London’s creeping crisis: The pseudo-public space

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London is facing a secret crisis, a crisis neither the public nor the authorities know about, and the ones who do are powerless to do anything about it. This crisis is the privatisation of our public spaces. Squares, streets, malls, markets and parks have been vended off to private firms with catastrophic consequences for the social and democratic health of the city. What is more, this trend is spreading, with the tentacles of multinational corporations tightening their grip on numerous cities from Bristol to Manchester.

Cabot Square in Canary Wharf, a notorious pseudo-public space
Roots of space privatisation

With UK cities now facing the full force of austerity and budget cuts, local councils no longer have the finance to invest in costly redevelopment projects. Councils are instead outsourcing these projects to private firms and multinational corporations that promise a façade of regeneration whilst concealing the fact that these companies have ownership over the land on which the projects are built. Furthermore, local councils are also facing great political pressure to sell off derelict or unused public spaces in valuable areas such as the CBD, for many serve little economic purpose and are a drain to the city’s space and resources. Many would argue these places are missing out on huge opportunities for investment and redevelopment, which can be considered a very regressive form of urban management.

The haunting reality
The area surrounding London City hall has also been privatised

If you judge space privatisation on the basis of the appearance of pseudo-public areas, you may be largely in favour of it, for many privately owned places are generally well maintained and attractive to look at. For example, One Canada Square in Canary Wharf used to be a neglected dockland but is now transformed into a clean, safe financial centre; or Cabot Circus in Bristol: what used to be unused land in a desirable location has been rebuilt into gleaming rows of exclusive shops. This maintenance or glamorising of spaces can take place as private firms have the finance and initiative to do so, such as to create a pleasant working experience for office workers in Canary Wharf or to allow for a pleasurable shopping experience in Cabot Circus. However, beneath the superficial masquerade of beauty, these spaces are both a danger to our democracy and the health of our society.

A city ruled by companies

As our cities are transformed into a corporate playground for executives and CEOs to battle for higher profits, we, the people, are becoming increasingly powerless to do anything to stop them. For if we are disapproving of our local councils, we can easily outvote them in the next election, however, this is not the case regarding Privately-Owned Public Spaces (POPS). The public has no say in who becomes the CEO of a company or how these pseudo-public places are run. Furthermore, the public is also powerless to hold executives accountable when they partake in potentially immoral practices. The lack of accountability gives corporate bosses a disturbing amount of power, which is regularly abused.

Cabot Circus is one of the largest redevelopment projects in Bristol, however, this also meant a huge area of public space was also privatised

Private firms, by having ownership over public spaces, have been outsourcing policing to enforce “Public Space Protection Orders” or PSPOs. These PSPOs give firms the power to criminalise behaviour that isn’t usually considered criminal, such as protesting, begging and street performances. King’s Cross Estate, a redeveloped dock area in London, has been known to prohibit people from taking photographs and dispersing large congregations of people. These PSPOs allows firms to discriminate against minorities and the poor by restricting their behaviour and even refusing access to some of these “public” spaces; firms have the power to populate their spaces with only people they find desirable. PSPOs have also been used to inhibit demonstrations and protests, restricting our freedom of speech and right to protest, censoring information that firms do not want us to know and marginalising minorities that firms do not deem desirable.

St. Paul’s Cathedral is one of the few public spaces in the City of London that has not yet been privatised

What is so disturbing about PSPOs is the utter lack of transparency. Unlike our national laws, where they are widely available and transparent, PSPOs cannot be as easily accessed, with it being private information. This means if you walk into a pseudo-public space, you will have no idea what you are able and not able to do, allowing for exploitative fines to be placed upon unsuspecting citizens. Many of these fines do not go to the council, but into the pockets of private firms. The opacity of information also prevents government oversight and the enables the rampant abuse of power we’ve seen in so many of these areas.

Reversing the rule of corporations
Sao Paulo in Brazil has been able to resist the tide of privatisation

Once space has been privatised, it is incredibly hard for a local council to reclaim it as a public area, primarily due to firms being reluctant to sell off their redevelopment investment. It is because of this that local authorities ensure that public spaces are not privatised in the first place, and this is where we should look. It is rather ironic that cities in LEDCs have been able to champion the urges of selling off public spaces, whereas richer nations continually succumb to the will of the corporate conglomerates. In Sao Paulo, Brazil, local authorities have organised volunteers to look after and maintain public squares and parks, so the allure of fascistically clean privatised space appears less needed. Furthermore, protesters also stage “mass trespasses” of privately owned public areas, and because they are doing this in large numbers, security guards are powerless to stop or punish them, momentarily reclaiming the space for the public. Even in London, sensing the trend of privatisation, the Guardian has published a map of the pseudo-public spaces in Central London, forcing transparency of information upon firms who would usually wish to not disclose the insidious strings attached to their utopian “public” spaces.

Privatised public spaces aren’t always a force of evil, but when firms have been awarded such powers such as PSPOs, it does allow for repeated abuse of power. If redevelopment projects are to take place, it is important that governments still have oversight over the firms, ensuring that the rights of the citizens are protected.