Last week I shared a link to The Guardian article about the increased incidence of private organisations owning and managing public space. Over the last couple of day I’ve been mullling over why this is a problem, if it is a problem at all?
Our public spaces, such as streets and parks, are typically managed by local authorities and, in a climate of reduced budgets, alternatives to this public management is naturally being sought. The management of public spaces by private organisations is not entirely new. For the last decade local authorities have increasingly used Section 106 (planning obligation) agreements to ensure that private developers are responsible for new public spaces in developments like new residential areas or business parks. The local authority is able to ensure the responsible management of these areas through a legal agreement. However, this is rarely used in perpetuity and responsibility often eventually falls to the local authority.
You also need to consider the quality of the publicly managed spaces around you. Are they really anymore accessible than the private public spaces mentioned in The Guardian? When thinking about publicly managed public spaces, I often think of concrete planters full of inhospitable spiky plants, low cost to maintain but also a deterrent to vandalism. I think of numerous ‘no ball game signs’ and the complete failure of post war developments to realise Le Corbusier’s vision of the Radiant City. What is the problem with private organisations, with their increased capital, providing and managing these spaces instead?
The problems lies in the lack of accountability privately managed public realm has to its community. The Guardian article criticises the private approach as just providing spaces that will meet commercial interests, such as increased footfall to retail areas. The function of these spaces is of great importance. What may seem today like a perfect multifunctional space, suitable for providing a good retail experience or modern surrounding for an office, runs a great risk in not being future proof.
With these large areas of public realm remaining in private ownership, they also remain within the unequal system of land distribution and their private owners will undoubtedly, eventually, try to realise their optimum land value. There is no onus for the private landowner to permanently bequeath their space to the community and community interests are rarely effectively represented through market economics. Many towns are already populated with declining retail and office spaces awaiting private redevelopment or, increasingly rare, public intervention. There is no guarantee that the kind of developments mentioned in The Guardian will not eventually meet this fate.
Today’s modern, and often beautifully designed, pedestrianised spaces provide little opportunity to respond to the changing needs of the local community if it is not controlled by a body that is accountable to them. They will provide no opportunity for the community to use that space, no opportunity to use the space to build community resilience in challenging and changing economic times. The private public space will only evolve in response to its owners and not evolve to meet the needs of people, and that is the real risk with this approach.