly brown. Who wants a brown plaque?

Be a politician, a writer, a poet or a painter

Of the 357 different professions that English Heritage list in their catalogue of plaque-holders, these are far and away the most popular – so if you’re playing the odds write an illustrated poem about your time as an MP. The professions of clowning, plastic surgery and sexology, meanwhile, have only merited one plaque-worthy individual each.

Do whatever’s going to make you noteworthy in London

English Heritage only issues blue plaques within the capital, so do at least some of your notable activities at a London address.

A national scheme was trialled between 2000 and 2005, erecting plaques in Birmingham, Merseyside, Southampton and Portsmouth, but it was decided that non-English Heritage plaque schemes were doing enough commemorating already. Yeah, because a blue plaque that’s not from the original, “official” scheme is definitely just as good. And your mum thinks you’re special.

Do it somewhere that isn’t going to be knocked down

When the scheme started in 1867, the first plaque was placed on Lord Byron’s former home near Cavendish Square. Sucks to be Byron: the house was knocked down in 1889, and the rules say the plaques can only “survive in a form that the commemorated person would have recognised”, which presumably precludes the John Lewis that sits on the site from getting one.

Or be too controversial

Karl Marx has a plaque at 28 Dean Street – but it was not his first. In the 1930s, a plaque was put up on an address he’d lived in in Kentish Town: it was almost immediately vandalised. A replacement was issued: it was almost immediately vandalised. The then-current owner of the house (long since demolished) decided against trying again.

A pretty sure-fire method: invent the blue plaque

Hampton library bears a plaque dedicated to one William Ewart, a 19th century member of parliament who made the unfortunate decision to share most of his name with the much more famous William Ewart Gladstone, Britain’s most self-flagellating Prime Minister.

This is a shame, as Ewart was quite a good politician: he was instrumental in creating public libraries, legalising the metric system and getting rid of capital punishment for stealing cows. And in 1863, he stood up in parliament and raised the question of whether memorials might be placed on “Residences Of Deceased Celebrities”, as Hansard charmingly puts it. William Cowper, the man in charge of such things, broadly agreed, but wondered if people might get confused and think that the dead celebrities still lived there.

In the event, nothing governmental was forthcoming, but the matter was taken up by a committee of the Royal Society of Arts. And finally, four years after Ewart’s suggestion, it started putting up plaques. Eventually the London County Council took it over: it then passed to the Greater London Council, until Thatcher killed that and the scheme was passed to English Heritage.

Ewart didn’t get his own plaque until 1992, and has to share it with the 18th century tenor, John Beard. The absolute loser.


So obviously don’t live anywhere any other person of historical interest has ever lived

And risk only getting half a plaque? There are a few buildings in London that have two separate plaques, but even then, do you really want to share the limelight of architectural eternity?

Failing any of that: just give up and make your own bloody plaque

While the English Heritage scheme is the original and best, there’s absolutely nothing to stop you putting up one of your own (well, on property you own, as long as it isn’t listed).

In fact, part of the point of the scheme was to encourage others to start doing it: the lazy laissez-faire Victorians at the Royal Society of Arts didn’t want to be lumbered with the task forever.

There are around 900 “official” plaques – but the crowdsourced plaque directory openplaques.org lists over 11,000 in the UK alone. Many local councils and arts organisations run schemes these days: EH’s blue plaque committee will even sometimes specifically recommended that people who didn’t merit one of their plaques try for a “lesser” plaque.

Of course, if you’ve done nothing to actually merit the plaque, future property owners might take a chisel to it. So best get cracking on whatever bit of politics, poetry or sexology that’s going to see you preserved forever in white on blue.

Ed Jefferson works for the internet and tweets as @edjeff.

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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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