…a debate on the privatisation of public space @ Defence of the Public Realm

Defence of the Public Realm was an extremely interesting debate that took place on the 25thof June in Bishopsgate Institute as an event within London Festival of Architecture 2012. It was very informative as far as actual facts about public, semi-public and private ‘open’ spaces are concerned. However most importantly, it was a place where poetic justice was attributed. For an hour and a half logic was restored and it was rather obvious who was interested in the well-being of people and who was interested in profit, regardless of anyone’s well-being.

Photo by Grant Smith shown at Defence of the Public Realm. Find his website here

The event was organised and hosted by photographers Grant Smith, Jonathan Warren and Marc Vallée and the speakers were Marc Vallée, Mark Camley Director of operations at the Olympic Park, Anna Strongman co-manager of the King’s Cross ‘regeneration’ project on behalf of Argent Development, Anna Minton author of Ground Control and Olly Zanetti, free-lance journalist and pHd candidate.

To briefly present some of the key points of the speakers’ presentations Marc Vallée spoke of his interest in photographing places that have been designed and constructed in order to avert certain users from using them. Some examples are open air spaces where architectural ‘accessories’ have been installed so that skaters cannot skate or homeless people cannot lay down to sleep. Those spaces seem public but in fact are privately owned and are intended mainly for commercial use.

Anti-skateboarding devices on the Spitalfields Estate on Sunday 1 April 2012 in London, England. Photo by Marc Vallée, find his website here

Anna Strongman was there to support the developers who produce those commercial spaces and to quote her she “will not apologize for that” as “the owners have invested in them”. According to what she said, 40% of King’s Cross regeneration project is meant for public use and some of it will be adopted by local authority. However Granary Square will be privately managed by an estate team to their cost. She stated though that the management regime is not an arbitrary one and that the legislation that regulates public behaviour will be followed. She also mentioned that private developers ‘give’ to the public high standard spaces that were previously unused and in order to maintain their high standards matters of excessive drinking, public decency and proper protesting are constantly discussed and renegotiated.

Mark Camley spoke about the Olympic Park which aims to reflect the ethics of the Queen. His presentation was accompanied by many slides of CGI renderings and diagrams that supported the view that the Olympic Park is the ‘missing stitch’ in London’s fabric that will transform derelict and overgrown areas in order to ‘create wealth and reduce poverty’ by creating healthier environments.

Slides from Mark Camley’s presentation

Anna Minton spoke of large scale privatisation in London that basically creates segregated high security places. Referring specifically to the Olympics she said that initially they were meant to be funded by Land Lease (Australian developer) but because of the economic crisis and the bank bail-out, the company was unable to get the funds hence the development was financed only 2% by private companies while the rest of the budget was met by the public sector. Regardless of that, private companies currently manage the venture and will take advantage of the estates in the future. She also mentioned Boris Johnson’s manifesto (read here) according to which: “..this type of ‘corporatisation’ occurs, especially in the larger commercial developments and Londoners can feel excluded from part of their own city.”

Robin Priestley spoke of Space High-jackers actions in various occasions and their declaring themselves the London 2012 official protesters. Naturally this has already caused them considerable trouble as they have actually attempted to use the trademarked Olympic logo. Priestley very specifically stated that the group has no objection in people being interested in sports but their actions aim to show that the large multi-national corporations are using the Olympics in order to gain the maximum profit by controlling public spaces and imposing extreme security measures.

Finally, Olly Zanetti said that a good public space should include a great deal of ‘bad’ otherwise it only promotes segregation. He argued that people who are excluded from some areas, are also excluded from society itself. Being physically banned from public spaces by definition renders them unwanted in other areas of social life as well.

Following the presentations, the audience engaged in a very interesting discussion with the panel where it was mentioned among other things that  the exclusion of some users from private-commercial spaces promotes mainly the owners interests and ultimately only protects people from each other. Also that relying on CCTV makes people feeling less responsible for each other and that unfortunately public spaces are no atopia either as they are highly monitored and many restrictions apply to them as well.

What stayed with me the most was Robin Priestley’s story about a Space Hijackers action when they challenged a group of tipsy bankers in the City to a game of cricket (see photos and read more about it here). The square that hosted their game was private hence no such conduct was allowed there. Soon the police arrived and when the players where threatened, the high-jackers took a step back and let the bankers take on the fight with the police, stating that they had every right to play there as their office overlooked that open space and they deserved to use it as they wanted. The beauty of this story is its utter absurdity, when one realises that rules imposed on quasi-public places are rigid and random and truly only manage to protect people from relating to each other and the environment.

Robin Priestley during his presentation projected behind him Space hijackers website. Find it here

Many stories were heard on how protesting, photographing etc. are not allowed in half of London as it is private land by now something that unfortunately it is not known to most  Londoners, simply because the majority of private spaces are not signalled as such. In fact the people who have been labelled as vandals, trespassers and radicals are merely trying to inform the rest of us about the freedoms that we have been deprived of. Unfortunately this deprivation was achieved gradually in a concealed manipulative way. In fact some of the presentations were rather patronising and manipulative as well. For example, when Mark Camley said that the majority of people when presented with a blank piece of paper and asked what would they require from a park or a public space the only thing they can come up with are toilets and parking spots. Not that there is anything wrong with this request, still it was mentioned in a cynical and patronising tone, implying that people are ignorant like children hence the developers should do the planning for them.

Debates as this one are extremely valuable events because they provide a plane for discussion and disagreement, which should be facilitated and celebrated. After all most good ideas emerge as the synthesis of opposite views. However they are also valuable in reflecting painful truths that are meticulously concealed by those who have interests in doing so. What I am referring to is what Anna Minton mentioned in her closing argument, that public spaces are a reflection of our society and its structures and what is being demonstrated in the public spaces within contemporary cities and particularly London is that we are members of a society that increasingly promotes social exclusion.

Listen to the whole debate here

London Festival of Architecture 2012 program here

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