“I think the thing that I love most about airports is the feeling of being slightly out of time”

An Aer Lingus flight in the skies above Dublin. Image: Getty.

‘Prodigal, what were your wanderings about?

The smoke of homecoming, the smoke of departure.’

 -Derek Walcott

I think the thing that I love most about airports is the feeling, always, of being stuck slightly out of time. I don’t mean “stuck” in the sense of time standing still, or in the world outside ceasing to be relevant. Rather, airports have always seemed just that bit outdated to me – with their linoleum floors and photochromic windows, their retractable barriers and airline-branded luggage tags. Everything feels so manual, so interactive; and in a world now so increasingly enamoured of filtered technologies and digital communication, it can sometimes be a relief to experience life without context. To celebrate “The Airport” in all its homogenous glory.

Case in point: as I write this I’m surrounded by the sort of 1980’s decadence that wouldn’t go amiss in an episode of ‘Dynasty’: Estée Lauder perfume stands, Johnny Walker gift boxes, Ralph Lauren summer yacht-wear, giant bars of Toblerone. Whilst at the other end of the departure lounge – and from a source seeming at once to emanate from everywhere and nowhere – a selection of 1950’s jazz is being pumped toward a queue of boarders who are squabbling about bag-size and finishing their drinks. There’s a Starbucks nearby and an airport bar called ‘The Kissing Gate’. The bar is filled with men of a certain age who seem perpetually slumped over brass rails and tables, over chipboard counters veneered in faux-mahogany and teak, and off to their left a group of teenagers are pooling their change and playing on fruit machines.

Out on the runway looks like it could be from a projected reel of Casablanca, if not for the baggage handlers in colourful fluorescent jackets or the Easyjet logo emblazoned on an otherwise monochrome background. From inside I can almost hear the cynical noir-ish patter of the hostesses disembarking the Ryanair craft nearest the window – cracking wise with “Mac” as he unspools a nozzle from the BP lorry, or laughing about the passenger who ordered the ham-and-cheese “poonannie”.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly where this sense of airport romanticism comes from. Even the ballache of going through security appeals to my sense of preparedness over everyone; where I’ll have my boots removed and my belt unbuckled, my laptop taken out of its bag and my phone transferred to the inside pocket of my jacket so that I don’t have to linger once I’m handed my plastic tray. Everyone else looks miserable and beleaguered. I feel like George Clooney in Up in the Air: “All the things you probably hate about travelling – the recycled air, the artificial lighting, the juice dispensers and cheap sushi – are warm reminders that I’m home.”

Perhaps it has something to do with the sense of communal loneliness that one experiences in an airport. Everywhere I look people are consumed by where they’ve come from or where they’re going to, and this leaves them looking as though they might not actually be here at all; sulking over pints or coffee cups, rifling through bags in a bid to feel active, browsing through bestsellers in the perma-bright WH Smith.

Back in my Liverpool flat, I’d never allow myself to feel this sort of loneliness lest it consume me. I never become excited for too long about the dispatches received from home because, unless I’m actually going home, they feel wasteful and sad; stark reminders that the majority of those I know and love are there, whilst I’m stuck here working shit jobs and struggling to pay the rent.

You can see some of that in the faces of other people in the airport and it can be comforting, I think, to experience this kind of loneliness together. The people here are like temporary ghosts in a well-designed purgatory. We exchange knowing glances and nods of the head, sometimes even exchanging pleasantries about how much penance we have left before our flight: Are you going back home? Will you bring some of that good weather back with you?

Because that’s ultimately what sustains our elation. The already familiar feeling – though we’re still only ten-deep from the attendant at the desk checking ID – that we’ll be home soon relaxing, or spending money in an exotic climate with a chilled bottle of Wolfblas and a pot of mussels for the table. Each flight seems new, a fresh start, and as I finger the spine on my own well-worn Irish passport – preparing it to open the second I reach the flight desk – I already feel like I’ve touched down on terra firma. I already know what I’m going to have for dinner.

*****

Back when I was younger and on a plane, I used to imagine myself stepping outside and off the wing so that I could get down to the clouds and walk on top of them like icy tundra. There were more shapes, it seemed, to be made above the clouds than below them – icebergs, weather stations, distant ships, research outposts – and for someone like me with a dreamy interest in the unexplored, I liked to think of myself as a Marco Polo figure traversing these airy landscapes and coming to rest only when I’d reached the far horizon. At times like these the sun would sink low in the sky until it had turned a smooth orange, the plane would tilt to one side so that the interior filled with ambient light, and often I’d be armed with an A5 legal pad so that I could document what I imagined was going on outside.

Not much has changed in this regard. Even if I’m only doing the half-hour commute from Liverpool to Dublin, there’s a delight in floating above the clouds and knowing that for the next short while I’ll be in suspended animation – with plastic beakers and flavourless gins, microwaveable paninis and vacuum-packed tubes of Pringles.

These are the things about a flight that elicit a kind of peacefulness in me. It’s almost as if being above everybody, in the literal sense, can reveal new vantages from which I can view my life objectively, and these small comforts – delivered to my tray table to make me forget that I’m thousands of feet off the ground – are the mechanisms by which I can achieve this objectivity without being spooked by the surrealness of flying.

Because flying enacts a sort of rebirth every time we experience it. There’s something about being on a plane and mentally staving off the inevitability of disaster that can make a person focussed and sometimes even relaxed.

*****

Of course, there are times when flying – and in particular, flight preparation – can be extremely frustrating. If you’ve ever had a flight cancelled for example, or been stuck in an airport for more than, say, seven hours, you’ll know that the surrounding combination of bland kitsch, overpriced food and distant chattering over the intercom can become infuriating.

Within the space of a month I had to negotiate two of these sorts of flying experiences to two different destinations within the British Isles. The first was a flight from Manchester to Shannon in the West of Ireland, which – having never experienced the joy of having to find my way through Manchester Airport’s labyrinthine structure before – I found to be an absolute nightmare.

First was the issue of getting my dog to the minder’s house at 7:30 in the morning with no car. Then getting the bus into Liverpool city centre with enough time to make the 9:00 National Express to Manchester Airport. Then the arrival there and negotiating not one, not two, but three terminals before I found my way to Security where there was a massive line snaking back towards Check-In.

It was a phenomenally hot day and there was no air in the terminal, and with dozens of bodies lurching back and forth in an effort to get to the front, all I could smell was the sickly-sweet combination of hundreds of people in preparation for flight: sunblock, cider, stale cigarette smoke, B.O., a whisper of soap, a half-eaten sandwich that somebody left in their bag.

Dublin Airport. Image: Getty.

Then there were the staff, who looked bored and uninterested, herding us along and making wry barely audible comments about their slow, uncooperative charges. Tuts, swearing, the sound of a toddler screaming, stressed parents using their double-buggies as battering rams to get through to Fast-Check, old people, couples kissing, deflated looking stag parties perspiring through their matching polo shirts. It was almost as if everyone here was a deliberate prop sent to aggravate my frustration.

If hell was eternal, then this queue felt like the closest approximation of it. No amount of preparedness or romanticism in that scenario could’ve made me forgive George Clooney’s lie in Up in the Air. This wasn’t easy, this was having every item of luggage that I’d brought swabbed because I’d forgotten to remove a half-drunk bottle of Lucozade from my bag. This was having to remove my shoes and being dried out from that Bacon Double Cheese that I’d eaten on the bus.

The second bad experience came about two weeks after the first. I’d been at home in Ireland catching up with my brother – who also lives abroad – and was due to fly back to Liverpool after a weekend of family activity. I was still hungover as I dragged myself onto the bus from Newry to Aldergrove, checked in through security, buy myself a copy of The Irish News, then wait for another hour until my flight to Liverpool was called.

So I waited. And waited. And waited. Until ten minutes had finally passed since my original boarding time, and I got up to check the board again and I saw what nobody ever expects to see during such times. That big red blip in a sea of pixelated green. My 16:30 flight from Belfast International to Liverpool had been cancelled because of “staff shortages”, and I now had to spend another five hours in the airport before Easyjet could arrange for me to get on another flight.

*****

Now it’s July, and I’m touching down again on the tarmac at Dublin airport – flying home, as I often do, to fill my camel-hump with its monthly dose of TLC from my family and friends. Where I’m from in Newry is about halfway between Belfast and Dublin, and depending on the affordability of each flight, my flying home to either is often interchangeable.

It’s evening – which is my favourite time to fly – and I can almost feel the wheels of the plane being deployed beneath me; the aircraft drawing closer to the ground, and our movement toward the runway, the terminal, the hangar, Arrivals. There is now a palpable change of mood in the air and certain pockets of the craft have broken out into laughter.

Call it collective relief, call it renewed optimism, call it coming home. Whatever it is about landing here things just feel different, and for the hundred or so other Irish voices surrounding me on the plane, there is a lightness and joviality among us which feels akin to a pressure cooker’s lid being lifted off.

All being well, in roughly fifteen minutes I’ll step off the plane into an unusually icy July evening in Dublin. It’ll come as a relief to feel the recirculated air, the fart-smell and B.O. get blown away by the cold. I’ll take a moment for the flashing red lights on the air-traffic-control tower, breathe in the diesel and salt-water saturated air, deploy the handle on the wheelie bag that I’ve borrowed from my girlfriend, and make my way to Arrivals where my dad will be waiting to greet me with a hug.

We’ll take an interminably long time trying to figure out where he’s parked, then we’ll pay for our time at short-stay and leave, possibly stopping for a McFlurry at the drive-in McDonald’s across from the airport Radisson, possibly waiting until we get to an Apple Green on the M1 going home. All of this will feel like the warm settling in of a good dream, and all of the home comforts I receive over the next few days will be bookended by periods spent lingering at the airport.

When I wake from this dream again it’ll be days later and I’ll be back to where I started. When I come back to reality I’ll be back here at the airport.

 
 
 
 

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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