What’s Killing our Public Places?

One word - privatisation. This is the key challenge facing public places in western nations. The challenge has arisen due to the fact that,“the provision of publicly accessible space has been increasingly undertaken by the private sector, often at the encouragement of overstretched, fiscally strained local governments who attempt to meet demand for urban open space by providing density bonuses and other incentives to the private sector in exchange for the provision and maintenance of such spaces.” This brings about an “axiomatic tension for developers grappling with both profit motives and imperatives of social inclusion.”

By shifting the cost of public space provision to the private sector a number of issues are encountered, the main issues concern usage and access. Here’s a short summary:

Certain activities, often guaranteed under common law or statute (such as the right to public assembly and protest) will generally not apply to spaces which are privately owned.

Equitable access is a core feature of successful public places, it is however no longer a guiding principle when “owners and managers can limit access and behaviour in these spaces to produce a desirable public composed of well-heeled consumers and absent of, say, loitering teenagers”.  Lack of public engagement concerning the design, delivery and subsequent management of these spaces runs counter to best practice which emphasises participatory processes and community driven long term activation.

Many (but not all) privately provided places are poorly designed, disconnected from the places in which they exist and not championed by the local community.

It’s not just privately owned spaces that present these challenges as cities and towns are increasingly looking to present a tidy image to encourage investment and development. This often means that activities and people are excluded through the use of CCTV, private security and by-laws that in practice regulate certain categories of people such as homeless, skateboarders and teens.

The privatisation of public places goes to the heart of their functioning as publicly accessible assets which can deliver wide ranging well documented social and economic benefits to communities. Here’s a few ideas to help deal with the issues raised by their increasing privatisation:

-Planning instruments should enshrine minimum standards for public space provision for certain development types that include best practice design guidelines.

-Legislation should enshrine equitable rights of access and set standards and methods for public space governance that includes community representatives.

-Benchmarks for quality community engagement should be established and made to apply to a wide range of development types.

Author: Stephen Burton


Kayden J in Ben-Joseph, E., & Szold, T. (2005). Regulating place standards and the shaping of urban America. New York: Routledge.

Németh, J. (2012). Controlling the Commons: How Public Is Public Space? Urban Affairs Review, 48(6), 811-835.

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