Privatisation of public space
Privately owned public spaces, also known as POPS, or sometimes ‘pseudo spaces’ have sharply increased in numbers and size across the UK since the start of the century, especially in London.
The exact number of POPS is difficult to determine given that most local authorities are not diligently recording details of these sites and have been reluctant, alongside the landowners, to disclose information regarding the nature of their ownership and on what terms the public is entitled to use their land.
Figure 1: Location of privately owned public spaces in central London
Source: The Guardian
POPs have been appearing in other cities across the UK too. The 34 streets that make up Liverpool One are owned by the Grosvenor Group and the new NOMA neighbourhood in Manchester, which is currently under construction, will include two pseudo public spaces.
The pace of change is set to continue in London since “virtually all large developments under way or planned contain some form of privately-owned public spaces” and other UK cities are likely to follow suit if local authorities struggle with the costs associated in taking care of the development, maintenance and policing of public places.
Privately-owned public space does not necessarily mean that it is owned by profit-making enterprises. Such spaces could also be owned by non-profit organisations and charities, such as the Bankside Open Spaces Trust, which aims to make green spaces more accessible and foster community engagement.
These private or non-profit owners can often deliver higher-quality developments, which are modern, stylish, safer and well kept.
However, the public, mainly unaware of the restrictions imposed upon them in using certain POPS due to lack of signage and inconsistent rules, have created some tensions. For example, East Village has stipulated that permission is sought for any photography or filming on its land; journalist activity is banned without corporate permission around City Hall; and in 2011, Occupy protesters were removed from Paternoster Square.
The recent media coverage and concerns about living in an era of urban enclosure has prompted government response. The London Mayor, Sadiq Khan, has stated that he will develop a ‘Public London Charter’ which will set out the rights and responsibilities for the users, owners and managers of public spaces.
However, we speculate that the future of public spaces in UK cities will move inexorably in the direction of POPS. True public space could therefore become more the exception, yet, given its highly regarded status, will remain a large and fundamental part of our cities in 2040. The ways in which POPS are regulated, however, seems likely to change in the coming years so that access is maximised and restrictions are minimised. A balance will need to be struck between the rights of landowners to promote and protect their investments and the expectations of citizens that, in a city, an open space is a public space.