PRIVATIZING THE PUBLIC REALM
By Shirley Kressel
Shirley Kressel is a landscape architect and neighborhood activist living in Boston.
American governments at all levels are abdicating responsibility for the creation and maintenance of public space. Deferring to "private-sector efficiency," governments are shifting oversight of the public realm to private corporations unconstrained by legal mandates regarding such things as union labor, universal access, free speech, and free assembly. Corporations and developers are aggressively promoting this privatization.
Privatization of public space has some immediate commercial purposes. It can be highly profitable to developers, and it enables large-scale property owners to exclude "undesirables"—the homeless, the downmarket, the non-shoppers—from places of investment and privilege intended to attract up-scale suburbanites, the urban elite, and tourists with disposable income.
But privatization of public space also represents a more fundamental elite agenda. Privatization of the public realm substitutes the private corporation for public institutions as the repository of trust, legitimacy, and communal identity in our society. By acts of custodianship and gift-giving, by naming socially-significant institutions with corporate names, by substituting company logos for official flags, the private sector subverts the idea of democracy and the public good and makes all of America a "company town" to which we are coming to owe our soul.
The privatization of public space is part of a pattern which includes the privatization and corporate invasion of public schools, the proposed privatization of Social Security, the corporate takeover of health care, and other policies geared to define our lives and our society in terms of corporate needs and corporate power.
THE DESIGN VOCABULARY OF PRIVATIZATION
To implement corporate goals, designers have developed a vocabulary of elements to impose private agendas on public space. One popular form is the "captured" street: a public street is closed, and the land given over to the private owner or developer as a means of land assembly for structures larger than the pre-existing scale. These streets may remain "open" in some fashion, subject to deed restrictions for hours of access and maintenance requirements. But the public sphere is diminished, entrepreneurial power is concentrated, and the signal is sent that enclosed private space, rather than the public street, is the preferred—and, above all, safe—place to be.
Corporations claim that spaces are "public" as long as anyone can enter. By this criterion, shopping centers have equal status as a public good with town squares. (Town squares as centers of community life have been displaced by shopping malls reachable only by private auto, where people engage in private consumption on private space.) Shopping malls, once largely a suburban phenomenon, are spreading in cities as the basis of the "revitalization" movement, allowing corporations to reclaim the new urban frontier.
Designers usually use implicit rather than explicit means to achieve the psychological, economic, and physical exclusion of "undesirable" elements from the gathering places of the privileged and to enshrine corporations as the source of the life of society. They use such design elements as buildings, streetscapes, land use, circulation, and other means of control of the physical environment. For example, designers diminish the public realm by relegating the pedestrian-oriented ground floor of buildings to secondary status, using the ground floor instead for parking and other utilitarian purposes. Visitors enter the new NikeTown in Boston, located on a very busy pedestrian street, by car or through a lobby from which they are swept by escalator upward, away from the public streets to the more exclusive environment above.
Landscape design is being intensively subverted to support the privatization agenda. Several elements have become markers for privatized "landscaping." These include roof gardens as "public open space"; large planters occupying sidewalk space that would otherwise attract crowds of milling people; and festive banners bearing advertising in some form, incorporating private business promotion into our everyday travels in the public realm, akin to the transformation of public buses into rolling ads by advertising "wrap." Commercialized public "art" is increasingly appearing in public areas, sponsored by corporations. Since public art has a strong moral authority, it is certain that more objects in space will be appearing, with grateful plaques to the sponsors, as corporations exploit this benevolent imagery.
WHY DOES IT MATTER?
Public spaces are the arenas where the collective, common life which defines us as a society is acted out, and where we come into contact with those who are like and those who are different from ourselves. They are the places where we are all equal and where we are all "home." They are the places where our freedoms of speech and assembly are protected, where we can exercise the precious right of criticizing the government. In public spaces we are reminded of the most important civics lesson: We are all in this together.
When private agendas of stratification and control are imposed on those places, the very heart of democratic principle is threatened. Democracy cannot survive when we have no place to gather where there is "no purchase necessary." Democracy cannot survive substituting property rights for civil rights. Democratic principle cannot survive subordinating citizenship to consumerism.
The transformation of public space into a corporate preserve is an attempt by powerful elites to erase from our minds a consciousness of ourselves as people with goals which transcend a market-defined framework of social interaction and values which cannot be measured by the "bottom line."
Above all, the privatization of public space is an attempt to diminish the democratic dreams of ordinary citizens and to make us forget that we have the power to achieve them.
Originally published in New Democracy Newsletter, July-August 1998.