Privatization and Securitization Threatens the Future of the Public Square by Gabe Fedor

It’s one of those first truly warm days of Spring in the year 2038, where even when you stand in the shade the air still has a warmth to it that wraps around you. Like all self-respecting urbanites in New York City on the first nice day of the year, we decide to go for a walk to a public square. We choose a new square that had just been built on the site of a recently demolished newspaper office building, because who reads those anymore? When we arrive to the square, we are immediately struck by the eight-foot concrete and plaster wall that surrounds it on all sides. We have to access the square through one of four gated entrances. A sign hanging on the entrance reads: “Square Hours: 7AM – 6PM. Strictly Prohibited: Sleeping, Drug Use, Skateboarding, Loitering, Tents or Informal Structures, Protesting, Shouting.” The sign strikes us as oddly detailed and the hours seem strangely restrictive, but we enter anyways because we want to enjoy the warm weather. Once inside the walled square, we see a few people with ties and pantsuits, scattered around on benches eating their lunches or looking at their phones. We were hoping to layout on the grass in the sun to read or maybe doze, but we don’t see any grass or a long bench that isn’t intersected by those armrests that are meant to deter the homeless from sleeping on them. There are a few trees and flowerbeds, but the square is mostly comprised of large stone pavers, metal benches, concrete walls, and a huge, contemporary art sculpture in the middle. We grab a bench close to one of the large trees in the square and begin to read. I look up occasionally to people watch or peer at the sculpture, but once the lunch hour is over, the square almost completely empties out, and the sculpture was more intimidating than interesting to look at. After peering around for a while, two security guards positioned at either end of the square catch my periphery vision, then I begin to notice how each of the lampposts throughout the park are also fitted with micro security cameras. Their presence actually makes me feel less secure – why is all this security necessary? Am I in a bad part of town? We begin to feel uneasy with all the eyes on us. The square stops being enjoyable because we can’t relax since there’s no one there to relax with and we are constantly being monitored. We decide to head to another neighborhood in search of a better, more lively and green public square.

The foundation of the urban public square is being shaken to its core. Two elements are causing this upset and must constantly be grappled with and contested in the public square of the future: privatization and security. At the heart of this transformation of the public square of the future is the sweeping, international urban trend of neoliberal policy, which has a dramatic effect on public squares, namely that when corporate and private interests craft our public spaces, they are inherently not public, but are privately owned representations of what planners and corporations believe the public should want (Kingwell 215 and Hou). In his discussion of public space, Kurt Iveson investigates how people’s accessibility to public areas shifts depending who constructs it: “The ceremonial model of public space makes an important contribution by considering the issue of state provision of public space, and its impact on how people occupy public spaces. It is argued that the state should be more open to claims for access to public space than private owners, whose concerns are more market driven” (Iveson 187-188). When an enterprise decides to build a public square across from their office tower, their concern is boosting their own image, not the provision of a useful, pleasant public square accessible to all. Indeed, the issue of security in public square morphs with privatization, as public space that is privately owned is increasingly “made bleak by intrusive surveillance technology” and private security guards (Kingwell 212). In New York City, this has given rise to privately owned public space (POPS) that tend to conform to the de-localized, security obsessed, and sleek style of corporate office culture while making the space uncomfortable or downright uninviting for those outside of the dominant corporate culture: “private plazas are more sleek than sylvan. ‘There’s not a blade of grass.’ Over the years, private parks and plazas — some with dramatic waterfalls — have won mixed reviews” (Foderaro). These mixed reviews are due to the public squares being designed for corporate aesthetics rather than the livability of the people, where fancy granite pavers and towering fountains take precedence over a simple bench or grassy lawn. It will be argued that the key to preventing the privatized and security-camera monitored public square of the future is insurgent urbanism, through which the agency of individuals and communities transform urban spaces to fit local needs (Hou).

In the neoliberal age, it is now more important than ever to ask the short but complex question: what is public? Primarily, public brings to mind the difference between the space inside a home compared with the populated and public space outside of the home. Another popular use of public is to refer to the state, as a separate and distinct entity from the private market. In his chapter titled “Putting the Public Back into Public Space,” Iveson contends that these varied meanings of public contribute to a collective hesitation towards defining the nature of public spaces in societies throughout the world. To create a more concrete representation of public space, Iveson defines four models of it: ceremonial, community, liberal, and multi-public. The ceremonial model defines authentic public space as, “the triumph of the public over the market, usually through state ownership and large-scale civic design” (Iveson 187). The Zocalo in Mexico City, Tiananmen Square in Beijing, and Moscow’s Red Square are all examples of ceremonial public space because they signify the power of the state through their size, architecture, and the celebration of the nation, state, or city’s historically significant events. Further, because they are built entirely by the nation, state, or city, they communicate the victory of public good and civility over private market desires (Iveson 187). The inverse of celebrations in ceremonial public space is protests, which are staged with equal frequency. Instead of celebrating the public nature of the state, protests are staged when people become excluded from the public or the government ceases to represent the public’s interest. Zuccotti Park and Times Square in New York City are both antonyms of ceremonial public space, and thus under this model, would not be considered truly public space at all. This is because Zuccotti Park is privately owned by Brookfield Properties and Times Square is imbibed with private corporate messaging that all but makes one forget they are standing on city property (Katz and Townsend).

The community model of public space is concentrated on the theory of ‘new urbanism,” which argues that well-designed public urban features have the ability to bring the diverse urban population together and foster community (Iveson 188). In the community model, for a public space like a city square to actually be public, it need not be owned by the state like in the ceremonial model, but only has to serve the needs of the local community and act as a cohesive anchor, bringing residents together through spontaneous interactions. In tandem with the community model, the liberal model of public space is also concerned with how the space is used in urbanite’s lives rather than who owns the space for it to be public. In the liberal model, it’s a matter of accessibility that makes a given space public or not. For a city square to truly be public under the liberal model, it must be open and accessible to all regardless of status and social difference (Iveson 189). Under the liberal model of public space, Zuccotti Park would be considered public because it is open for use by anyone, 24-hours-a-day, not just employees from the neighboring skyscrapers (Levitin). However, there are aspects of Zuccotti that could come into conflict with this model centered around accessibility, namely that it is located in the extremely wealthy financial district, severing accessibility for people living in boroughs further out, and no sleeping is allowed, denying access for the homeless (Levitin and Katz). As the Occupy Wall Street protestors demonstrated in 2011, the square is not accessible for protestors who decide to campout after Mayor Michael Bloomberg ordered the square to be cleared for “deteriorating health and safety concerns” (Katz). This lack of accessibility for certain groups in Zuccotti raises concerns over the future of public squares, especially with the increasing use of neoliberal policy to lessen the financial burden on cities that subsequently gives rise to more privately owned public space across the urban fabric (Bressi 42).

The last model of public space that Iveson discusses is multi-public, which criticizes the lumping of all people into one public and instead brings attention to ‘counter-publics’ that have unique interests that are marginalized and not represented by the dominant public (Iveson 189). The multi-public model demonstrates the need for alternative spaces where the minority interests of the counter-publics can be expressed in the city’s physical environment. The model shows that in order for a public space to actually be public, it must celebrate difference rather than ignore it or attempt to conform the different publics into a lumped majority by using the space. Inequalities exist in public space primarily because there is a lack of acceptance and recognition of different cultures, so to combat this, the multi-public model calls for each of the marginalized and counter-publics to be formally represented in the space (Iveson 190). Homelessness presents the most vivid example of cultural difference, where the interests of the homeless are rarely included in public space, but are usually actively deterred from participating in the public sphere. Zuccotti Park is definitely not public under this model due to its location and exclusion of certain groups through Zuccotti’s rules preventing people from sleeping within the square.

From the four models of public space presented by Iveson, it’s possible to combine the models in order to better grasp how neoliberal policy that encourages privatization and securitization is threatening the different iterations of public space and squares. A truly public space has to place the needs of the public above private interests, must help to foster community through its design, has to be accessible by every social class, and must represent and celebrate in its design the differences of both publics, the dominant and the marginalized (Iveson 187-190). Privatization encouraged by neoliberal policy along with gentrification threatens many of these factors that make a space actually public. As the population, and thus the need for public squares increased throughout New York City, the city found it economically infeasible to support all of that infrastructure, so they began providing private developers with incentives to build public space (Bressi 43). The incentive that has led to the development of 503 privately owned public spaces throughout the city was allowing developers to surpass the skyscraper zoning laws if they agreed to provide a certain amount of public space for every floor of the skyscraper that went above the height limit (Bressi 43). This gave New Yorkers their much need public space, but it was privately owned, which as Mark Kingwell points out in his chapter titled “The Prison of Public Space,” can have serious consequences.

Like what happened in New York City with the need for more public space, when a public amenity becomes threatened by overuse or requires expansion, “The typical response to this threat are regulation and privatization. Neither is without cost. Privatization of some goods – air, for example, – is economically untenable as well as offensive to the common need (although privately supplied water, sold in bottles for profit, is now widely accepted: a red flag) (Kingwell 213). The example of bottled water applies remarkably well for public squares: where they were once solely constructed by the state as visible signs of public government putting the civic good over private interest, public squares are now primarily built by private developers in New York City (Rosenberg). This mirrors how water was solely a public amenity, but has since been bottled by private companies (many of which lie about filtration) and sold for profit. Kingwell argues that just as water is a basic human right and is available through the public water supply, public space allows citizens the right “to gather and discuss, to interact with and debate one’s fellow citizens” (Kingwell 213). More than simply being a public square, it actually encourages the great urban intermixing of classes and races that gives rise to discussions and arguments, the very cornerstone of democracy. Kingwell thus proves that since public space allows citizens to exercise democratic rights like the right to assemble and freedom of speech, its privatization risks limiting that right to those who are able to access the privately owned public square. Shockingly, after an audit of all of New York City’s privately owned public spaces in 2017, it was discovered that 180 of them did not comply with the city’s rules. Private corporations negated everything from benches to water fountains; with some private enterprises going as far as putting signs above public spaces that wrongly informed people that they were “for members only” or were “private property” (Rosenberg). New York City’s privately owned public spaces are not meeting Iveson’s models for being truly public and they have the potential to strip people of democratic rights as Kingwell has discovered. The answer to solving these issues caused by the privatization and securitization of public squares is the creation of insurgent public space.

Insurgent public space is created through insurgent urbanism, which is when citizens and communities create space outside of regulatory and government legal stipulations. People reclaim, occupy, or appropriate certain spaces in cities to create the change they want to see, express opinions on space, garner support for change, or just to engage in community activities (Hou). At the most basic level, a block party is an example of insurgent public space. A road usually used for car traffic must be blocked, either illegally or legally, in order for the space to be transformed for a party setting. At it’s highest caliber, insurgent urbanism is the Occupy movement in Zuccotti Park and the Arab Spring in Tahrir Square, where the usual square regulations are ignored and the space is reconfigured and redesigned to meet the needs of protestors and revolutionaries. Insurgent urbanism can help to alleviate the effects of those 180 mismanaged privately owned public spaces throughout New York City – if the corporation responsible for the square does not provide benches, then insurgent urbanism says to build a bench and put it there regardless if it is permitted or not. If the privately owned public square must have an outdoor water fountain but does not provide one, insurgent urbanists should start a protest outside the owner’s office tower until the water is supplied. The point behind insurgent public space is that when the needs of the people who use the space are not being met, they should have the right to transform it until it meets the local community’s needs or to protest until change is initiated: “Lived experience should be more important than the physical form in defining the city” (Hou). One such instance of insurgent urbanism that attempted to construct the city according to lived experience instead of through the vision of private developers occurred in Tomkins Square Park on New York City’s Lower East Side, in 1988. Riots were organized for an entire night to fight a 1AM curfew that had been imposed on the community’s park in order to deter use by drug dealers and the homeless. The curfew was seen as an attempt to clean up the square in order to make the neighborhood more appealing to private developers and the new residents that were moving into the Lower East Side, rapidly gentrifying the formerly working class area (Smith 314). “‘Whose fucking park? It’s our fucking park’ became the recurrent slogan” (Smith 315). Residents sought to protect the park and their neighborhood as a whole from private interests through insurgent urbanism. The riots against the curfew and evictions of homeless people from Tompkins Square Park lasted through the night, creating a temporary insurgent public space within the larger park. When the privatization of public space gives rise to spaces that aren’t providing for the needs of local residents, or aren’t accessible or representative of every member of the public, it will be through public demonstrations and insurgent urbanism like the Occupy movement in Zuccotti Park and the riot in Tompkins Square Park that makes the space truly public once again.

If the widespread neoliberalization of American cities continues, there may no longer be public squares in the U.S. by the year 2038. Instead, the privately owned public squares that are currently saturating New York City’s public spaces will be all that’s left. POPS do not meet the models of truly public space outlined by Iveson because they are not always accessible to all classes, do not put the public good above private interest, and do not help to build community. Further, due to the urban public square’s ability to foster democratic rights as basic as gathering in groups and discussing issues, when they become privatized, those rights become threatened by private interests. As Kingwell proves, this is a slippery slope that can lead to not only a select few being able to access the public squares, but a select few being able to actively participate in the democratic process. In order to avoid this bleak future of security camera-ridden squares designed to match corporate aesthetics, the people must reclaim spaces through insurgent urbanism. When the community is able to shape the space as opposed to private developers dictating how it should look and be used, the community is not only united through its creation, but is gradually able to bridge class divides and cultural differences through daily interactions within the truly public square.

 

Bibliography

Bressi , Todd W. “The New York City Privately Owned Public Space Project New York,             New York.” Places Journal, pp. 42–54.

 

Foderaro, Lisa W. “Zuccotti Park Is Privately Owned, but Open to the Public.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 13 Oct. 2011.

 

Hou, Jeffrey. “Beyond Zuccotti Park: Making the Public.” Places Journal, 1 Sept. 2012.

 

Iveson, Kurt. “Putting the Public Back into Public Space.” The People, Place, and Space   Reader, edited by Jen Jack Gieseking et al., Routledge, 2014, pp. 187–191.

 

Katz, Andrew. “Occupy Wall Street: How Protesters Made the Zuccotti Park Eviction    Inevitable.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 25 Nov. 2011.

 

Kingwell, Mark. “The Prison of ‘Public Space.’” The People, Place, and Space Reader,     edited by Jen Jack Gieseking et al., Routledge, 2014, pp. 212-216.

 

Levitin, Michael. “The Triumph of Occupy Wall Street.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media      Company, 10 June 2015.

 

Rosenberg, Eli. “A ‘Members Only’ Public Space in Manhattan? Join the Club.” The New             York Times, The New York Times, 19 Apr. 2017.

 

Smith, Neil. “Class Struggle on Avenue B: The Lower East Side as Wild Wild West” The   People, Place, and Space Reader, edited by Jen Jack Gieseking et al., Routledge,             2014, pp. 314-320

 

Townsend, Anthony. “ Digitally Mediated Urban Space: New Lessons for            Design.” Praxis, Harvard Graduate School of Design, 2004.

 

 

 

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