When oppressive governments want to destroy civil society, they destroy public spaces

Egyptians gather in Tahrir Square, Cairo, in 2015. Image: Getty.

If you happen to visit Egypt and find yourself in the famous Tahrir Square, you might be puzzled: how could this space accommodate two million protesters?

In fact, the square looked different at the time of the Arab Spring – up until the new military government ringed its central part with an iron fence. A similar transformation happened with the Pearl roundabout in the capital of Bahrain where demonstrators used to gather – It was turned into a traffic junction. In my hometown, Moscow, the square where millions called for the end of Soviet rule in 1991 now houses an hideous shopping mall.

For a pro-liberty movement to raise its head, Twitter is not enough: face-to-face contact is crucial. That is why when oppressive governments want to destroy civil society, they destroy public spaces. Street markets, green squares and lively parks (think of the iconic Hyde Park corner) are places where citizens meet, negotiate and slowly learn to trust each other.

Joseph Stalin knew it well, hence he made sure that city dwellers had no public spaces to socialise in. The results were devastating: chronic mistrust that post-communist societies are yet to overcome. Today, 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the levels of social capital in Dresden and Leipzig are still lower than in Munich and Hamburg, which bears its economic as well as political costs.

One study shows that residents living in walkable neighbourhoods exhibit at least 80 per cent greater levels of social capital than those living in car-dependent ones. That is something to consider, given that only a half of Brits know their neighbour’s name. The economic benefits are also clear: improved walking infrastructure can increase retail sales by 30 per cent. London has witnessed it on Oxford Street where the creation of a Tokyo-style pedestrian crossing led to a 25 per cent increase in turnover in the adjacent stores.

In the 20th century, the world has fallen in and out of love with urban utopias. Le Corbusier’s “Radiant City” with its enormous avenues and gigantic block houses is probably the most famous (or infamous) proposal – look for gloomy pictures to get an impression on how Paris would look like if his ideas were put to practice (or just imagine Barbican extended to the size of a city). American journalist and one of the founders of modern urban studies, Jane Jacobs, challenged these ideas in “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” while praising spontaneous order in urban development.

What was common for the socialist urban projects? They glorified the automobile as a means of transportation. In contrast, the most appealing examples Jacobs presented in her book were all neighbourhoods with intense pedestrian flow. Besides boosting community life and helping cities to prosper, she argues, walkable cities are also safer ones. More pedestrians means more “eyes on the streets”, which lowers the need for police surveillance (Britain has almost 6m CCTVs, one for every 11 people).

That’s all fine, but who pays? It’s true that large-scale urban redevelopment projects can be very expensive. However, engaging with private capital has proven to be a viable strategyboth in and outside of the UK.

One inspirational example comes from right across the Channel. In Rotterdam, local architects proposed a pedestrian bridge that would link two parts of the city separated by a railroad. When the local government refused to fund it, they launched a public crowdfunding campaign and raised enough money to complete the project. This is a perfect example of how social capital can bridge aspirations and reality — sometimes even literally.


Many citizens are sceptical about large-scale urban projects, and for a reason: the most ambitious of them are being implemented in a top-down-way. Take Barcelona’s car-free ”superblocks” or Paris' mayor’s pledge to halve the number of private cars: both faced strong opposition from residents.

Back in the sixties, Jacobs warned against one-size-fits all solutions. In one of her public speeches she pointed to the corner grocery store as a sign of commercial diversity in a city – and soon began to receive projects where planners literally allocated slots for corner grocery stores. Such “patronising conception”, she argues, is not something a modern city needs.

Of course, there will always be NIMBYs opposing any changes to the city landscape, but YIMBY is the new black. Few years ago, when I was serving as an elected official in Moscow, I was the only outspoken YIMBY in my district. Once at the public hearings I was even accused of being bribed by the developer – just because I supported a private park project.

Here, once again, we face the problem of trust, and it is hard to blame people for being distrustful when social ties are so weak. This vicious circle – no public spaces so no social capital, no social capital so no public spaces – should be finally broken.

Vera Kichanova is a recipient of the John Blundell Studentship. She was the first Russian libertarian to be elected to public office and is currently working on her doctoral dissertation on market urbanism at King's College London.

This article was first published on the Adam Smith Institute blog, and appears here with permission.

 
 
 
 

“Every twitch, breath or thought necessitates a contactless tap”: on the rise of the chain conffeeshop as public space

Mmmm caffeine. Image: Getty.

If you visit Granary Square in Kings Cross or the more recent neighbouring development, Coal Drops Yard, you will find all the makings of a public space: office-workers munching on their lunch-break sandwiches, exuberant toddlers dancing in fountains and the expected spread of tourists.

But the reality is positively Truman Show-esque. These are just a couple examples of privately owned public spaces, or “POPS”,  which – in spite of their deceptively endearing name – are insidiously changing our city’s landscape right beneath us.

The fear is that it is often difficult to know when you are in one, and what that means for your rights. But as well as those places the private sector pretends to be public space, the inverse is equally common, and somewhat less discussed. Often citizens, use clearly private amenities like they are public. And this is never more prevalent than in the case of big-chain coffeeshops.

It goes without saying that London is expensive: often it feels like every twitch, breath or thought necessitates a contactless tap. This is where Starbucks, Pret and Costa come in. Many of us find an alternative in freeloading off their services: a place to sit, free wifi when your data is low, or an easily accessible toilet when you are about in the city. It feels like a passive-aggressive middle-finger to the hole in my pocket, only made possible by the sheer size of these companies, which allows us to go about unnoticed. Like a feature on a trail map, it’s not just that they function as public spaces, but are almost universally recognised as such, peppering our cityscapes like churches or parks.

Shouldn’t these services really be provided by the council, you may cry? Well ideally, yes – but also no, as they are not under legal obligation to do so and in an era of austerity politics, what do you really expect? UK-wide, there has been a 13 per cent drop in the number of public toilets between 2010 and 2018; the London boroughs of Wandsworth and Bromley no longer offer any public conveniences.  


For the vast majority of us, though, this will be at most a nuisance, as it is not so much a matter of if but rather when we will have access to the amenities we need. Architectural historian Ian Borden has made the point that we are free citizens in so far as we shop or work. Call it urban hell or retail heaven, but the fact is that most of us do regularly both of these things, and will cope without public spaces on a day to day. But what about those people who don’t?

It is worth asking exactly what public spaces are meant to be. Supposedly they are inclusive areas that are free and accessible to all. They should be a place you want to be, when you have nowhere else to be. A space for relaxation, to build a community or even to be alone.

So, there's an issue: it's that big-chain cafes rarely meet this criterion. Their recent implementation of codes on bathroom doors is a gentle reminder that not all are welcome, only those that can pay or at least, look as if they could. Employees are then given the power to decide who can freeload and who to turn away. 

This is all too familiar, akin to the hostile architecture implemented in many of our London boroughs. From armrests on benches to spikes on windowsills, a message is sent that you are welcome, just so long as you don’t need to be there. This amounts to nothing less than social exclusion and segregation, and it is homeless people that end up caught in this crossfire.

Between the ‘POPS’ and the coffee shops, we are squeezed further by an ever-growing private sector and a public sector in decline. Gentrification is not just about flat-whites, elaborate facial hair and fixed-gear bikes: it’s also about privatisation and monopolies. Just because something swims like a duck and quacks like a duck that doesn’t mean it is a duck. The same can be said of our public spaces.