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Meanwhile, in London, an old adventure playground in Battersea Park has been replaced by an ordinary swings and slides park, and a new “Go Ape” tree-top adventure ground, which costs £18 for a small child to use.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

 
 
 
 

Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.


Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.