Privatisation of the Production of Public Space


  • Els Leclerq TU Delft, Architecture and the Built Environment



From the 1960s to the 1970s, a large number of Western inner cities went through a phase of severe deprivation due to both a relocation of manufacturing jobs that in turn led to a depopulation, a lack of investment and high unemployment and to suburbanisation made possible by the car. From the 1990’s, urban regeneration strategies were introduced to tackle this inner city deprivation. In the United Kingdom, this ‘urban renaissance’ took place within the new economic and political paradigm of neoliberalism which placed a strong emphasis on market forces as the driver of urban regeneration (see national policy document Urban Task Force 1999). The shift to this economic system led to changes in both the process of urban development and its product, the space itself. Local governments endorsed the new economic reality- which included a greater role for private and corporate actors in the development and management of cities - in order to be able to participate in the global inter-urban competition. As a result of declining public budgets and encouraged by national guidance, public authorities began to outsource tasks and responsibilities that had previously been regarded as a governmental concern to private actors and newly developed private public partnerships (urban regeneration vehicles in planning policy terminology). Public authorities themselves also adopted business-like styles of organisation in which productivity, effectivity and efficiency were regarded as the main conditions for serving the public’s financial interest, though other public values such as cultural heritage, equality and democracy were often regarded as of secondary concern. This privatisation of development in urban areas did not just affect the process but also the outcome; the appearance and use of public spaces. Within the urban renaissance agenda, a strong emphasis was put on the aesthetisation of space in order to attract the desired businesses, investors and people with a high disposable income. The objective in private management regimes appears to be on reducing risk by putting a strong focus on surveillance, safety, tidiness and the exclusion of undesirable behaviour, all of which reduces the diversity, vitality and vibrancy of spaces in order to welcome tourists and middle-class visitors, in other words consumers (Low 2006). This privatisation of public space raises valid questions with regard to the publicness of urban open space and a number of authors recognise a ‘decline’ of public space or have even declared ‘the end of public space’ as we have known it (Sorkin 1992; Mitchell 1995; Low and Smith 2006; Madanipour 2003; Iveson 2007 etc.). Other authors argue that we do not experience the death of public space but a change in its form, function and appearance that reflects contemporary economic, societal and cultural narratives (see eg Madden 2010; Carmona et al. 2008, Carmona 2015; De Magalhães and Freire Tigo 2017). To be able to incorporate these societal shifts, a revised (and wider) definition is needed to describe and analyse publicness in the production of space (Kohn 2004; De Magalhães 2010; Varna and Tiesdell 2010; Németh and Smith 2011; Langstraat and Van Melik 2013; Varna 2016).

The premises for this research are based on the above discussion on the different roles that privatisation plays in the production of space, within this shift towards greater involvement of a variety of private partners in the development process and the possible decline in the degree of publicness in both process and space. The apparent need for a wider definition of public space to include current political, economic and societal changes, the relation between the public sphere and public space, the degree of publicness in both the process and space itself, the perception of the user and the role of the urban designer are hereby taken as starting points and lead to the following research question:


Does privatisation lead to a decline of publicness in the production of space and space itself, and how does urban design play a role in this?

Public sphere and public space – a very short overview from academic literature

The public sphere is a normative established notion whose definition is susceptible to change over time depending on the economic, social and cultural context. The rules and norms regarding public behaviour in public space are under the scrutiny of public debate and depend on consensus (Habermas 1989; Boomkens 1998). The public sphere in Greek ancient times and in the Western bourgeois 18th century constituted the gathering of individuals who engaged in discussions of common matters through speech and action (Arendt 1958; Habermas 1989; Sennett 1977). Other scholars however, suggest that this is too simple a representation of complex reality; there is not one single public but a multitude of publics, often with conflicting interests (Fraser 1960; Iveson 2007; Varna and Tiesdell 2010). It is within the overlapping and exchange of multiple and simultaneous daily experiences of these publics, that the essence of publicness lies (Crawford 2008; Hajer and Reijndorp 2001). Due to these multiple publics, there will always be conflicting interests and claims over space; public space is a political, social and cultural project which is negotiated, struggled over throughout history and reproduced (Lefebvre 1991; Mitchell 1995; Langstraat and Van Melik 2013). Public space is a potential geographical setting in which a public sphere (or spheres) can materialise and therefore, has a democratic function in addition to other functions such as a social or symbolic dimension, where different groups of people can meet each other. Thus, the essence of public space lies in the exchange of cultural, social and political experiences for a variety of multiple publics. In order to be able to fulfil this role, public space must be accessible and inclusive to all (Madanipour 2010), although bearing in mind that a space can never be completely accessible and hence inclusive of everybody at the same time (Low and Smith 2006).

Publicness of process and product in three Liverpool cases 

An analytical and methodological framework was set up in order to provide answers to the research question. A distinction was made in the analytical framework between three perspectives, those of governance, the user and the designer, which provides the lens through which social relations between the actors, their motivations and the perceived outcome in space are analysed in-depth. Three cases within the city of Liverpool were selected that differed in their managerial approach to urban regeneration but were built over a similar period of time, therefore within a similar political, economic and geographical setting. A multi-faceted method of data collection techniques comprised policy document reviews, interviews, user survey, observations and a visual assessment. The three cases were then presented and are summarised below:

  • Liverpool ONE; a retail led inner city development project where the Council sold the land on a 250 year lease to a private developer who designed, implemented and manages the 16 ha urban quarter. The first of this kind of inner city privatisation at this scale in the United Kingdom.
  • Ropewalks: a public-private partnership (with a mix of stakeholders) implemented a masterplan for a mixed-use neighbourhood that was envisioned to be the creative quarter. The publicly funded public space works were successfully deployed to attract private investment to the private buildings.
  • Granby4Streets: started as a top down, publicly led masterplanning exercise of neighbourhood renewal which became a co-operation between a variety of private local initiatives supported by the Council. The first urban Community Land Trust in the UK
Discussion and Conclusions

Governance perspective: publicness in the development process

The findings from the case study analysis – organised as they were in three different ways, namely privately led, public-private partnership and publicly organised turned community led- demonstrated that both the privately and publicly top down coordinated processes lacked publicness; both in ownership of (which is related to who initiates, who has decision-making power and how the actors are organised within the process) and accessibility to (related to openness and inclusiveness for a variety of different actors to the process, including the minority voice) the process. The public-private partnership and the community led cooperative regeneration approaches that consisted of a variety of public and private actors (both corporate and non-for-profit) however, comprised a larger degree of publicness and trust between the various actors. These findings lead to the conclusion that in these three cases, a multi-stakeholder process in which both public and private actors work collaboratively and have decision-making power leads to a greater degree of publicness in the development process. Both the publicly and the privately (corporate) led projects researched were found to be non inclusive as the ownership of the process (including proposing initiatives, the degree of decision making power and the provision of funding) lay in the hands of a single actor and the accessibility to the process for other (public or private) actors was limited.

Therefore based on the findings of the three cases, the degree of publicness in the development process benefits from a collaborative multi-stakeholder process in which both public and private partners have decision-making powers where a high degree of trust leads to a greater degree of publicness in urban development.


Users’ perspective: experience and engagement in public space

The consequences often attributed to privatised spaces in academic literature – exclusion, homogenised, commodified and themed space with a strong focus on cleanliness and safety – have all been found (to a greater or lesser extent) in the privatised space. Despite, or maybe indeed because of, these consequences, the privatised space was perceived as ‘very good’ by the large majority of the respondents, more so than in the two public spaces although they were also perceived as quality urban spaces. The privatised space was also rated as being very ‘safe’ and ‘clean’ but there was no relation found between the feeling of safety and the presence of surveillance or control measures; a majority of the users did not feel watched by CCTV cameras, security guards or police (and still felt safe).

With regard to the perception of publicness, more than half of the respondents stated that they perceived the (in fact) private space as public space. Although these users regarded the space as public, they simultaneously thought that they were not allowed to exercise certain basis public rights (such as using a skateboard, being political, making music or handing out flyers). They sensed that there were limitations put on their public behaviour and they adapted their behaviour according to the nature and characteristics of the spatial surrounds. This sense was correct as these individual interventions (also called forms of appropriation) are prohibited under the corporate rules. In the public areas, a high percentage of the users also regarded the spaces as public but here they did think, also correctly, that they were allowed to exercise these rights. Apparently, the privatised space delivered different signals to the respondents on appreciated (or tolerated) behaviour than public spaces did.

Following from this conclusion, the range of new terminology that in recent years has been deployed to help address the hybridisation of public/private such as semi-private or semi-public or Privately Owned Public Space (POPS - a new terminology in the UK, of which an example is the new King’s Cross development), does not therefore contribute towards the clarification of the concept as the ownership and control mechanisms at work are sensed by users differently to the legal ownership structures the terminology refers to, this strengthens the need for a new criteria to describe publicness of space.

The case of Liverpool One demonstrates that a privatised process apparently does not necessarily lead to a private space, at least not from the point of view of its users and producers, and was perceived by institutional actors and the users interviewed as a successful urban quarter. Also, the outcome of the visual assessment came to this conclusion. Two remarks can be made on the basis of this conclusion, however: firstly, the space producers acknowledge that the privatised space is not truly public in a democratic or civic sense but they still perceive the area as public largely based on its physical accessibility and social and entertainment value. On the other hand, those users interviewed claimed the privatised space to be public but were only subconsciously aware that the appearance and the design of the space act to restrict their behaviour. Hence, although a privatised space can be aesthetically beautiful and socially pleasant, a degree of publicness is compromised in privatised space because users are restricted in the ways they can appropriate space.


Designer perspective on designing publicness

The visual assessment that was carried out to analyse eleven urban qualities through a combination of quantitative and qualitative assessment tools (based on Ewing and Clemente 2013), demonstrates that only the urban qualities ‘safety’, ‘tidiness’ and ‘appropriation’ were decisive in the definition of publicness in space. The privatised area rated well for visual signs of surveillance methods (CCTV, presence of security guards) when compared to the public areas that appeared to be less endowed with such measures. The same outcome was found for the quality of tidiness. There were however, very few visual signs of appropriation found in the privatised area, thus in the area where control mechanisms (‘safety’ and ‘tidiness’) were visually omnipresent, no evidence was found of individual interventions. In the public spaces, the findings show the opposite: less evidence of control mechanisms but abundant evidence of individual input in the public space, in particular in the case of Granby4Streets.

In addition to the analysis of the cases themselves, their relation to their surrounding contexts has also been assessed. The privatised space can be described as physically well integrated into its surrounds; the transition to the city centre and to the tourist attraction of the Albert Dock is smoothly designed. The connections to the Ropewalks and a social housing estate are however, very poorly designed; the boundaries are formed by buildings with blank, inactive facades with marginal uses (e.g. car parking). These poorly designed zones could be described as the liminal spaces – transitional zones – referred to as potential spaces where the new public sphere emerges according to Crawford (2008) and Hajer and Reijndorp (2001). No signs were found within these transitional zones however, of a potentially emerging new public sphere (or overlapping multitude of spheres). The function of these liminal spaces is better described as forming a barrier (or creating severance) between the ‘over-managed’ areas. Therefore, the transitional zones enhance and enlarge the differences between the over and under-managed spaces rather than facilitate new spheres. Although the experience of publicness in space is thought to occur at the boundary between friction and freedom, this analogy can apparently not be directly translated to the spatial context. The theoretical argument that the ‘real’ public sphere is found in the transitional zones between over and under-managed areas, the ‘liminal’ spaces, has not been confirmed within the case studies in this research. It can therefore be concluded that in order to enhance the ‘continuous urban topography’, these edges should not be designed as ‘left-over’ space creating severance but rather as transitional zones that provide linkage.


Based on the data from interviews, user surveys and visual assessment that has been collected and analysed, it can be concluded that the degree of publicness of the privatised space is compromised by the ‘corporate rules’ (including control mechanisms) that might be in place to limit individual user appropriation. Apparently the presence of control mechanisms, the maintenance regime and the opportunity to use space according to one’s own daily needs, distinctively says something about the degree of publicness in space. The latter component, appropriation, offers an interesting opportunity for describing and defining a wider notion of publicness (control mechanisms are used by both public and private stakeholders in charge of space maintenance and the user survey demonstrated that a majority of the respondents were not aware of these mechanisms). Appropriation is defined as: The way individuals renegotiate and reproduce space to take ownership and suit the space to meet their own needs. Appropriation is characterised by spontaneity and temporality.

It is therefore recommended to include appropriation within the definition of publicness, in addition to ownership and control, and accessibility.

A second recommendation concerns the public authority that still holds the ultimate power within urban development. In the current planning system, the public authority is in charge of validating and approving planning applications. Hence, publicness in the development process could be safeguarded by a change in the current legislation for the use of statutory powers within the planning process. In other words, private actors (including non-for-profit organisations such as community groups) could be forced to create a more inclusive and public development process. Firstly, the planning system could be adapted to include judgments on applications using criteria such as ownership of, and accessibility to, the process and not just on the quality of the proposal; aspects such as who was involved, who had decision-making power, how high were the levels of trust etc., could also function as decisive criteria. If the planning application fails to score on these criteria, it could be refused. Secondly,  in terms of product and in addition to current aspects such as quality, sustainability, building regulations etc., an application could be reviewed on the level of opportunity that is created within the proposal for appropriation by its future users. This research concluded that the degree of publicness is related to the degree of appropriation: how individual people can make use of space to meet their daily needs. Therefore the current planning system can be adapted to include (non-negotiable) criteria on appropriation to safeguard the degree of publicness in space.

A third recommendation relates to the urban designer that might enhance the degree of publicness in space in (at least) two ways. Firstly, allowing for a larger flexibility in the spatial outcome by designing in opportunities for citizens to appropriate space. Inspiration for new urban design methods on appropriation could for instance be drawn from design literature on ‘urban acupunture’, ‘place-making’ and ‘big data’. The visual image that the designer composes is hereby seen as a starting point, the base of future interventions and not as the ultimate illustration of the designer’s own projected reality. Secondly, the designer should pay special attention to the design of the edges of urban quarters in order to create ‘soft’ transitional zones rather than severe barriers. In this way, design might both enhance the publicness within the different urban areas while also treating the city as a totality rather than a sea of physically segregated ‘archipelago islands’. Both statements assign a degree of ethics to the profession of urban design; the urban designer bears (co) responsibility for the creation of an inclusive public space rather than merely focusing on problem solving, functionality or providing aesthetic pleasure (which are of course also important components that must be met).


So does privatisation result in the decline of publicness in the production of public space? It cannot be said from this research that privatisation of the production is detrimental in all its aspects. Urban development and city life turn out to be complicated matters that are difficult to capture as a straightforward yes/no or good/bad equation. The research demonstrated however, that publicness within a development process was least present within the organisational structure of a single client, in both private and publicly led processes. Apparently, publicness within the development process benefits from multiple private and public actors working collaboratively. Involvement of private actors do not necessarily lead to a private process that lacks inclusiveness and vice versa, a publicly led process does not always lead to a public or inclusive process.


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