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Meanwhile, in London, an old adventure playground in Battersea Park has been replaced by an ordinary swings and slides park, and a new “Go Ape” tree-top adventure ground, which costs £18 for a small child to use.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

 
 
 
 

CityMetric is now City Monitor! Come see us at our new home

City Monitor is now live in beta at citymonitor.ai.

CityMetric is now City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications from New Statesman Media Group. Our new site is now live in beta, so please visit us there going forward. Here’s what CityMetric readers should know about this exciting transition.  

Regular CityMetric readers may have already noticed a few changes around here since the spring. CityMetric’s beloved founding editor, Jonn Elledge, has moved on to some new adventures, and a new team has formed to take the site into the future. It’s led by yours truly – I’m Sommer Mathis, the editor-in-chief of City Monitor. Hello!

My background includes having served as the founding editor of CityLab, editor-in-chief of Atlas Obscura, and editor-in-chief of DCist, a local news publication in the District of Columbia. I’ve been reporting on and writing about cities in one way or another for the past 15 years. To me, there is no more important story in the world right now than how cities are changing and adapting to an increasingly challenging global landscape. The majority of the world’s population lives in cities, and if we’re ever going to be able to tackle the most pressing issues currently facing our planet – the climate emergency, rising inequality, the Covid-19 pandemic ­­­– cities are going to have to lead the way.

That’s why City Monitor is now a global publication dedicated to the future of cities everywhere – not just in the UK (nor for that matter just in the US, where I live). Our mission is to help our readers, many of whom are in leadership positions around the globe, navigate how cities are changing and discover what’s next in the world of urban policy. We’ll do that through original reporting, expert opinion and most crucially, a data-driven approach that emphasises evidence and rigorous analysis. We want to arm local decision-makers and those they work in concert with – whether that’s elected officials, bureaucratic leaders, policy advocates, neighbourhood activists, academics and researchers, entrepreneurs, or plain-old engaged citizens – with real insights and potential answers to tough problems. Subjects we cover include transportation, infrastructure, housing, urban design, public safety, the environment, the economy, and much more.

The City Monitor team is made up of some of the most experienced urban policy journalists in the world. Our managing editor is Adam Sneed, also a CityLab alum where he served as a senior associate editor. Before that he was a technology reporter at Politico. Allison Arieff is City Monitor’s senior editor. She was previously editorial director of the urban planning and policy think tank SPUR, as well as a contributing columnist for The New York Times. Staff writer Jake Blumgart most recently covered development, housing and politics for WHYY, the local public radio station in Philadelphia. And our data reporter is Alexandra Kanik, whose previous roles include data reporting for Louisville Public Media in Kentucky and PublicSource in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Our team will continue to grow in the coming weeks, and we’ll also be collaborating closely with our editorial colleagues across New Statesman Media Group. In fact, we’re launching a whole network of new publications, covering topics such as the clean energy transition, foreign direct investment, technology, banks and more. Many of these sectors will frequently overlap with our cities coverage, and a key part of our plan is make the most of the expertise that all of these newsrooms combined will bring to bear on our journalism.

Please visit citymonitor.ai going forward, where you can also sign up for our free email newsletter.


As for CityMetric, some of its archives have already been moved over to the new website, and the rest will follow not long after. If you’re looking for a favourite piece from CityMetric’s past, for a time you’ll still be able to find it here, but before long the whole archive will move over to City Monitor.

On behalf of the City Monitor team, I’m thrilled to invite you to come along for the ride at our new digs. You can follow City Monitor on LinkedIn and on Twitter. If you’re interested in learning more about the potential for a commercial partnership with City Monitor, please get in touch with our director of partnerships, Joe Maughan.

I want to thank and congratulate Jonn Elledge on a brilliant run. Everything we do from here on out will be building on the legacy of his work, and the community that he built here at CityMetric. Cheers, Jonn!

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Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.