Privately owned public spaces, or POPS, made headlines in New York City earlier this year, when NYC Comptroller Scott Stringer performed a none-too-flattering audit. His report criticized the city for not providing enough oversight and claimed that private developers were benefiting — by receiving extra floor space at a discounted price — without actually providing the public space they’d agreed to.
Now, similar concerns are being raised in London, with a Guardian investigation into the city’s POPS.
“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,” according to the paper.
The Guardian partnered with Greenspace Information for Greater London CIC, the city’s environmental records center, to produce a map of London’s POPS. But beyond their location and ownership, information about the spaces was difficult to come by — a fact that ended up playing into the investigation’s critique of the whole model.
The Guardian contacted the landowners of more than 50 major pseudo-public spaces in London, ranging from financial giant JP Morgan (owner of Bishops Square in Spitalfields) to the Tokyo-based Mitsubishi Estate (owner of Paternoster Square in the City of London) and the Abu Dhabi National Exhibitions Company (owner of the open space around the ExCeL centre).
We asked them what regulations people passing through their land were subject to, and where members of the public could view those regulations. All but two of the landowners declined to answer. We also asked all local authorities in London for details of privately owned public spaces in their borough, via the Freedom of Information Act; most councils rejected the request.
Public space advocates told the paper that POPS tend to “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 [behavior] — 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.”
The same proved true in New York, as Kelsey E. Thomas wrote for Next City in April. According to the NYC comptroller’s office, auditors who attempted to inspect one privately owned public space “were stopped, an attempt was made to prevent photographs, the auditors were escorted to the security office and questioned, and were informed that they were prohibited from further entry into the building’s lobby, notwithstanding the fact that it is a POPS location and so a public space.”
In response to the Guardian investigation, London Mayor Sadiq Khan promised to publish new guidelines on how the spaces are governed, the paper reports.
But some remain wary of the whole idea — which academic Anna Minton called “a reflection of the neoliberal city” in the story.
“The Guardian asked a simple set of questions to landowners, and was met with a wall of silence,” she says. “The message is clear: However public they may appear, these are private places, and that is private information.”
Rachel Dovey is an award-winning freelance writer and former USC Annenberg fellow living at the northern tip of California’s Bay Area. She writes about infrastructure, water and climate change and has been published by Bust, Wired, Paste, SF Weekly, the East Bay Express and the North Bay Bohemian.