Architects should be defenders of the public realm

17 November 2017

Since the rise of neoliberalism in the late 1980s, public spaces in cities in the UK and around the world have increasingly been transferred into private hands. What effect does this have and what can architects do to challenge it? Philip Kleinfeld speaks to Bradley Garrett of the University of Southampton and Susannah Hagan of the University of Westminster.

At first glance, Paternoster Square in London’s financial district looks like any other unremarkable public space: tourists mingle with office workers around a bland, open central piazza, chain cafes line the edges and a series of pedestrian routes lead out towards the rest of the city.

However, when protesters from London’s Occupy movement took over the site in October 2011 to demonstrate outside the London Stock Exchange, it quickly became clear that the space wasn’t as it seemed.

No sooner had the activists thrown down their tents and sleeping bags than they were ordered out on the authority of a High Court injunction. Despite the trappings of public life, Paternoster Square, it turned out, was a private space owned by the Japanese real-estate and investment company Mitsubishi.

While Occupy’s original intention had been to raise awareness about social injustice in the wake of the financial crisis, as the activists picked up their belongings and moved over to the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral next door, a new question arose: who exactly owns the city?

Rampant privatisation

Bradley Garrett, visiting academic in human geography at the University of Southampton, is currently working on a research project mapping public spaces in London to try to answer this question.

“What we are finding is striking,” he says. “You can feel like you are drifting from one open space to another, but when you actually look at the underlying mechanisms that govern the space, you realise places you think are public are not. In some ways, I think that is intentional: it is in the interests of governments and corporations to have us believe we still have access to public space when it’s actually been creeping out the back door.”

According to Susannah Hagan, professor of architecture at the University of Westminster, this process of privatisation began in the 1980s with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the UK and President Ronald Reagan in the US. “There was a much greater emphasis on the free-market approach in the deliverance of space,” she says. “There was an active desire to roll back the state and get upfront capital provided by the private sector. This was the beginning of neoliberalism and it is the system we are still living with at the moment.”

As the UK economy shifted away from manufacturing and towards a ‘knowledge-based’ economy, this process of privatisation accelerated, according to author Anna Minton. Post-industrial change offered “unprecedented opportunities for new development in former industrial areas”, she argues. Underpinning that new urban landscape, however, were “significant changes in landownership” that saw “the rise of individual landlords owning and managing entire city centre schemes”.

It is in the interests of governments and corporations to have us believe we still have access to public space when it’s actually been creeping out the back door.

‘Nowhere to protest, nowhere to resist’

The dangers of this are manifold. Private interests tend to produce spaces that are sanitised, geared towards consumption and highly regulated, with loitering, skateboarding, leafleting and protesting often banned.

“It’s all part of the constriction of cities,” says Garrett. “If you take away people's space, you take away their right to gather and protest.

When all of this space gets diced up, we will find that we actually have nowhere left to go, nowhere to congregate, and nowhere to protest and resist.”

Architects should be defenders of the public realm. They should take it upon themselves to represent the public in the production of public spaces.

Of course, public spaces aren’t without their own restrictions. “Their use has always been conditional,” Hagan says. “There is certain behaviour you have to follow, one of the most important aspects being to respect members of the public who are using it.”

However, the ability to hold local authorities to account is a significant difference between the two, Garrett points out. “How do you take a corporation to task?” he asks. “Do you sue them? How many of us can afford to do that? With local authorities, you can petition through letter-writing, campaigns and local meetings.”

For him, the key to reclaiming cities lies in acts of creative disobedience and the creation of what US anarchist Hakim Bey once called ‘Temporary Autonomous Zones’. In February 2016, for example, Garrett joined the London Space Academy at an ‘intervention’ in Potters Fields Park, a popular riverside space owned by the Kuwaiti property company More London, and governed by a series of corporate bylaws that have banned protesting and public speaking.

“Essentially, we organised a mass trespass,” he says. “We got a couple of hundred people and just took it over. I think going out and getting involved in these kinds of interventions – urban exploration, graffiti, parkour, occupations of space, rogue picnics – is important. The more we do it, the harder it is to stop them from happening because it just becomes a normal part of the social and cultural practice of the city.”

When it comes to architects, taking on the status quo isn’t so easy, though. “They are very limited in what they can do,” Hagan argues. “Anything that requires a large amount of construction requires a large amount of capital and, unless they are architect-developers, they don't have access to that capital – they don't call the shots.”

Defending the public realm

There are certain things that architects can actively push back against, however, according to Garrett. “When an architect is handed a brief saying ‘we want you to create a space that keeps people moving’, they should resist. They should make the case that if people want businesses in their space to make money, then people should be allowed to linger. They should also stop engineering park benches so that people can't lie down on them. They should design cities that people actually want to live in.”

Architects searching for inspiration in designing these kinds of spaces could do worse than to look back to the 1950s, where, for a good few decades after the war, local authority architecture and urban planning departments were brimming with talent, energy and a genuine desire to change society.

“Architects should be defenders of the public realm,” says Hagan. “They should take it upon themselves to represent the public in the production of public spaces. This was true in the 20th century, when the state was paying for these spaces, and it needs to be true again now.”

Protesters occupied St Paul’s after being ordered out of Paternoster Square.
Granary Square, one of the largest open spaces in Europe, is privately owned.
The Potters Fields Park in London, where grassroots organisation the London Space Academy staged an ‘intervention’.

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