Public Space, Private Hands – It’s Time We Popped Out & Talked to Strangers

IMAGE: Public Space? Debatably. Private Space? Undoubtedly. – More London’s space around City Hall in London.*

With POPS (Privately Owned Public Spaces) popping up everywhere, our freedoms are at risk. But is retaining public ownership the complete solution? Are we actually acting publicly in the first place?

POPS (Privately Owned Public Spaces) are popping up everywhere in the UK (pun-intended). In London a 13-acre stretch of land outside the Mayor of London’s office, City Hall, on London’s Southbank is now owned by a Kuwaiti property company. While outside King’s Cross Station, an open space called Granary Square, that most people refer to as a ‘public’ space, is actually privately owned. The extent of these POPS in London can be seen in the map below, produced by Oliver Dawkins of CASA (as it was shown on The Guardian website).

POPS - Map of London
“The Pops Profiler, by Casa student Oliver Dawkins, shows privately owned public space in London’s Square Mile” from Garrett article in The Guardian (2015)

In the Guardian article that this map comes from, and much of the reason for this comment piece, the author Bradley Garrett argues very strongly against the rise of the POPS; seeing these as spaces where appearance of free public space is a lie and instead “the rights of citizens using them are severely hemmed in”. Garrett explores a contrast between 2 public spaces familiar to him; his home city, Los Angeles, where you can buy slivers of pavement as ad space, and the Vann Moyvann National Stadium in Cambodia, where hundreds of people use the stadium for laundry-drying and yoga. Garrett’s point is that the increasingly private western model of public space, is restricting the lives and activities of citizens, whereas in freer public spaces, people are able to use spaces for their own means in creative and unexpected ways.

The notion that the spaces where we experience and act-out public life are not public is worrying…

I very strongly agree with Garrett’s point. The notion that the spaces where we experience and act-out public life are not public is worrying. As Garrett rightly points out with the Occupy example, this has implications for the right to protest and the right to act publicly. Essentially the owners of a private space can appear to offer a calm and beautiful public space out of the kindness of their bank balances, but as soon as someone doesn’t tow the line, then this behaviour can be quickly adjusted. After all, if you are causing trouble in someone’s private space, then they have the right to ask you to leave right?

So this concern makes us turn to public spaces which are publicly owned, and champion these free spaces. Spaces where we can apparently be free citizens, free to protest, to move, and act how we want. It’s these spaces that Garrett is arguing for, and I too want to push for these spaces to be kept in public hands. However, I don’t quite hold the optimism that such public spaces are just there waiting either for us to raise awareness of them, or for private groups to buy them. Let me first take you to an experience that I had during my undergraduate studies in 2007.

We went to Liverpool with a map of Paris and wandered in the style of the flâneur of Paris in the 19th Century…

Part of my geography fieldwork I went to Liverpool for a week; one of my favourite cities in the UK. The study plan here was to take on a disruptive mode of enquiry, to try and experience the city without the usual tourist guides and prescribed experience of the ‘city of culture’. As such myself, and a group of five other students, went to Liverpool with a map of Paris and wandered in the style of the flâneur of Paris in the 19th Century. Why did we take a map of Paris? Well, in order to pick our routes around Liverpool we wanted chance encounters to dominate our decisions. We pretended that when we arrived in Liverpool that we were at the Eiffel Tower (actually we were in a Youth Hostel somewhere near the docks) and we chose our routes around the city from there. I recall that on the first day we were to go to the Pompidou Centre. We planned out a route on the map and then followed it – so if we had to take the second left, then that is what we would do. Then, while on these confused wanderings, we had randomly selected time intervals where we were to sit down and just let things happen around us while we noted the different activities that were going on. This would give us a chance to experience unexpected parts of the city in unexpected ways. We would sit down for maybe half an hour at a time.

This study took us to a number of peculiar places, as I am sure you can imagine. The first space where we had to sit and observe was just outside a metro station; as far as we were aware, a public space. So, feeling a little bit awkward, we all sat down and got out our notebooks. We were expecting it wouldn’t take long before people would show some interest and ask us what we were doing. But after 15 minutes sitting there, no one had spoken to us, just a lot of confused glances from commuters and tourists. Then we were approached by a couple of police officers.

Apparently sitting and making notes is too suspicious an activity to be doing in public…

I don’t imagine these officers were trying to be intimidating, they were just doing their job. But we were told, in a non-compromising and fairly unfriendly way, that we had to move on, no questions about it. Apparently sitting and making notes is too suspicious an activity to be doing in public. Of course, if we had just been asked what we were doing, we would quite happily have explained and allowed the officers to look through our bags and coats to see that we posed no threat to anyone’s ‘safety and security’.

We would soon realise that sitting outside the metro station, we six innocent (and fairly bored if we are honest) students were noticed on one of the thousands of CCTV cameras operating in public spaces in the UK. Given that we were not behaving as everyone else was – in other words we weren’t walking in or out of the station – we were seen as being suspicious, and thus deemed to be a nuisance that had to be moved on.

After moving on from the metro station, our next sitting down time-slot meant we had to sit on the pavement on a busy shopping street. All we were to do was sit in a circle and make notes on the activities of the people around us, just like at the metro station. We were very happy to talk to anyone who was interested. However, within a few minutes of sitting down, we got a strong sense that people were very annoyed by us sitting there, ‘forcing’ them to walk on the road to get around us. Now I can understand this feeling, and many of my friends who I have told about this since, have said that we must have been extremely irritating to people around us who were just going about their day to day lives.

Indeed, don’t we all get frustrated even when there is a slow couple walking in front of us on the high-street and we can’t get past them. So when there are six university students just sitting in the way, it must be really annoying. But the surprising thing that we found in the half an hour that we were sitting there, was that while people gave us lots of dirty looks, not one of them spoke to us or asked what we were doing. Not one person even asked us if we would move so that they could get past. Had we been asked to move for someone we would definitely have done so. Had someone have asked us what we were doing we would have been thrilled; that was the reason we were there after all. But there was silence.

In the public owned public space of the street in Liverpool, people were inconvenienced and irritated, but didn’t talk to those members of the public who were there in their way. The only interaction that we had was from state officials telling us to move on without room for discussion on the matter. The impression I get it that this interaction is likely to be the most common kind of interaction that we get with strangers in public spaces today.

I recently wrote a small comment piece on the government’s Public Space Protection Orders. The PSPOs have meant that when members of the public aren’t happy with the way that public spaces are being used (by youths on skateboards for example), they aren’t encouraged to talk to the offending party, but instead encouraged to covertly alert the local government, and without public consultation these ‘menaces’ can be removed. The publicly owned public spaces are becoming spaces where members of the public don’t talk or engage with one another (I guess stranger-danger applies to everyone we see), but instead report on anyone they want from the privacy of their homes.

The publicly owned public spaces are becoming spaces where members of the public don’t talk or engage with one another…

The idea of a publicly owned public space is very appealing in Garrett’s article. The example from Cambodia is really encouraging. However, how many of our actually public owned spaces are ever used like this? Many of our parks are empty with rusting play equipment throughout the week, and in the usual inclement weather there is only a few brave dog-walkers hurrying around the edges after work. Only on the rare sunny weekend do they fill-up with people having picnics and playing games with their friends and family (the one’s who they share their private spaces with the rest of the time).  However on these occasions we must admit, rarely is there any interaction between strangers who are sat right next to each other on these sunny days – despite the likelihood they are very similar to each other.

A space being public is more than just a space owned by a public institution…

A space being public is more than just a space owned by a public institution. For a space to be public, people in them need to act publicly; engaging with each other, meeting strangers, and creating new worlds between them. The more we are being vigilant against suspicious activity, and see every stranger as a danger, the less we are going to talk to each other and actually be public in public space. We have started acting like private individuals in public space. Who can be surprised then that public spaces are beginning to be owned by private companies?

I agree with Garrett that we should be protecting the spaces that we have for public use. However, I feel that the greatest challenge is to engage with each other, no matter how uncomfortable it is, on a regular basis; we need to act publicly. A stranger is a friend we haven’t met. The family sitting next to us in the park on a hot day, aren’t just a restriction on where we lay our picnic rug, but are potential friends and support in the unknown futures that lie ahead of us. People acting differently on public transport, or in the street, aren’t suspicious, they are intriguing, and we should ask them what they are doing. Youths skateboarding on the street aren’t a menace trying to disrupt our peace and quiet, but might be interesting young people whose ideas and thoughts can inform us on a lifestyle we might not yet understand.

So the challenge really must be seen as two-fold; protecting our public spaces from private ownership, and making our public spaces more public in the way we use them. It is correct to criticise the selling off of public spaces, but we must also be aware that our public owned spaces are also restrictive in ways that need to be challenged. We must start acting together, speaking with strangers and creating relationships that make us ‘the public’. Together communities can raise awareness of their public spaces, together they can highlight risks of POPS, together they can challenge restrictive state measures such as PSPOs, and together start to use public spaces in ways that make it unimaginable to be a private space. I see this as a huge challenge to each of us, as it means going against all of our ‘British’ sensibilities, and talking to strangers. Good luck! Maybe we will meet somewhere soon.

Author: Julian Shaw (Published 10th August 2015)


Top image credit: Image was found at http://www.e-architect.co.uk/images/jpgs/london/more_london_f090808_nigelyoung_9.jpg (Accessed on 10th August 2015)

Second Embedded Image: Map called “The POPS Profiler Output for Privately Owned Open Space” by CASA student Oliver Dawkins found online at: http://www.theguardian.com/cities/2015/aug/04/pops-privately-owned-public-space-cities-direct-action (Accessed on 10th August 2015)