Does it matter if ‘public’ space is privately owned?

There is a strong case for arguing that ownership matters less than the quality of such places, the access we have to them, and what we can do in them

Liverpool One, the Grosvenor-owned retail-led estate in central Liverpool. Well integrated into the city, this is a highly branded place, although its private nature is not immediately obvious.
Liverpool One, the Grosvenor-owned retail-led estate in central Liverpool. Well integrated into the city, this is a highly branded place, although its private nature is not immediately obvious.

Considerable disquiet over the issue of privately owned public space (often referred to as POPS) has been around for some time. Commentators including Will Self, Anna Minton and Bradley Garrett have drawn attention to the erosion of citizen rights in such ‘quasi-public’ urban spaces, where the private owners appear to call the shots. The Guardian, too, has recorded its concern. These voices draw attention to the consequences of private ownership, in that the legal owner of an urban space has the same rights as any property owner – and if they do not want activities such as protest, skateboarding, gathering of signatures, evangelising or sleeping taking place there, they can simply ban them. This can be problematic when citizens do not know they are on private property, and have their expectations thwarted when told they may not, to use other examples, take photographs or gather in groups.

This is a serious and very present issue. Private ownership of publicly accessible space is not new; it is especially embedded into urban life in North America, and the phenomenon may well accelerate. Large, complex regeneration projects are often a matter of some sort of public-private partnership. Developers will understandably be keen to look after their assets, while local authorities will often queue up for the investment.

The Guardian and its contributors are right to be concerned, though, when the inhabitants of, and visitors to, the city feel they cannot exercise the freedoms they expect – especially when they have walked inadvertently from a zone of public ownership to one of private control. Cities, after all, are almost synonymous with diversity, freedom of expression and encountering the unexpected. However, the critiques can be shrill and partial, missing much of the nuance that weaves through the subject.

Concern has focused on the perceived ‘privatisation of public space’. However, some of those worried about such a shift do not appreciate that many spaces (such as London’s King's Cross and Liverpool’s Albert Dock) were privately owned in the first place; the only change, apart from redevelopment, has been the granting of public access. This important debate must avoid the polarity of public = good and private = bad. Any meaningful investigation into the role and nature of POPS would benefit by embracing concepts of ownership, belonging, safety, expectation and access.

Publicly owned spaces have rules and restrictions too. Without them, public places become insecure, unsociable spaces unusable by the majority. Indeed, many spaces within public ownership are of such poor quality that they give public space a bad name. Many publicly owned spaces – our assemblies and other corridors of power – are highly restricted in terms of access, as are schools. The issue is not helped by diverse opinions as to what constitutes public space anyway. Is a space public only when under public ownership? Public space surely goes beyond outdoor civic squares and streets; publicly accessible spaces include interiors such as museums, galleries, theatres, cafés, cathedrals, railway stations, airport terminals and supermarkets. Many of these publicly accessible facilities are privately provided; some of them provide public amenities not otherwise available; some are open 24 hours a day; some are designed to a higher standard than is possible through public funds.

Ownership, too, requires definition. The citizen may not own the land, but might feel a rightful sense of ownership – that a piece of territory is our land. Consider the heritage site. UNESCO’s website is explicit: ‘World Heritage sites belong to all the peoples of the world, irrespective of the territory on which they are located.’ We are all stakeholders, owners even, of spaces as diverse as the Great Wall of China and the City of Venice. Thus there is an entirely different interpretation of a public space, based not around property ownership but around ideas of cultural identity. This, too, is problematic. Liverpudlians might be rightfully proud of their city’s architectural heritage, and the iconic status of the Liver Building; but that building is in private hands, and they will only rarely, if ever, be permitted to enter it.

Castle Park, central Bristol. Publicly owned spaces have rules and restrictions too.
Castle Park, central Bristol. Publicly owned spaces have rules and restrictions too.

Ownership embodies a number of facets. There is literal ownership (‘it’s legally mine’). There is a sense of belonging (‘I identify with this place, and feel comfortable here’). There is control (‘I can make rules, even if I don’t own the land’). No property owner can do as they please.

Might public space be defined as a space used by the public? Private wifi-enabled cafés function as third party lounges, facilitating social gatherings and informal alternatives to the workplace. Social media complements physical space for political activism. High street coffee chains are more accessible and less restrictive than other interiors, such as museums and galleries. Which begs the question: can a place be truly public if there is an entrance fee? Is a cinema a public building? A supermarket? A car park? None of these examples would last very long if members of the public ceased to use them. The right to enter these spaces is implied; indeed, the building is designed to explicitly invite people to enter.

The definition of ‘public space’, then, is not at all clear; it might be defined in terms of ownership, or access, or even by use. But it is important to define it – with access to space goes an expectation of behaviour. Where can we protest, collect signatures, campaign, and the like? Who should decide – the owner or the state? Should the owners of a shopping mall have the same, or fewer, rights over their land than owners of an individual house? Perhaps land ownership, when it reaches a certain scale and degree of public access, should be accompanied by certain guarantees of citizen rights.

Some observers are critical of a perceived loss of public space and its replacement with a polished, exclusive, high surveillance, bubble of homogenous corporatism in which the middle class can exercise its rights as consumer-citizens. On the other hand, the private sector responds to the need for regeneration in such a way that once low quality and/or post-industrial spaces have become both attractive and accessible. UCL’s Matthew Carmona has argued strongly that how spaces are managed, rather than who manages them, is the key. And the ‘how’ of managing public space is actually a relatively simple matter. As the terms of any development are negotiated, there is nothing to stop a local authority from insisting that any development is governed by covenants and conditions favourable to the public. Carmona also argues that if all spaces were designed to appeal to everyone at all times, they might appeal to nobody. There are surely many publics, each with different needs.

These important and contested issues are a consequence of shifting social and economic patterns playing out across public and private domains. Globalisation, branding of cities, decline of the traditional high street, pressure on public finances, changing attitudes towards leisure and many other factors are forcing society to think about what public space is for and whom it serves. The subject is not as simple as some would like to think. Cities have always been a patchwork of changing ownership models; the extent of public access and interaction has always been one of negotiation within shifting behavioural norms, cultural and legal codes and measures of expectation. The question of what constitutes public space in the 21st century city is a pressing one.

How might the architecture profession respond? For a start, architects would do well to consider that ‘public space’ is internal, as well as external (and that behavioural codes and expectations undergo a profound shift when moving from outside to inside – in western cultures anyway). That public space is not necessarily civic space. That it may be appropriate to make legible, in design terms, any shift in legal ownership; alternatively, that such legibility may be entirely inappropriate if the overall intention is to create a sense of integration and continuity with the wider context. This requires a deep and honest conversation with the client, who might trash a beautifully integrated scheme with thoughtless restrictions or over-zealous security measures.

In the USA, critiques of POPS have often focused on the shopping mall. But malls are no longer strictly interior spaces; they are becoming exterior, integrated with the wider street pattern. The boundary between the city and the mall is not always visible. Should it be visible? If designed as a seamless piece of urbanism, such projects need to embody a consistency which spans design and estate management. To do this, it is incumbent upon all those implicated in the provision of public space to develop a shared understanding of the complexity and nuance which lie behind the simple terms public and private.

David Littlefield and Mike Devereux are senior lecturers in the Department of Architecture and the Built Environment at the University of the West of England, Bristol. They are co-directors of a masters degree in design and place.