FUTURE LONDON | In Defence of Public Space

“rich people just don’t want to share amenities with the rest of the public”

Are we designing our living spaces to be become perfect private spaces, and how should we encourage people to move outdoors and share?




See also: How public spaces make cities work

How public spaces revive cities

The fall and rise of great public spaces


 On a recent visit to a friend’s flat, I was struck by the vastness of the complex. An indoor theatre; an outdoor theatre; a fully outfitted gym; an interior courtyard; a community living room with a real, live fireplace; a rooftop pool, whirlpool, and sauna – with all these amenities, it was a small miracle that anyone ever left the building. And then it struck me: that was exactly the developer’s intention. By providing these different spaces, the developer was attempting to create places that would keep people in, rather than drawing them out, thereby fostering community within the larger complex.

While I am a staunch advocate of placemaking, I found myself reacting somewhat viscerally to the complex. After unpacking my thoughts, I realized what bothered me was not the opulence of the building (although it was a bit much); it was the privatization of public space. The apartment complex sits in the middle of a relatively newly developed neighborhood in Washington, DC: NoMA, or North of Massachusetts Avenue. In the past five years, residential and commercial high-rises have popped up in the area, formerly a warehouse and logistics district. As these private spaces have developed, public spaces have not followed suit. In fact, apart from one walking/cycling trail along the Metrorail line, the only “parks” are privately-owned lots made available – at the owners’ discretion, of course – for some public events.

NoMA’s high-rises are one of many examples where private developments have annexed public spaces. Huge complexes in Istanbul, New York City, Mumbai, and Tokyo, among others serve as vertical gated communities. In Sao Paolo, Teresa Caldeira has named these vertical gated communities “fortified enclaves,” explaining that rich owners built them to stay safe in seemingly dangerous cities. In Mumbai, Rahul Mehrotra calls them “parasitic,” because they are built to have separate, stable supplies of water and energy, thereby diverting resources from the rest of the city.

But in many developed world cities, the excuse of increased safety or stable utilities fails to apply (or applies to a much lesser extent), and one is left to wonder why vertical gated communities still exist. One answer may be that the public sector is neglecting its duty to furnish public spaces and, therefore, the private sector is generously stepping in to improve quality of life through greenery and communal settings. This may be true, for example, in NoMa, where the DC government finally acknowledged its mistake in not setting aside public spaces, and has budgeted $50 million to purchase and construct green spaces.

Another answer, somewhat more cynical, is that, in constructing separate spaces for high-end residences, real estate developers are recognising the reality that rich people just don’t want to share amenities with the rest of the public. In fact, they would rather pay a premium so that they deliberately don’t have to. Coupled with the lack of progressive affordable housing policies in many of the world’s cities, the privatisation of public spaces has already diminished inter-socioeconomic class interaction in cities – and will very likely continue to.

This is a problem. I hardly feel that I have to give empirical evidence as to why this is an issue, but I will. In the United States, research by the Brookings Institution shows that growing up in a mixed income neighbourhood is highly beneficial to children, raising lifetime earnings by almost $1 million when compared with growing up in a neighbourhood in the lowest socioeconomic quintile. This could be for any number of – or all of these – reasons: better schools, more government resources, higher levels of parental involvement, safer streets, greater access to opportunities. Whatever the reason, the point is that interactions among people who inhabit the same space build social capital, as Robert Putnam terms (and Georg Simmel would concur), and this social capital is incredibly important to the environments and economies of cities. When public space is privatized, interactions still occur, but they occur among smaller, more homogenous groups of people. This has been shown to have lower overall positive impacts on cities, whether that manifests through higher rates of inequality or lower rates of growth.

Cities in the developed and developing world are growing, and growing fast. In order to ensure that they grow sustainability, the creation or preservation of public space has to be prioritised. And not just for touchy-feel reasons. Properties around public spaces garner higher real estate values. A report by Ernst & Young valued proximity to parks in New York City at increasing commercial real estate prices by up to 225%, residential by up to 150%. Parks promote environmental sustainability. They counteract the urban heat island effect, which can raise temperatures by 1 to 6 degrees C, through shading and evapotranspiration.

But even if those outcomes weren’t the case, I’d still argue for inclusive public spaces, spaces that anyone and everyone can access. Because when you experience a park on that idyllic, spring, sunny day, you can observe the interactions, intended and unintended, which bring us closer together as a community. That is something difficult both to measure and to recreate, especially at a private rooftop pool.