Public space is being privatised – and our cities will suffer

Canary Wharf in winter. Despite ostensibly being public, the whole estate is private property. Image: Getty.

Back in May, San Francisco’s parks department tested a policy which allowed groups to pay to reserve areas of grass in Dolores Park. Although the authority hurriedly backtracked after an outcry from local residents, this incident represents a worrying global trend towards the privatisation of public spaces.

Across the world, parks, plazas and promenades – which were once in the hands of public authorities – are coming under the control of private corporations.

In some cases, you won’t even notice the difference. For instance, the recently regenerated area around Kings Cross in London features one of the largest open spaces in Europe; it is publicly accessible, but ownership remains in private hands.


In other cases, the consequences are more troubling. Earlier this year in Little Stoke, south Gloucestershire, the parish council became the first in the world to vote to charge Parkrun – a free running event that is organised in 12 countries – a fee to use its grounds. The run was subsequently cancelled.

Meanwhile, in London, an old adventure playground in Battersea Park has been replaced by an ordinary swings and slides park, and a new “Go Ape” tree-top adventure ground, which costs £18 for a small child to use.

What’s more, open spaces are increasingly being created within gated communities, where access is restricted to those who can pay to live there. An extreme example of this can be seen in the branded housing projects, which are providing most new open space in Istanbul – a city where only 1.5 per cent of the land is dedicated to public, green spaces.

Why privatise?

Part of the explanation for this trend is that local authorities are increasingly using existing public spaces to raise funds, by charging for events or leasing their spaces to companies. In many cases, cash-strapped authorities are suffering from public sector cuts, and trying to improve or maintain their open spaces by entering into deals with private organisations.

Kings Cross makeover comes at a price. Image: erase/Flickr/creative commons.

For instance, the UK government has introduced Business Improvement Districts, where local businesses pay a levy to secure extra developments or services in their area. But these arrangements have been criticised for prioritising commercial interests, rather than focusing on what will benefit the community.

Internationally, the public sector is under no obligation to provide public spaces, so in many cases, there’s no incentive for authorities to forgo opportunities to privatise them. What’s more, many local governments have realised that attractively designed and well-maintained spaces can help to attract investors and certain types of users (namely, people with spending power).

Exploring the options

Universities and public sector organisations around the North Sea are researching alternative approaches to privatisation, as part of a project called Making Places Profitable.

The Municipality of Emmen, in the Netherlands, experimented with a radical approach, giving power to the local people. Citizens were given responsibility for the management of public spaces, while local community councils were given budgetary controls, as well as the chance to test a locally-managed maintenance standard.

Open up, Unilever HQ. Image: miradortigre/flickr/creative commons.

And in Hamburg, the publicly-owned waterfront regeneration company – HafenCity GmbH – required Unilever to open up the ground floor of its new world headquarters to the public, as a condition for planning permission. These experimental approaches are still few and far between, and their long-term impacts are not yet clear.

Yet it’s vital for cities to find ways to preserve, manage and create new public spaces. For one thing, the physical and mental health benefits of using green open spaces are becoming ever more apparent to researchers. But perhaps more importantly, public spaces are the essence of a city. They are physical manifestations of the public sphere; places where different voices in society can be heard, and where people from all walks of life can meet – free of charge.The Conversation

Harry Smith is associate professor and director of planning and real estate at Heriot-Watt University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

What is to be done? Some modest suggestions on solving the NIMBY problem

Lovely, lovely houses. Image: Getty.

The thing about NIMBYism, right, is that there’s no downside to it. If you already own a decent size house, then the fact a city isn’t building enough homes to go round is probably no skin off your nose. Quite the opposite, in fact: you’ll actively benefit from higher house prices.

So it’s little wonder that campaigning against property development is a popular leisure activity among those looking forward to a long retirement (don’t Google it, it’ll only depress you). It’s sociable, it’s profitable, it only takes a few hours a week, and, best of all, it makes you feel righteous, like you’re doing something good. In those circumstances, who wouldn’t be a NIMBY?

To fight the scourge of NIMBYism, then, what we need to do is to rebalance the risks and rewards that its participants face. By increasing the costs of opposing new housebuilding, we can make sure that people only do it when said development is genuinely a horror worth fighting – rather than, say, something less than perfect that pops up a Tuesday afternoon when they don’t have much else on.

Here are some reasonable and sensible ideas for policies to make that happen.

A NIMBY licence, priced at, say, £150 a month. Anyone found practicing NIMBYism without a licence faces a fine of £5,000. Excellent revenue raiser for the Treasury.

Prison sentences for NIMBYs. Not all of them, obviously – we’re not barbarians – but if the planning process concludes that a development will be good for the community, then those who tried to prevent it should be seen as anti-social elements and treated accordingly.

A NIMBY lottery. All homeowners wishing to oppose a new development must enter their details into an official government lottery scheme. If their number comes up, then their house gets CPOed and redeveloped as flats. Turns NIMBYism into a form of Russian roulette, but with compulsory purchase orders instead of bullets.

This one is actually a huge range of different policies depending on what you make the odds. At one end of the scale, losing your house is pretty unlikely: you’d think twice, but you’re probably fine. At the other, basically everyone who opposes a scheme will lose their entire worldly wealth the moment it gets planning approval, so you’d have to be very, very sure it was bad before you even thought about sticking your head above the parapet. So the question is: do you feel lucky?


NIMBY shaming. There are tribal cultures where, when a member does something terrible, they never see them again. Never talk to them, never look at them, never acknowledge them in any way. To the tribe, this person is dead.

I’m just saying, it’s an option.

A NIMBY-specific bedroom tax. Oppose new housing development to your heart’s content, but be prepared to pay for any space you don’t need. I can’t think of any jokes here, now I’ve written it down I think this one’s genuinely quite sensible.

Capital punishment for NIMBYs. This one’s a bit on the extreme side, so to keep things reasonable it would only apply to those NIMBYs who believe in capital punishment for other sorts of crime. Fair’s far.

Pushing snails through their letter boxes. This probably won’t stop them, but it’d make me feel better. The snails, not so much.

Reformed property taxes, which tax increases in house prices, so discourage homeowners from treating them as effectively free money.

Sorry, I’m just being silly now, aren’t I?

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason.

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