The Blurring of Public/ Private Spaces

A subtle shift in the ownership and management of urban spaces will change forever where we can go - and what we can do - 'in public'.

A subtle shift in the ownership and management of urban spaces that will change forever where we can go – and what we can do – ‘in public’.

As the trend for blurring the boundaries between what is a public and private space increases, it will inevitably shape people's relationship with the 'public realm' within our growing cities.

What we said in 2016

“A Privately Owned Public Space means that, while it may be accessible, any member of the public using or passing through it must adhere to rules of behaviour (public access agreements) set out by the landowner… however, the general public might not appreciate this, and may still think of much of their urban space as publicly owned.”

“For many local authorities, asking the public to adhere to a few rules is a small price to pay for a lovely new or redeveloped area.“

“Even Boris Johnson has admitted that where this type of 'corporatisation' occurs, especially in the larger commercial developments, Londoners can feel themselves excluded from parts of their own city."

Looking back

When we first came across the concept of Privately Owned Public Spaces, it was a fringe topic of concern to urban geography geeks and those for whom the more obscure public access regulations were of niche interest.

Three years on, Privately Owned Public Spaces have become a topic not only related to the conditional access of what people believe should be ‘the public realm’, but also as a restriction of personal freedoms via corporations’ use of private security forces to impose control over individuals’ behaviour and choices.

And as the issue has forced its way into mainstream consciousness, it has gained a new name: Pseudo-Public Spaces.

Where we are now

The influence of Pseudo-Public Spaces on our daily lives has gone largely unnoticed: a silent, secret force at work in the heart of our cities.

Indeed, the ground we walk on could be an unseen trap waiting for us to unwittingly commit what in every other walk of life would be considered perfectly reasonable behaviour - walking your dog, riding your bicycle, wearing a hat, pulling up the hood of your coat or taking a quick selfie with the kids.

Austerity-hit local authorities are increasingly happy to abdicate the costs incurred in creating and maintaining ‘public space’ to private developers, whose own rules for ‘acceptable behaviour’ are open to frequent change and - like access to their land - are not required to be made public.

Beyond attempts to control behaviour, some see the wilful blurring of private land and public realm as an attempt to stifle personal expression, prevent people from gathering peacefully or quash potential protests.

Whilst private investment in - and management of - the spaces we share ensures their aesthetic contribution to the city landscape, an increasing number of commentators see it as too high a price to pay.

What's changing?

In the last couple of years, Pseudo-Public space has gone from being a niche interest to become a key point of political focus, which could herald a significant change in the way Privately Owned Public Spaces are managed.

After several private land owners refused to reveal precisely what the public were allowed to do on their land, Jeremy Corbyn said: "We must reclaim our public spaces from the corporate interests who want to control them. Our country’s laws should govern public space, not secretive private rules."

Similarly, in the Mayor of London’s 2018 ‘London Plan’, Sadiq Khan sets down within the city’s development strategy rules limiting the control of private land-owners over what might reasonably be considered ‘Public Realm’: defined as ‘all the publicly-accessible space between buildings, whether public or privately owned…’. The London Plan also commits to the creation of a ‘Public London Charter’ which will set out the rights and responsibilities of the users, owners and managers of public spaces - irrespective of land ownership

The rules and restrictions on public access and behaviour covering all new or redeveloped public space will be in accordance with this Charter - and this requirement will be secured through legal agreement or planning conditions.

How the story has developed