Britain’s urban liberals should back devolution to “take back control”

State of this. Image: Getty.

The surprise victory of Donald Trump in the US presidential elections this month has prompted much soul-searching among the country’s shell-shocked liberals, who will be trying to make sense of a result few predicted for some time to come.

Having won on a platform of anti-immigration, protectionism and anti-globalisation – not to mention open racism and misogyny – it’s no wonder that some commentators have viewed the Trump victory as signalling the death-knell for what are often derided as liberal-metropolitan values: same sex marriage, free trade and tolerance of people from different religious and cultural backgrounds.

Certainly, most of America’s city dwellers now face at least four years under a President they didn’t vote for. Exit polls suggest that Hillary Clinton won 59 per cent of the vote in all cities with a population of over 50,000 (compared to 35 per cent for Trump), and that 31 of the 35 largest US cities polled strong majorities for Clinton. In contrast, Trump gained 62 per cent of the rural vote across the country (compared to 34 per cent for Clinton), with residents of small towns and rural places swinging the election in his favour in key states such as Wisconsin and Michigan.

However, while it may be hard for America’s urban liberals to appreciate right now, in truth the election of Trump will have less bearing on their day-to-day lives than they might think. Thanks to the US’s heavily-devolved system of government, large areas of domestic policy will remain in the hands of local leaders at city and state levels, which the president will have little sway over.

Indeed, city mayors and state governors will continue to have significant powers over education, social issues, investment, taxation and economic development – even if trade and immigration policies move in directions opposite to their interests. As such, Democrats in places like San Francisco, New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia can take some comfort from the fact they will to a large extent be insulated from many aspects of Trump’s policies.

In Britain, urban and rural residents are just as polarised as in the US. For example, in the EU referendum earlier this year, all but one of England’s biggest cities voted to remain in the EU, putting them at odds with the majority-vote gained by the Leave campaign under the banner of “taking back control”.

The urban vs rural voting pattern was also evident in the 2015 general election, with the map of voting patterns illustrating that the Labour Party won a majority of votes in nearly all of England’s major urban areas.

Click to expand.

But unlike America our deeply centralised system of governance means that by securing a majority at the national level, albeit a very small one, the Conservatives also gained control over virtually all the public institutions that shape the everyday lives of people living and working in cities. Compared to the American counterparts, city leaders in Britain have very little control of the issues and budgets that matter to the lives of their residents.

The lesson from Brexit, and from this month’s events across the Atlantic, is that for those of us who do subscribe to the values of metropolitan liberalism, the best hope we have of putting those values into practice, and influencing the decisions that matter most to our day-to-day lives, is to push for the devolution of more powers to our cities.

In recent years, we have seen good progress in addressing the overly-centralised nature of governance in Britain.  Through the devolution agenda introduced by the former chancellor George Osborne and the current business secretary Greg Clark, in May 2017 we will see the introduction of metro-mayors in most of England’s biggest city-regions – a significant constitutional moment in the country.

As the process for electing these metro-mayors gets underway in the new year, the onus will be on city dwellers to actively engage with the would-be mayors to ensure they both reflect their values and to push them to prioritise seeking more powers from national government as a matter of urgency. Only by getting fully behind the devolution agenda can urban liberals hope to “take back control”.

Andrew Carter is deputy chief executive of the Centre for Cities. This is an edited version of an article first posted on the think tank's blog

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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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