Pseudo-public space – squares and parks that seem public but are actually owned by corporations – has quietly spread across cities worldwide. As the Guardian maps its full extent in London for the first time, Jack Shenker reports on a new culture of secrecy and control, where private security guards can remove you for protesting, taking photos … or just looking scruffy
A Guardian Cities investigation has for the first time mapped the startling spread of pseudo-public spaces across the UK capital, revealing an almost complete lack of transparency over who owns the sites and how they are policed.
Pseudo-public spaces – large squares, parks and thoroughfares that appear to be public but are actually owned and controlled by developers and their private backers – are on the rise in London and many other British cities, as local authorities argue they cannot afford to create or maintain such spaces themselves.
Although they are seemingly accessible to members of the public and have the look and feel of public land, these sites – also known as privately owned public spaces or “Pops” – are not subject to ordinary local authority bylaws but rather governed by restrictions drawn up the landowner and usually enforced by private security companies.
The Guardian contacted the landowners of more than 50 major pseudo-public spaces in London, ranging from financial giant JP Morgan (owner of Bishops Square in Spitalfields) to the Tokyo-based Mitsubishi Estate (owner of Paternoster Square in the City of London) and the Abu Dhabi National Exhibitions Company (owner of the open space around the ExCeL centre).
We asked them what regulations people passing through their land were subject to, and where members of the public could view those regulations. All but two of the landowners declined to answer. We also asked all local authorities in London for details of privately owned public spaces in their borough, via the Freedom of Information Act; most councils rejected the request.
In response to the Guardian investigation, the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has now vowed to publish new guidelines on how these spaces – some of the city’s most prominent squares and plazas – are governed.
In partnership with Greenspace Information for Greater London CIC (GiGL), the capital’s environmental records centre, Guardian Cities has produced the first ever comprehensive map of pseudo-public spaces in the capital. The underlying dataset is publicly available. Readers are invited to help contribute information on both new and existing sites to help track and monitor land ownership in London.
Under existing laws, public access to pseudo-public spaces remains at the discretion of landowners who are allowed to draw up their own rules for “acceptable behaviour” on their sites and alter them at will. They are not obliged to make these rules public.
The result is that unless landowners choose to volunteer the information themselves, members of the public have no way of knowing what regulations they are bound by at some of London’s biggest open spaces and whether activities they enjoy a legal right to in other public areas – be they taking photos, holding a political protest or even simply sitting down and having a nap – are permitted, or whether they will result in removal by security guards.
On the King’s Cross Estate – one of the largest redevelopment projects in London and including more than four acres of open and publicly accessible space – the Guardian was told by security officials that a list of private regulations governing users of the site did exist, but that the landowner did not wish to reveal them.
Outside City Hall on the south bank of the Thames, home to London’s democratically elected mayor and assembly, private security guards working for the More London estate (ultimately owned by the sovereign wealth fund of Kuwait) prevented the Guardian from carrying out any interviews.
Security officers intervened within moments of a reporter attempting to ask questions of members of the public, and immediately escorted him to the security office where it was explained that unsanctioned journalistic activity is banned on the site. When asked for an explanation of this rule and details of any other regulations that might restrict the rights of citizens passing through the area, the landowner refused to comment.
This culture of secrecy on the part of landowners is scary,” Sian Berry, leader of the Green party in the London Assembly, told the Guardian. “Being able to know what rules you are being governed by, and how to challenge those rules, is a fundamental part of living in a democracy.”
Her words were echoed by Daniel Moylan, a Conservative councillor in London who served as a senior adviser to Boris Johnson during his time as mayor. “It’s extremely worrying,” said Moylan, who has warned of a “democratic deficit” in the governance of pseudo-public space. “Private landowners have the power to coerce us in what appear to be public streets and squares. If they have power over us then we must at least know what those powers are, where they get them from, and how they are held accountable.”
In response to the Guardian’s investigation, Jules Pipe, London’s deputy mayor for planning, regeneration and skills, said that a commitment to “genuinely open” public spaces will be a key part of Sadiq Khan’s forthcoming London Plan, which provides a framework for all planning decisions in the capital. The new London Plan will contain guidelines covering open spaces, he explained, and will seek to “maximise access and minimise restrictions, as well as enabling planners to establish potential restrictions at the application stage for new developments”.
“While the mayor agrees that private developments have a right to manage their property,” added Pipe, “it is important those areas that look to all intents and purposes like the public realm are not policed in an overly aggressive or intimidating manner.”
“That is private information.”
But critics of pseudo-public space believe this doesn’t go far enough. “We could very easily legislate to say that all open spaces in the city are governed simply by the law of the land – both national law and the normal local authority bylaws, which are transparent and drawn up through democratic processes – and not by special, secret restrictions established by companies that vary from place to place,” argued Anna Minton, a writer and academic who specialises in the privatisation of public space. “It’s part of a crisis of accountability in our political culture at the moment. The Guardian asked a simple set of questions to landowners, and was met with a wall of silence. The message is clear: however public they may appear, these are private places, and that is private information.”
The Guardian Cities investigation into the lack of transparency over how Pops are governed comes as it publishes London’s first comprehensive map of such sites. In several other major cities, including New York, Toronto and Rotterdam, the city authorities or other organisations already maintain publicly accessible maps to help citizens identify pseudo-public spaces and the boundaries that divide them from genuinely public land.
Despite calls from campaigners, until now no such map has ever been drawn up for London, in part because details of land ownership are scattered between several different bodies, and information regarding public access provisions in planning agreements can be difficult to obtain from local authorities.
In collaboration with GiGL, Guardian Cities has identified approximately 50 sites in London that meet our relatively narrow criteria for pseudo-public space: namely outdoor, open and publicly accessible locations that are owned and maintained by private developers or other private companies. They include major areas of open land around Paddington Station (encompassing both Merchant Square and Paddington Central), nearly seven acres of open space owned by Arsenal Football Club in Islington, busy shopping and dining plazas in Covent Garden and Victoria, and the pseudo-public area around one of London’s most iconic attractions, the London Eye. The dataset behind the map has been made public, and can be accessed on the GiGL website and the London Datastore.
For the purposes of the map, other privately owned public spaces have been excluded, among them sites which are privately-owned by public bodies (such as the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in East London, which is managed as a private site by the London Legacy Development Corporation) and those owned or managed by charitable trusts (including Jubilee Gardens in Southwark and the large area of land under the control of the Canal & Rivers Trust), as well as locations where users would not reasonably expect to be on public land – such as churchyards, school fields and indoor shopping centres.
Julie Cox, partnership manager at GiGL, told the Guardian that although this was only the first iteration of a comprehensive map of London pseudo-public space, and would therefore inevitably contain some omissions and inconsistencies, the organisation plans to update and expand this dataset in the future and is keen to hear from members of the public on what land should and shouldn’t be included. “We’re in contact with many of our partners about these data, and there’s a lot of interest,” she said. “It’s something we’d definitely like to keep updating as part of the suite of datasets we are responsible for, and ideally something members of the public can contribute to as well.”
Private control over large open spaces in the city is not without historical precedent. In the 19th century many areas of central London, including stretches of Belgravia, Marylebone and Pimlico, were effectively gated communities, sealed off from the general public and policed by private entities. Throughout the late 19th and 20th centuries public struggles were waged to force open land and ensure streets, squares and parks were adopted by local authorities over whom Londoners of all backgrounds – not just the influential or wealthy – could exert a measure of democratic control.
In the past few decades, however, the creation of corporate-owned urban areas like Canary Wharf and the Broadgate development around Liverpool Street Station began to reverse this trend, and by 2007 the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors was describing the growing private ownership and management of spaces that appeared to be in the public realm as a “quiet revolution in land ownership”.
Since then, the acute budgetary pressures placed on local authorities by successive governments have encouraged municipal planners to cede control of almost all new open spaces in the city to developers; some academics now refer to a new era of ‘urban enclosure’, echoing the fencing and enclosing of Britain’s rural commons that took place during the 17th and 18th centuries.
“As the austerity cuts hit non-statutory services such as parks harder and harder, London boroughs have been left stuck between a rock and a hard place,” said Tony Leach, chief executive of the charity Parks for London. “They know that they need to provide and maintain new green spaces for residents, but they believe they cannot afford to do so themselves.”
The nature of pseudo-public space in London was highlighted in 2011, when protesters from the Occupy movement initially attempted to rally in the open space outside the London Stock Exchange in Paternoster Square, only to be removed by police on the grounds that they were trespassing on private land.