Inside POPs: the private spaces that aren’t so private

by FIONA LALLY

Fiona Lally explores the privatisation of London’s POPs

A security guard mans the northern entrance to Canary Wharf. His humble cabin sits in stark contrast to the yellow roof of Billingsgate Fish Market next to it. The guard is not just there for safety, he is making sure that those who cross into the Wharf respect its rules as a privately owned public space.

Privately owned public spaces (Pops) include sites such as Paternoster Square, Broadgate, areas around the Battersea Power Station development, and, of course, Canary Wharf. They are physical spaces legally required to be open to the public, despite being privately owned.

Companies that convert land into Pops provide funding for redevelopment. However, the rights of the people in Pops are curtailed in ways ranging from a ban on photographs to forbidding protests.

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Jeremy Németh, Associate Professor of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Colorado, said: “When developers with fiscal concerns, as opposed to broader social priorities, own, manage, and operate our shared public space, significant tensions arise between keeping a space open and inclusive while also making money off the space.”

“It’s subtle. It’s a creeping privatisation,” said Anna Minton, a writer, journalist and Reader of Architecture at the University of East London. According to Minton, it began in London in the 1980s. The government thought redevelopment would have a trickle-down effect with areas bordering Pops benefitting from the regeneration, but this has rarely been the case. 

“It isn’t the private companies driving this, it’s local and central government,” Minton said. Local authorities with limited budgets can decide to sell off publicly owned land because they lack the funds to redevelop it.

“It’s subtle. It’s a creeping privatisation.”

Public space in a city “is where people live, work, fall in love, it is where life happens, where we come together as citizens,” said Professor Peter Bishop at University College London’s Bartlett School of Architecture. But one common characteristic of Pops is that many of the people who visit them are unaware that they are regulated differently to public spaces.

Infringement of rights in Pops “makes for an uncomfortable living environment, it excludes people and creates psychological barriers and the first inching steps towards segregation. It also switches off part of the city for people,” Bishop said.

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However, Abidur Rob Chowdhury, who works opposite the Central St Giles privately owned development near New Oxford Street, disagrees.

He said: “It’s positive because I remember this area before they redeveloped it and there were lots of addicts and thieves.” Chowdhury, a shop owner, didn’t mind that the space was privately owned, but thought it could have been designed in a way that made it more inclusive.

“Public space in the city is where we live, work, and fall in love. It is where life happens.”

Developers know that people investing in Pops have high standards. If those working or buying real estate in Pops expect cleanliness from the surrounding streets, for example, it is in the developer’s interest to provide that service. Regulating the space is a way to do this.

Bishop helped with the negotiations on the King’s Cross scheme, one of the largest redevelopment projects in London to date. It is thought of as a model for participative planning.  The development is mixed-use and has residential and commercial functions  along  with other activities. 

When coming up with the plans, it was decided that the local council would adopt parcels of land, including streets and parks, to make the development more open to the general public. Other parts of the development would stay under Pops regulation.

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Bishop thinks the King’s Cross scheme is “a good future model, but it does require the public sector to adopt some of the land.” While presenting a model for future Pops, it needs funding from local authorities. “If they are cash-strapped then it becomes more difficult,” he said.

Lack of local-authority funding is spurring the privatisation of urban environments and increasing the prevalence of Pops in London and other cities. As fast as these new models of ownership are being created, the public is becoming unaware of their rights within the different spaces in their city.