Public/private space and the monopolies of fun and violence

by robertmcnicol

Hi both. The Graun are doing an interesting series on a serious topic – the privatisation of apparently public spaces. You can follow this here. The basic situation is this: private developers want total control over the appearance of and behaviour in their spaces – and usually we’re talking shopping areas or office developments. I don’t mean to imply that the developers are seeking anything sinister, merely that they want to make sure that they can guarantee security for shops or a well-planted environment environment for hard-working clerks. The local authorities see the benefit – they don’t have to pay for the upkeep of the fancy shiny paving.

Why is this a problem? Well, the Anna Minton line is that this is undemocratic. Which it is: there is a long history of struggle to allow for public access to open spaces which appears to be being undone. But there are two further complaints I would add.

Who pays for stuff?

In his glowing (and marginally incoherent) report on the Liverpool One development, Martin Wainwright speaks to Chris Bliss, the head of estates for the site. Bliss believes that, when it comes to flashmobs and street pianos, merrily hosted by the good lords of Liverpool One:

“It would be much harder for the city council to lay on that sort of thing,” says Bliss. “People would start saying: ‘Huh, so that’s how you’re spending our council tax.'”

Why is this nonsense? Not only because the city council did indeed spend public money on extravagent (I mean that positively) public art, and not even because the flashmob – inevitably organised by a mobile phone company – is the epitome of the apparently public but actually private performance (organised jollity! Control of public space! Ephemeral expression of the will to purchase through song and dance!). Really the problem is this constant sniping of public spending as if private companies’ money isn’t paid for by us, and can be frittered away on trifles with no objection. It is of course the shoppers who pay for the private security and the street pianos. Do they want them? Maybe. Do they get a say about their shopping environment and how their money is spent on it? Of course not. Why shouldn’t the city council pay for street pianos and flashmobs and giant puppets and urban zorbing and discus fights and zebras on ice? Sometimes they do, and people generally like it, but that’s not my point. My point is this: At least people would be able to say “Huh, so that’s how you’re spending our council tax”.

Privatising the threat of violence

Of course, public space doesn’t need to be privatised to be privately policed. In my fair city of Brighton, you’ll regularly see fake police persons trotting around the North Laine Business Improvement District, hoiking scalliwags off the pavement for nicking a pack of opal fruit starburst. But in private spaces the problem is worse, with the behaviour of visitors regulated. We saw this, of course, most obviously with the Occupy movement’s attempt to protest in Paternoster Square last year. But similar issues arise closer to home: Churchill Square in Brighton has a slightly sinister sign reminding people that the land that stands before them, open and unblocked, to all intents public, in fact is not.

It reads:

Churchill Square Shopping Centre Is Private Property. This Includes The Paved Area At The Front Known As The Piazza. This Area Runs From The Prince Of Wales Public House On The West, The Top Of Cranbourne Street On The East And To The Bollards That Border Western Road On The North.

This sign is insulting for a number of reasons:

  1. It is bordering on illegible. The idiot that comissioned it believed, as an eight year old believes, that because it was a sign Every Word Needed To Be Capitalised. Pro tip: this person should not be given the job of comissioning signs.
  2. There is no obvious purpose to it. In this information-saturated world, there is no room for signs the end of which is not apparent. Adverts I can stand, because they are trying to sell me something. Road signs I don’t mind, because they are trying to save my life. This is a corporately sanctioned graffiti tag. There are only two reasons the general public could possibly need to know this information: if they want to campaign to change the facts that it purports to express, or if they want to blog about it.
  3. It is placed not on the explicitly dilineated land, but on a lamppost on Western Road. That is, public land. Our land.
  4. It is not known – by anyone, not a soul, not even the people who work there – as “The Piazza”.
  5. It does not say who put it there and what authority they have to make this claim. It merely asserts its own facts in its own world, thereby reasserting the facelessness of the corporate realm.

Anyway, a lot of that is secondary to my main point. Which follows.

I don’t know when this sign went up, although I did first notice it shortly after the hard left/anarchist kids from the no cuts lobby were clambering on roofs and supergluing themselves to Vodafone. That could easily be me reading a narrative of my own construction into my noticings. Or it could be someone at Churchill Square trying to reassert their claim over this place and the supposed rights of their security guardians to drag people away, whether they’re committing acts of civil disobediance or shooting kittens in the window of British Home Stores.

And even nice shiny residential streets can ban the most innocuous behaviour. Here, in the New England Quarter, residents – or presumably, the juvenile ones – are mandated not to skateboard or play ball games:

It is the implicit threat that I find disconcerting. What will happen to me if I skateboard around here? Most likely a broken neck, given my co-ordination skills. But would I then be accosted by a ear-pieced phantom? Can he restrain me, or just move me on? Under what powers? Can he call the police? To whom can I complain if he flicks my ear?

There’s a reason that we have the police. They are (largely) accountable, and they are given the monopoly on violence (unless you count the armed forces. Which I don’t, on British streets at least. For now. At the moment. Unless you go to London in July.) That is right and proper. Now we’ve started farming this out to any thick necked Jimmy with a smirk, and we’re the poorer for it.