4 October 2011

Private Use of Public Space

There is always a lot of discussion in architectural circles about the "privatisation of public space". I shall illustrate what this frighteningly architectural phrase means, by referring to the example of shopping centres.

Once upon a time, a shopping centre was an easy concept to understand - a place where shops were collected together indoors, and they were equally easy to spot - they often helpfully had the name "shopping centre" stencilled on the outside.

I think this is Edmonton Green Shopping Centre

It was easy to see where they started and where they finished (doors to enter and leave) and it would therefore be reasonable to assume that they were indeed private space. Even if the mall formed an important connection or route within a city, it would be normal to assume it would close at 5.30pm, and reopen at 9.00am. You would not have been surprised to know it was owned by private enterprise, and not the public in the form of the Local Council.

But shopping centre design moves on. Even the name moves on - they are now malls, or arcades. In Cardiff, the people of the capital city are the proud recipients of St David's 2 (the sequel), which has the traditional spine route, covered, on two levels. There are doors to enter and leave and there is an anchor store at the end - John Lewis; thus propelling Cardiff into the big time. All very familiar thus far, but also all very obsolete. Because SD2, as we are encouraged to call it, might be the last hurrah of this now familiar typology. In Liverpool and Bristol, amongst others, new kinds of shopping centre have been developed and they look a lot like any old part of the town. In fact, they look a lot different to what we have become accustomed to believe a shopping centre should look like.

Part of Cabot Circus, Bristol

These new kid on the block have streets, townscape and urban scale. They are open to the elements. They might even have roads with traffic, but they certainly do not have doors to enter and leave. You would be forgiven for thinking that they are simply bits of the city that host them, although with less litter. However, they are not. They are private space. They are controlled by private enterprise, and if you start taking photos, polite well dressed gentlemen with radio earpieces and clip-on ties will appear and ask you to leave.

These bits of city are therefore certainly not bits of city in the traditional sense. So the urbanists and theorists get excited about sanitisation of space, the loss of the right to protest, rights of access, rights of assembly, the impact of private ownership within public space etc etc. But in truth, the ubanists have missed the boat. This privatisation of public space has been going on for years under our very noses with very little complaint. Large chunks of precious public realm have been enclosed and fenced off, with the process starting nearly 100 years ago. The space demarcated for motoring, a particularly private pursuit, has been expanding ever since.

The amount of land dedicated to the private motor car in urban centres, for both its movement and storage, is surely staggering. One only needs to consider the rents that could be achieved on the square footage occupied at present for free. The effect of this "enclosure" is quite debilitating to a sense of community and civility.

What is required is an about-turn in how we think about the use of space in cities. It is simple and obvious; the self propelled citizens should be in the role of the occupiers whereas the motor-powered citizens must be the guests. This is where the role of the bicycle is critical as a tool of radical thinking. You see, by making the effort to make cycling easy, for instance by providing quality segregated infrastructure, a city would  thus overtly state its position that non-motorised citizens (pedestrians and cyclists) are welcomed by right, whereas the motorised are tolerated by necessity. By building segregated cycling infrastructure and all the necessary compromises to the hegemony of cars that go with that, a city will be reclaiming space for all its citizens, for Civitas.

No comments:

Post a Comment