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Meanwhile, in London, an old adventure playground in Battersea Park has been replaced by an ordinary swings and slides park, and a new “Go Ape” tree-top adventure ground, which costs £18 for a small child to use.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

 
 
 
 

Segregated playgrounds are just the start: inequality is built into the fabric of our cities

Yet more luxury flats. Image: Getty.

Developers in London have come under scrutiny for segregating people who live in social or affordable housing from residents who pay market rates. Prominent cases have included children from social housing being blocked from using a playground in a new development, and “poor doors” providing separate entrances for social housing residents.

Of course, segregation has long been a reality in cities around the world. For example, gated communities have been documented in the US cities since the 1970s, while racially segregated urban areas existed in South Africa under apartheid. Research by myself and other academics has shown that urban spaces which divide and exclude society’s poorer or more vulnerable citizens are still expanding rapidly, even replacing public provision of facilities and services – such as parks and playgrounds – in cities around the world.

Gated developments in Gurgaon, India, have created a patchwork of privatised services; elite developments in Hanoi, Vietnam, offer rich residents cleaner air; and luxury condos in Toronto, Canada, displace local residents in favour of foreign investors. An extreme example is the Eko Atlantic project in Nigeria – a private city being built in Lagos, where the majority of other residents face extreme levels of deprivation and poverty.

A commodity, or a right?

Although these developments come with their own unique context and characteristics, they all have one thing in common: they effectively segregate city dwellers. By providing the sorts of facilities and services which would normally be run by public authorities, but reserving them exclusively for certain residents, such developments threaten the wider public’s access to green spaces, decent housing, playgrounds and even safe sewage systems.

Access to basic services, which was once considered to be the right of all citizens, is at risk of becoming a commodity. Privatisation may start with minor services such as the landscaping or upkeep of neighbourhoods: for example, the maintenance of some new-build estates in the UK are being left to developers in return for a service charge. This might seem insignificant, but it introduces an unregulated cost for the residents.

Privatising the provision of municipal services may be seen by some as a way for wealthier residents to enjoy a better standard of living – as in Hanoi. But in the worst cases, it puts in a paywall in front of fundamental services such as sewage disposal – as happened in Gurgaon. In other words, privatisation may start with insignificant services and expand to more fundamental ones, creating greater segregation and inequality in cities.


A divided city

My own research on branded housing projects in Turkey has highlighted the drastic consequences of the gradual expansion of exclusive services and facilities through segregated developments. These private housing developments – known for their extensive use of branding – have sprung up in Istanbul and other Turkish cities over the past two decades, since the government began to favour a more neoliberal approach.

By 2014, there were more than 800 branded housing projects in Istanbul alone. They vary in scale from a single high-rise building to developments aiming to accommodate more than 20,000 residents. Today, this development type can be seen in every city in Turkey, from small towns to the largest metropolitan areas.

The branded housing projects are segregated by design, often featuring a single tower or an enclosing cluster of buildings, as well as walls and fences. They provide an extensive array of services and facilities exclusively for their residents, including parks, playgrounds, sports pitches, health clinics and landscaping.

Making the same services and facilities available within each project effectively prevents interaction between residents and people living outside of their development. What’s more, these projects often exist in neighbourhoods which lack publicly accessible open spaces such as parks and playgrounds.

This is a city-wide problem in Istanbul since the amount of publicly accessible green spaces in Istanbul is as low as 2.2 per cent of the total urban area. In London, 33 per cent of the city’s area is made up of parks and gardens open to the public – which shows the severity of the problem in Istanbul.

These branded housing projects do not feature any affordable units or social housing, so there are no opportunities for less privileged city-dwellers to enjoy vital facilities such as green spaces. This has knock-on effects on excluded residents’ mental and physical health, contributing to greater inequality in these respects, too.

Emerging alternatives

To prevent increasing inequality, exclusion and segregation in cities, fundamental urban services must be maintained or improved and kept in public ownership and made accessible for every city-dweller. There are emerging alternatives that show ways to do this and challenge privatisation policies.

For example, in some cities, local governments have “remunicipalised” key services, bringing them back into public ownership. A report by Dutch think-tank the Transnational Institute identified 235 cases where water supplies were remunicipalised across 37 countries between 2000 and 2015. The water remunicipalisation tracker keeps track of successful examples of remunicipalisation cases around the world, as well as ongoing campaigns.

It is vitally important to keep urban services public and reverse subtle forms or privatisation by focusing on delivering a decent standard of living for all residents. Local authorities need to be committed to this goal – but they must also receive adequate funds from local taxes and central governments. Only then, will quality services be available to all people living in cities.

The Conversation

Bilge Serin, Research Associate, University of Glasgow.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.