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Plutocratic Insurgency Note No. 6: Privatizing Urban Public Spaces
John P. Sullivan and Robert J. Bunker
Privately owned public spaces (Pops) are becoming key fixtures in cities around the world. This privatization of public space creates corporately controlled spaces governed by obscure private rules and policed by private security entities with minimal state control. A lack of transparency (as the rules governing policing of these spaces are not always made public) challenges free movement and liberties in these ‘pseudo-public spaces’ that are reminiscent of feudal enclaves. This situation removes public spaces from the commons and places this territory in the hands of corporate or plutocratic elite rather than under state control.
Key Information: Chris Michael, Jack Shenker, Naomi Larsson, Athlyn Cathcart-Keays, Julie Cox,Chloe Smith, Nick Van Mead, and Pablo Gutierrez, “Revealed: the insidious creep of pseudo-public space in London.” The Guardian (Guardian Cities). 24 July 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2017/jul/24/revealed-pseudo-public-space-pops-london-investigation-map:
Pseudo-public spaces – large squares, parks and thoroughfares that appear to be public but are actually owned and controlled by developers and their private backers – are on the rise in London and many other British cities, as local authorities argue they cannot afford to create or maintain such spaces themselves.
Although they are seemingly accessible to members of the public and have the look and feel of public land, these sites – also known as privately owned public spaces or “Pops” – are not subject to ordinary local authority bylaws but rather governed by restrictions drawn up the landowner and usually enforced by private security companies…
Private control over large open spaces in the city is not without historical precedent. In the 19th century many areas of central London, including stretches of Belgravia, Marylebone and Pimlico, were effectively gated communities, sealed off from the general public and policed by private entities. Throughout the late 19th and 20th centuries public struggles were waged to force open land and ensure streets, squares and parks were adopted by local authorities over whom Londoners of all backgrounds – not just the influential or wealthy – could exert a measure of democratic control.
In the past few decades, however, the creation of corporate-owned urban areas like Canary Wharf and the Broadgate development around Liverpool Street Station began to reverse this trend, and by 2007 the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors was describing the growing private ownership and management of spaces that appeared to be in the public realm as a “quiet revolution in land ownership”.
Since then, the acute budgetary pressures placed on local authorities by successive governments have encouraged municipal planners to cede control of almost all new open spaces in the city to developers; some academics now refer to a new era of ‘urban enclosure’, echoing the fencing and enclosing of Britain’s rural commons that took place during the 17th and 18th centuries…
Public space campaigners point out that Pops appear unrestricted to the average person as long as they are behaving in ways that corporate landowners approve of, such as passing through on the way to work or using the area for spending and consumption. It is only by exhibiting unsanctioned behaviour – holding a political demonstration, for example, or attempting to sleep rough in the area – that citizens are able to discover the limitations on these seemingly public sites…
Huge variations exist in how clearly land ownership is signposted, as well as in the number of amenities provided by the landowners and the level of security in operation. Many of the newest sites feature similar types of landscaped gardens and water features, free wi-fi and big screens showing summer sport, as well as activities like table tennis, climbing walls and outdoor gyms. Alongside these conveniences, and just as omnipresent, are signs of private surveillance and what experts refer to as ‘defensive’ architecture – from CCTV cameras to benches specially designed to prevent homeless people from sleeping there.
Key Information: Robert Gottlieb and Simon Ng, “Privatizing the city — in San Francisco and urban China.” San Francisco Chronicle. 20 June 2017, http://www.sfchronicle.com/opinion/openforum/article/Privatizing-the-city-in-San-Francisco-and-11234510.php:
Are there lessons from China’s extraordinary urban transformation and rapid-fire expansion for the Bay Area, and, specifically, for San Francisco? After all, San Francisco has long prided itself as a city of scale, a multiracial, multiethnic urban oasis that is at once tolerant and livable. However, rapid gentrification that has swept neighborhoods has eroded that reputation and extended growing class and racial divides. San Francisco is increasingly becoming privatized, where public spaces are privately operated and where Uber and Lyft rides and Google buses claim the streets.
China’s cities, too, are becoming more privatized, where public goods are turned into private acquisitions and what seems old and traditional is being demolished. For example, China has established its own version of gated communities, or “sealed residential quarters.” These include huge residential and commercial developments as large as 30 to 50 acres, with populations ranging from 200,000 to 300,000. These resemble more of a “city within a city,” with buildings ranging from six to 10 stories. One benefit of this privatized space is exclusive parking with controlled access and a closed perimeter, an enormous premium as roads become congested and parking becomes scarce and contested.
In China, privatization is an outgrowth of a government development philosophy that emphasizes urbanization, marketization and modernization. China’s megacities have been created nearly overnight. Onetime fishing village Shenzhen and its surrounding areas have grown from a population of 50,000 to 18 million in just 35 years. At the same time, these megacities have developed enormous class divides, China’s version of the tale of two cities…
As a result of this urbanization, the historical character of cities such as Shanghai is being undermined and transformed. Shanghai’s famous alleyways are now seen as places that need to be “cleaned” and remade “smooth and quiet” into passageways for cars and for shopping enclaves.
Key Information: Justin Glick, “Privatizing the Streets.” Next City. 28 December 2009, https://nextcity.org/daily/entry/privatizing-the-streets:
Some grim news from London: apparently there’s a growing trend toward selling developers entire chunks of the city, streets and all, leading to archipelago of private neighborhoods within the city with their own security guards and rules regarding appropriate behavior:
[Privatized streets] raise a challenge to the kind of public life, culture and democracy that has been taken for granted in British cities for the last 150 years. A host of seemingly innocuous activities – skateboarding, rollerblading, even eating in some places – are routinely banned, along with filming and, of course, taking photographs. So is begging, homelessness, selling the Big Issue, handing out political leaflets, and holding political demonstrations. It’s a very different and far less democratic idea of the city and citizenship. In place of the diversity of high streets we are creating sterile, high-security enclaves, policed by private security and CCTV. And rather than making us feel safer, the emphasis on security is a reminder of ever-present danger, fuelling fear of crime.
Psuedo-public spaces—also known as Pops: privately owned public spaces—complicate governance and territorial control within cities. Inventories and maps of privately held public spaces are increasingly valuable tools in understanding urban terrain and urban social-spatial relationships (essentially geo-social intelligence). Maps and datasets for urban Pops are now available for London, New York, San Francisco, and Toronto.
Privately owned public spaces (Pops) include small plazas, atriums, arcades, gardens, terraces, and small parks, squares, snippets (micro-parcels) and other indoor and outdoor spaces on private land open for public use through an easement or zoning concession. In some cases, developers were allowed to build taller or denser structures if they provided public access to public space. Over time, some of the property owners reverted to sole private use by denying public access, limiting operating hours or allowing adjacent tenants (like cafés) to usurp the space and violate public use provisions. In San Francisco, they are known as Privately-Owned Public Open Spaces (POPOS), emphasizing outdoor venues.
Source: “San Francisco For Sale” Anti-Eviction Mapping Project at
In addition to private spaces developed for public use, there is a trend for existing public spaces to be ‘adopted’ by private corporations or public-private partnerships (P3) essentially privatizing public space. These “sales’ of public goods for limited public use or private use have the potential to be abused and deny the public their traditional right to the commons. In New York City, for example, over half (182 of 333) of the Pops were violating their usage requirements agreements with the City. In San Francisco, the diversion of public space to private use has increased civic tensions in as many components of San Francisco’s urban spaces (bus stops, parks, plazas, streets, and sidewalks) are limiting public access. These limits threaten freedom of movement, recreation, speech, and expression through increased privatization, policing, and reduction of public spaces. This denial of access to the urban commons is similar to the wealthy denying access to beaches, waterways and rivers such as the Thames.
In London centuries of tradition are being erased as cash-strapped local councils sell off public squares and parks to corporations and foreign landholders. As the Guardian has observed:
“The public spaces of London, the collective assets of the city’s citizens, are being sold to corporations – privatised – without explanation or apology. The process has been strategically engineered to seem necessary, benign and even inconsequential, but behind the veil, the simple fact is this: the United Kingdom is in the midst of the largest sell-off of common space since the enclosures of the 17th and 18th century, and London is the epicentre of the fire sale.’’
The new pseudo-private spaces are creating an opportunity for open, accessible public space in economic hard times, but this potential is often short-changed by exclusion and limitation of the traditional freedom of the commons. In London, the beneficiaries of many of these spaces are sovereign wealth funds and the regulations governing their use are secret or the enforcement arms of the Pops won’t share their contents (or don’t know of their existence) making these ostensibly public spaces essentially private in nature. Examples of this type of space include:
“major areas of open land around Paddington Station (encompassing both Merchant Square and Paddington Central), nearly seven acres of open space owned by Arsenal Football Club in Islington, busy shopping and dining plazas in Covent Garden and Victoria, and the pseudo-public area around one of London’s most iconic attractions, the London Eye.”
Such usurpation of public space often yields conflict. Such conflicts have been long recognized as features of the urban ‘power-counterpower’ struggle. Urbanist Jane Jacobs identified early manifestations of the contest for urban land use when describing the negative effects of urban renewal and displacing people (often the urban poor) from neighborhoods to build expressways and refined (or gentrified) public spaces. Mike Davis echoed those concerns when he described urban apartheid in Los Angeles’ spatial segregation, gated communities, and militarized security of privatized spaces in City of Quartz. The culmination of this plutocratic land use paradigm is seen in Bladerunner-like scenarios of wealthy enclave outposts like Dubai and the geographically distributed micro-enclaves known as Pops, and their alter ego the competing global slums.
In London, these struggles came to the forefront during the Occupy Protests. The exclusion of the public from Pops also raises concerning about the plutocratic domination of property, especially since “nearly half the country is already owned by 0.06% of the population and furthering that trend is exacerbating social inequality.” According to the Guardian:
In 2011, the consequences of privatising public land came into sharp focus when Occupy protesters were forced out of Paternoster Square by a court order that revealed that the space was owned by the Mitsubishi Estate Company. It seemed, at the time, too dystopian to be true, that the rules imposed by a corporation could supersede the law of the land.
Soon after, we began hearing about confrontations in other pseudo-public spaces, such as on the land of More London, where City Hall is a public island in a sea of privatised open air space owned by Kuwaiti land barons. It transpires that for the past few decades almost every major redevelopment in London has resulted in the privatisation of public space, including areas around the Olympic Stadium, King’s Cross and Nine Elms.
A similar situation occurred when Occupy protesters were evicted from Zuccotti Park, New York City—a highly visible privately owned park that raised First Amendment concerns. Policing privatized spaces (Pops) or mass private property raises a number of concerns including fragmenting provision of public safety services and the distribution of rights and authority among public and private actors with private concerns often outweighing public liberty interests as the promotion of corporate interest outweighs concerns for public justice. Concerns about the outsourcing of accountability and lack of transparency complicate the public-private interaction on these quasi-public spaces. The quest for maintaining public order has resulted in conflicting views over security and access as historically public squares started to restrict access and install ubiquitous CCTV monitoring on private streets and in public places with private security essentially acting in lieu of public police. Among the actions banned in these spaces are begging, homelessness, skateboarding, busking (street music), and a range of typically protected speech: handing out political leaflets, soliciting signatures for petitions, and political demonstrations.
Concerns over privatization and urban land use also complicate the security situation and are evident in São Paulo where squatters have occupied spaces. They have also been voiced in Barcelona where squatters from the Indignodos (15-M) movement occupy public spaces to protest economic and social exclusion.
Rising urban crime and instability have led some to consider privatizing public streets so that persons frequenting ‘public’ gathering spaces can be subject to searches and weapons screening. Such a proposal is currently being considered in Kansas City that seeks to privatize portions of the public streets in the Westport Entertainment District.
Calls to curtail public space and liberties are fuelled by insecurity and fear of street gangs and crime. They also inhibit security by ‘over fortifying’ public spaces in a manner that restricts legitimate use which itself would help contain crime. This manipulation of the spatial dynamics of the city contributes to “the architecture of dissent” where design and land use influences urban protest, crime, and conflict. This contest is being fueled by two interconnected trends playing out in the global network of cities: criminal insurgency and plutocratic insurgency. These ‘Twin Insurgencies” are changing the distribution of power and profit in the licit, illicit, and grey markets. The contest for spatial domination in cities is long standing, ranging from the Classical era through the Middle Ages to today’s emerging global network states. Preserving access to public spaces fills an essential role in ensuring access to the political realm—that is, ensuring the physical space and transactions necessary to promote the free flow of ideas in the Agora.
Bradley L. Garrett, “These squares are our squares: be angry about the privatisation of public space.” The Guardian. 25 July 2017, https://amp.theguardian.com/cities/2017/jul/25/squares-angry-privatisation-public-space.
Justin Glick, “Privatizing the Streets.” Next City. 28 December 2009, https://nextcity.org/daily/entry/privatizing-the-streets.
Chris Michael, Jack Shenker, Naomi Larsson, Athlyn Cathcart-Keays, Julie Cox, Chloe Smith, Nick Van Mead, and Pablo Gutierrez, “Revealed: the insidious creep of pseudo-public space in London.” The Guardian (Guardian Cities). 24 July 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2017/jul/24/revealed-pseudo-public-space-pops-london-investigation-map.
GiGL (Greenspace Information for Greater London CIC), “Privately Owned Public Spaces.” 2017, http://www.gigl.org.uk/open-spaces/privately-owned-public-spaces/; Dataset (UK Open Government License, OGL v3) available at London Datastore, https://data.london.gov.uk/dataset/privately-owned-public-spaces.
Robert Gottlieb and Simon Ng, “Privatizing the city — in San Francisco and urban China.” San Francisco Chronicle. 20 June 2017, http://www.sfchronicle.com/opinion/openforum/article/Privatizing-the-city-in-San-Francisco-and-11234510.php.
 An inventory of London’s Pops is available at Guardian Cities/GiGL. See “Pseudo-public space: explore the map – and tell us what we’re missing.” The Guardian (Guardian Cities). 24 July 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2017/jul/24/pseudo-public-space-explore-data-what-missing. For Pops in New York, see “Privately Owned Public Space in New York City,” https://apops.mas.org/find-a-pops/. For Toronto, see “Privately-Owned Publicly Accessible Spaces (POPS),” https://www1.toronto.ca/wps/portal/contentonly?vgnextoid=98d4c5181ee5c510VgnVCM10000071d60f89RCRD. San Francisco’s POPOS are listed at “Map: POPOS (Privately Owned Public Open Spaces) Of San Francisco.” SFist. 29 January 2010, http://sfist.com/2010/01/29/map_secret_popos_privately_owned_pu.php and an open data set is found at DATASF, https://data.sfgov.org/Culture-and-Recreation/Privately-Owned-Public-Open-Spaces/65ik-7wqd/data.
 “How Privatization Impacts Public Spaces and Infrastructure.” WBUR. Interview with Jerold Kayden. 11 May 2017, http://www.wbur.org/hereandnow/2017/05/11/privately-owned-public-space.
 “San Francisco’s “Hidden” Public Places, Public Art.” Tales Told From the Road. 10 February 2015, http://talestoldfromtheroad.com/2015/02/10/san-franciscos-hidden-public-places-public-art/.
 Nathan Tempy, “Report: More Than Half The City's Privately Owned, Allegedly Public Spaces Aren’t Playing By The Rules.” Gothamist. 19 April 2017, http://gothamist.com/2017/04/19/pops_balderdash.php.
 Marke B., “A map of our vanishing public space.” Anti-Eviction Mapping Project’s latest interactive visualization details the attack on SF’s fragile common, 48 Hills. 10 July 2015, http://48hills.org/2015/07/10/map-vanishing-public-space/.
 The denial of beach access by the wealthy has a long and contested history, especially in California. Despite being against state law, several wealthy land owners persisted in denying access to beaches—often posting no trespassing signs, installing fences, gates, and barriers, and hiring security guards to deny access. The California Coastal Commission has levied large fines (over $5.1 million) against property owners for diverting public easements and denying access in violation of state law. See Dan Weikel, “Two Malibu property owners fined $5.1 million for blocking access to public beach.” Los Angeles Times. 09 December 2016, http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-headlines-coastal-fines-20161208-story.html; and Mary O’Hara, “Get off my beach! How the wealthy are laying claim to California’s coast.” The Guardian. 02 October 2015, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/oct/02/california-wealthy-public-beaches-private-security.
 See Jack Shenker, “Privatised London: the Thames Path walk that resembles a prison corridor.” The Guardian (Guardian Cities). 24 February 2015, https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2015/feb/24/private-london-exposed-thames-path-riverside-walking-route.
 Harry Smith, “Public spaces are going private – and our cities will suffer.” The Conversation. 06 July 2016, http://theconversation.com/public-spaces-are-going-private-and-our-cities-will-suffer-60460.
 Bradley L. Garrett, “These squares are our squares: be angry about the privatisation of public space.” The Guardian (Guardian Cities). 25 July 2017, https://amp.theguardian.com/cities/2017/jul/25/squares-angry-privatisation-public-space.
 Chris Michael, et al, “Revealed: the insidious creep of pseudo-public space in London,” The Guardian.
 Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. New York: Vintage, 1992.
 See Mike Davis, City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles. London: Verso, 1990; Mike Davis, “Dubai: Sinister Paradise; From the Archives: Does the road to the future end here?” Mother Jones. 14 July 2005, http://www.motherjones.com/environment/2005/07/dubai-sinister-paradise/; and Mike Davis, Planet of Slums, London: Verso, 2007.
 Bradley L. Garrett, “These squares are our squares: be angry about the privatisation of public space.” The Guardian.
 See Raymond Vasvari, “Occupying the First Amendment.” Slate. 15 November 2011, http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/jurisprudence/2011/11/occupy_wall_street_police_raid_what_zuccotti_park_teaches_us_about_public_spaces_and_citizen_protest.html. Similar concerns have been raised by the American Civil Liberties Union. See Sarah Goomar, “The Threat of Privatized-Public Spaces on Free Speech.” ACLU Michigan. 29 January 2015, http://www.aclumich.org/article/threat-privatized-public-spaces-free-speech.
 See Mark Button, “Private security and the policing of quasi-public space.” International Journal of the Sociology of Law. 31:3, September 2003; 227-237, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijsl.2003.09.001; and Steven Hutchinson, “Security Governance on a Mass Private Property in Canada.” Policing and Society, 15:2, 19 August 2006; 125-144, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/10439460500071739.
 Candice Bernd, “The Rise of Privatized Policing: How Crisis Capitalism Created Crisis Cops.” Truthout. 28 April 2015, http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/30467-the-rise-of-privatized-policing-in-the-us-how-crisis-capitalism-created-crisis-cops.
 Anna Minton, “These cities within cities are eating up Britain's streets.” The Guardian. 15 December 2009, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2009/dec/15/public-space-private-property-companies.
 Sarah DiLorenzo, “Battle for downtown Sao Paulo pits squatters against mayor.” San Francisco Chronicle. 12 July 2017, http://www.sfchronicle.com/news/world/article/Battle-for-downtown-Sao-Paulo-pits-squatters-11283078.php.
 See Charlotte Vorms (Oliver Waine, Trans), “Barcelona: local mobilisation or global desperation?” Metropolitics.eu. 08 February 2012, http://www.metropolitiques.eu/Barcelona-local-mobilisation-or.html; and Manuel Castells, Networks of Outrage and Hope: Social Movements in the Internet Age. Cambridge: Polity, 2012.
 See Lynn Horsely, “Privatize Westport streets? Proposal has supporters, detractors.” Kansas City Star. 02 June 2017, http://www.kansascity.com/news/politics-government/article154151404.html.
 See, for example, Saskia Sassen, Territory, Authority, Rights: From Medieval to Global Assemblages. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006.
 See, for example, Ryan Lee Anderson, “The Effect of Urban Fortification on Public Space.” University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Theses and Dissertations. Paper 655; Simone Tulumello, Fear, Space and Urban Planning: A Critical Perspective from Southern Europe. Berlin: Springer, 2016; and Jordon Cosby, “In defense of public space: Why planners should protect the right to occupy public space during the Trump Administration.” The Wagner Review Online. March 2017, http://www.thewagnerreview.org/2017/03/in-defense-of-public-space-why-planners-should-protect-the-right-to-occupy-public-space-during-the-trump-administration/.
 Jathan Sadowski, “The architecture of dissent.” Al Jazeera America. 28 December 2014, http://america.aljazeera.com/opinions/2014/12/urban-design-architectureprotests.html#.
 Nils Gilman, “The Twin Insurgencies: Plutocrats and Criminals Challenge the Westphalian State.” Chapter 2 in Hilary Matfess and Michael Miklaucic, Eds., Beyond Convergence: World Without Order. Washington, DC: National Defense University Press, 2016; http://cco.ndu.edu/BCWWO/Article/980714/2-the-twin-insurgencies-plutocrats-and-criminals-challenge-the-westphalian-state/.
All opinions are strictly those of the authors and in no way reflect the viewpoints of any U.S. Governmental, academic, or corporate entity.
Robert J. Bunker and Pamela Ligouri Bunker, “Plutocratic Insurgency Note No. 5: The Techno-Palaces of the Global Elite.” Small Wars Journal. 12 July 2017, http://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/plutocratic-insurgency-note-no-5-the-techno-palaces-of-the-global-elite.
Mike Davis, City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles. London: Verso, 1990.
Mike Davis and Daniel Bertrand Monk, Eds., Evil Paradises: Dreamworlds of Neoliberalism. New York: The New Press, 2008.
Margaret Kohn, Brave New Neighborhoods: The Privatization of Public Space. London: Routledge, 2004.