In the last few weeks there has been a debate in London regarding Granary Square, the public square near King’s Cross railway station. This is an open and public space, like so many in the UK, which is gradually being privatized. A similar debate is being generated in cities such as Madrid and Barcelona. In recent times the privatization of public places has been gaining prominence. Some representative cases are the corporate brand names of subway stops or central squares. The city centers are becoming ambiguous territory, between public and private. The same social practices that are established also have ambiguous consequences: citizens are formulating questions such as: Where does the privatized square begin and where does it end? How is my freedom affected in using this space?
Photographic elaboration of Granary Square (London). Photograph: King’s Cross Central
Institutions are making it difficult to know which public spaces have been purchased by private entities. It is not permitted for the general public to know which public spaces are privatized. It is a tortuous process to access this information, depending on the council responsible for providing such information: In some cases it is necessary to formally ask the competent authorities, traversing bureaucratic processes, and paying fees in order to obtain such a service, and there are many other strategies that complicate obtaining this information for the public.
In the United Kingdom this information may be obtained at first hand. Thanks to the initiative of the newspaper The Guardian, a collaborative map is being charted of the territories identified as “private” through a digital platform or through the hashtag #keeppublic. Users can map the territory, through photos, and documents. It is creating a collaborative map to identify streets, parks, beaches or privatized areas. The organizers of this initiative report that this mapping is not meant to alarm the population, but simply to identify and report privatized spaces and thus sensitize the citizens about “public” land. Once again, it is possible to see how an online platform is massive and open to mobilizing and empowering people. It is one way to reappropriate something that once belonged to citizens, and now no longer seems to be in their hands, and especially their feet.
Example of privatized public spaces map in the city of London. For a complete map of the UK, open the following link: https://www.google.com/fusiontables/DataSource?docid=1lrNKscwda7NNc9rrq_Si9dhBqZAbv1Cv2Bx-o7s
According to Naomi Colvin, an activist from # occupy, “It is a vision of society in which you work and you shop. At times when you are not working or shopping, you may go to restaurants.”
With this critical and ironic perspective it can be understood that places are becoming more like entertainment venues, where there is a space to meet, discuss, protest.
We can imagine, and sometimes see with our own eyes that these quasi-public spaces are quite similar to quasi-squares in multiplex theaters in the suburbs of cities. These are sites where consumers are between films, queuing for popcorn and waiting for people who have not yet arrived. Privatized spaces can be converted into a large container of junk food restaurants, replicated terraces, green plants without fragrance, artificial cleaning and trash. A vivid, busy square footprint becomes an archaeological landscape.
Thanks to the Occupy movement, we have witnessed several public reappropriations of these iconic urban places. Places have been open to dialogue in the polis in Ancient Greece and congregation centers and hangouts of the main activities of civic spaces today. The OM, for example, was instrumental in illustrating to the public what it means to reappropriate public land. Spaces posed as public spaces, but it was discovered they were no longer owned by the public. A common space is open to everybody, according to general opinion. By the time you gather on this ground, that’s when you get kicked, stopped and eventually you are denied this space, and then the concept of public ownership public ownership starts to gain a new meaning :
The question we asked ourselves after the eviction of many places in the world is the same question posed by the tweet of @JaviCTW: Why are we evicted from a public space that is precisely designed forthese types of practices (manifesting / protesting / make meetings / etc.)? If a space is defined as public it means it is open to the public, then why is something that is public suddenly renamed and privatized without consent from the general public? A reappropriation of public space is a social tool to try to visualize what is “endangered”, or what to protect.
The square in the social imagination is a space that can be lived in, walked through, stepped on, be busy, but never sold. We have never heard of these places being purchased or acquired; these actions occur to buildings, houses, shops, galleries or private roads. But not squares.
We cannot leave traces of our presence as citizens in a space like this; it’s a feature that does not belong to a privatized square. An example is what happened in the hours after the eviction of 15-M in Madrid: the cleaning staff of the City of Madrid came sweeping, pouring water, and disinfecting in order to remove traces of camping residues in the bricks of the square. They were trying to erase everything that happened in that place the previous day, thinking that it would scrub the offline world. They did not want to leave signs, or a physical memory in the square. But what is noticed is that although the physical world of the square was well cleaned, there is still a square and there are memories of those days and nights of claiming and reappropriation of this public space. Just to walk around the square, you can feel and see hundreds of voices, banners and infrastructures that are still present in our lives. There is no monument or plaque for that. The antecedent is in our minds and in digital memory; we know that if it worked once, and we can repeat it. You could even improve the practice of public reappropriation.
For this reason, there is a political class that is looking for another solution for future demonstrations or protests. A strategy to prevent or modify some of the possible dynamics that OM has generated is to privatize public space. The streets, parks, squares and any open spaces are being redefined as a private space after a transformation, a restructuring and an architectural “clean”. It is a standardization phase that happens both in Madrid and in London, which is characterized by similar patterns consisting of chronotope repeating the same guidelines for privatizing public squares. This chronotope is the time and space of every experience, according to Mikhail Bakhtin. It helps explain the fact that any change or social transformation happens as a product of a particular historical context.
After OM, the movement begins to establish practices of privatization of public space with almost identical characteristics to each other; in this way it is possible to understand the concept of authorship in the chronotope. Thanks to the chronotope we can recognize, for example, the author of a text, simply from a few pages of his work, or the artist of a painting, simply by an individual. And we can recognize a process of privatization of public space, simply because of some practices that are replicated in a given time interval in a specific space. It could list some features to try to answer the question: How do you recognize if a square is private or public? Some guidelines could be the following:
• Terraces of private businesses appear where there weren’t any before;
• The same goes for advertising posters or special offers from shops around the square;
• The square begins to slowly lose identity, it is changing some of its infrastructure (benches, fountains, etc.)
• It changes its name or a new one is added. Or people begin to call it by a trade name that has stolen the identity of the square;
• Structural difficulties are given for meeting people or to make an assembly or for a demonstration, because of all the objects described in the first three points;
• It becomes a cultural graveyard, where memory recalls something happened, happened there, but the fast food signs try to hide this memory or confuse you;
• And so on …
The time range for the transformation of a public space is not slow nor fast. It depends on the situation, and is perfectly suited to the dynamics in which we live everyday and urban transformations today. Every city has time, dynamics, contexts and different actors, and for this reason it is impossible to compare Madrid with London. But it is possible to design this path and see how standards and patterns are repeated in the same manner and in the same way. Thanks to chronotope, we can see how our streets have been transformed, are changing and will lose their identity.
A next step would be to try to imagine how the future will engage the Occupy movement in these new urban scenarios. How will the once private citizens use their new spaces? It could reach a conclusion that is quite legitimate that probably refuses the right of entry to the “public”, closing the fringes of the city that allow entry to these places. Is this the strategy of the political class to solve future occupations of these places? The political class appears unable to counter collective actions in their powerful ability to call on online world organization and empowerment, and is trying to raise new barriers in the offline world.
The privatization of public spaces is a policy to prevent future use of public reappropriations as a weapon. Quasi-public spaces where their owners do not have to offer any explanation for asking protesters to leave or people who they just “do not want” in their territory. They are an excellent excuse to stop, to leave, to punish future generations who want to make public their right to demonstrate in squares.
Probably in the not too distant future we will concentrate on Paternoster Square before alerting as expected Mitsubishi or Vodafone to open their doors and leave us their space for a few hours on a Saturday afternoon. To sell and to buy public space has never been as profitable and rewarding as today. For this reason it is being done these days in the UK and it is understandably a good strategy to sensitize the public to these current dynamics. Mapping and monitoring this privatization of public land by the same citizenship is a good exercise in urban ecology and making visible something that you try to hide. In the process of privatization of public space, it is essential to understand the standards that constitute this chronotope and try to outline the next steps of this movement to outmaneuver privatization so that it will be possible to reappropriate public squares after they have been sold, bought and modified. The privatization of public land, although occurring at different times and spaces, follows the same patterns and common goals despite contextual differences. The study of these patterns is needed to compare different situations and develop a common strategy of resistance.