One Lasting Occupy Effect: An Awareness of Private “Public” Spaces

Granary Square, a so-called “privately owned public space” opened last June in Kings Cross, London. Credit: Matt Kieffer on Flickr

As of this week, two years have passed since Occupy Wall Street protestors set up shop in Lower Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park, an occupation that spread, in spirit, across the globe. Zuccotti Park was eventually cleared in mid-November 2011, and over on the Washington Post political writer Chris Cillizza considers the protest’s lasting impact on the American political scene. He concludes that it didn’t add up to much.

Sidestepping Cillizza’s takeaway, there is one area of particular interest to us here where Occupy has indeed changed the landscape. It has to do with Zuccotti Park itself — or at least, the idea of Zuccotti Park. That’s because, looking back at the last two years, we’ve seen a noticeable increase in attention paid to so-called “privately owned public spaces,” or POPS, the hybridization of open places that put Zuccotti seemingly under the control of both the City of New York and Brookfield Properties.

A report from a week-long workshop on POPS in Tokyo earlier this year captures that shift:

As the Occupy movement spread around the globe and as other privately owned public spaces were similarly taken over such as Hong Kong’s iconic HSBC Plaza, Taipei’s 101 Tower, and City Square in Melbourne, so spread the awareness that such hybrid spaces at the nexus of the public and private domains also existed in many other countries and continents.

A bit of history: Just like Occupy Wall Street, POPS are a New York City export. As codified under the landmark New York Zoning Resolution of 1961, more than 525 POPS exist in New York City, in the form of parks like Zuccotti, as well as gallerias, concourses and more. The deal that produced what was then Liberty Park came about when, in exchange for 26,000 square feet of park space, the city allowed for the U.S. Steel Building to be some 303,000 square feet bigger than would otherwise be permitted.

The idea spread, especially to places where governments felt they lacked the leverage to protect open land as developers bought up space. POPS mostly went ignored, but when they were studied it was in the context of North America, and mostly only New York City.

The POPS arrangement calls for the government, acting as the people’s proxy, to give away some interest in trade for open space, such as accepting additional thrown shade from a tall building in exchange for a “public” space amidst all that construction. But a 2000 report in New York City found that POPS were either ugly, inaccessible or non-existent, even though the trade had been made. “Only with increasing public awareness, further refinement of design standards, and diligent regulatory review and enforcement,” wrote the Department of City Planning in presenting that report, “can New Yorkers be assured of high-quality privately owned public spaces.”

Two questions are at play when it comes to considering POPS. The first is whether the seemingly oxymoronic concept of a “privately owned public space” is tenable and healthy. (As one urbanist and writer recently tweeted, “Are there Publicly Owned Private Spaces?”)

There was some hope that Occupy would spark that conversation. Gregory Smithsimon, an assistant professor of urban sociology at Brooklyn College and author of The Beach Beneath the Streets: Contesting New York City’s Public Spaces, said at the time, “They’re creating a moment, when we’re all forced to realized that these spaces aren’t just for eating lunch.”

It’s probably fair to conclude that this conversation hasn’t gone much of anywhere in the two years since Zuccotti Park was cleared.

But the second question concerns whether individual POPS deals are good for the public. Are there barriers that make the space difficult to use? Developers in New York are notorious for placing planter spikes and other obstacles in POPS that make them less than inviting. Is the POPS well marked? In fact, does the space exist at all? Did the developer follow through in actually creating an open space?

That’s where we have seen more change since the days of Occupy Wall Street. Two years ago, Jerold Kayden, a Harvard professor and co-author of the city’s critical 2000 POPS study, said he was having trouble rallying momentum for a POPS advocacy group he hoped to build. Today, Kayden and the Municipal Arts Society have partnered to ramp up Advocates for Privately Owned Public Spaces. The APOPS site aims to document POPS across New York City through user-submitted photos and profiles.

Meanwhile, the Guardian has launched a platform that hopes to document the POPS that have opening around the United Kingdom, including London’s Granary Square, unveiled last June. “We’re in the middle of a creeping privatisation of public space,” the paper says, adding, “it’s not easy to track the scale of this change.”

All that said, the pace at which POPS do seem to be popping up around the U.K. suggest another possibility: that the lesson that developers took away from the intense international focus on Zuccotti Park is that perhaps they might like to privately own a public space, too.

Nancy Scola is a Washington, DC-based journalist whose work tends to focus on the intersections of technology, politics, and public policy. Shortly after returning from Havana she started as a tech reporter at POLITICO.

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