As of this week, two years have passed since Occupy Wall Street protestors set up camp 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 so was City Square in Melbourne and La Plaza de Armas in Santiago de Chile and all the other places that made home to frustrated and passionate voices.
While I won’t be able to account for everything that has developed after the Occupy movement, there is something that seems relevant to our cities: The birth of Privately Owned Public Spaces (POPS).
Looking back at the last two years, we’ve seen a noticeable increase in attention paid to and activities developed in these spaces like Hong Kong’s iconic HSBC Plaza, Taipei’s 101 Tower and even Federation Square in Melbourne. Although Federation Square and City Square in Melbourne had been somewhat used for public events, it’s hard to come by a week that there are no events on either site these days. Importantly, we had not been aware that such hybrid spaces at the nexus of the public and private domains also existed in many other countries and continents, and could provide a place for the community.
According to a POPS , POPS are a New York City export. As codified under the landmark , more than 525 POPS exist in New York City, the first being in the form of parks like Zuccotti. Today however, POPS also come in the form of gallerias, concourses and more. From its inception, 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 today as cities increasingly develop more public, private partnerships, they are appearing in all forms and colours.
What does it take to have a successful POPS? According to the Department of City Planning in New York, “only with increasing public awareness, further refinement of design standards, and diligent regulatory review and enforcement” citizens can “be assured of high-quality privately owned public spaces." With the increase citizen engagement and participation happening in most cities, this should be possible to achieve.
There are two additional questions however, that 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 "Are there Publicly Owned Private Spaces?") ,
I guess this was highlighted throughout the Occupy movement process, but we seem to maintain the view that these spaces are just for eating lunch. How can we move on from this? Recognising these places and working with citizens to design activities through easy-to-use communication methods could be one way.
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 Melbourne are notorious for placing barriers and other obstacles that make POPS seem a site for future development or an extension of a private space. We also find that the minute you step into Federation Square with something more than a piece of paper you are called upon to explain.
We’re in the middle of a creeping privatisation of public space, where it’s hard to track the scale of this change and identify these spaces. To help do this, organisations, cities or individuals could do something like The Guardian’s platform that hopes to document the POPS that have opening around the United Kingdom. While it may not answer any of the above questions, it does provide a start of recognising these spaces and integrating them to the public arena.
It’ll be a long conversation, which will take us all and it will take us forever, but then, that’s the point.