The month in architecture: When is a public space not a public space?

Ian Nairn warned of creeping urban privatisation 50 years ago. Now a wave of public space protests are proving him right

‘Who said it: Nairn or Guardian Readers?’ was one of the more bizarre ways in which the 50th anniversary of Ian Nairn’s London was celebrated last month: whether this was intended to demonstrate the distinctiveness of Nairn’s style or the discerning architectural eye of the average Guardian reader remains unclear. Each of Nairn's entries was included on account of being publically accessible but in the introduction he warned this number was shrinking due to a 'third burning of London at the hands of developers’ greed and planners’ inadequacy'. A modern visit to London's original entries reveals that fire is yet to be put out.

A detached stroll around London with the spectre of Nairn at your shoulder - ‘what follows is a record of what has moved me, my hope is that is moves you, too’ - can all seem rather sentimental set against the likes of experimental geographer Bradley Garrett’s 2013 Explore Everything, in which ‘place hacking’ is presented a means of actively reclaiming the modern city. The growing trend for POPS (Privately Owned Public Spaces) in London (a theme of another Guardian quiz) is by no means a recent phenomenon. Last year Ian Martin described London as the city that would ‘privatise itself to death’, and high-profile projects like the Garden Bridge (itself under fire for a decidedly dodgy procurement process) are again bringing POPS into the public eye.

Some maintain that it is purely academic: the average city dweller can still enjoy a privately owned park, provided it is open, and use the space to take a stroll, eat their lunch or admire a view. To take Jonathan Meades’ view, ‘so much space has always been privatised…why on earth everyone should have a right to walk absolutely everywhere I don’t know’. But what is at stake surpasses simple questions of access. As novelist Will Self put it at the latest demonstration against privatisation, Space Probe Alpha, ‘[privatised space] does affect you psychically…it constrains you in how you think about what you can do in a space’, a view he made clear again in his dismantling of Tory MP Chris Phillip on Channel 4. 

Self was speaking at the first of many ‘public space interventions’ by the London Space Academy, a ‘mass trespass’ held at Potters Fields Park in the shadow of City Hall, joined by attendees including Garrett, Anna Minton, and Green Party Mayoral candidate Siân Berry. This space, privately owned since 2002 but sold again in 2013 for £1.7 billion to the St Martins Property Group (representing the interests of Kuwait), now operates under corporate bylaws rather than those of the local authority. 

It is a fate shared by Paternoster Square and Granary Square to name but a few. These spaces do not clearly advertise their laws but the public can be prevented from congregating, taking photographs or filming, and certainly protesting. This move from local authority laws to corporate bylaws is one Berry has vowed to stop should she to become Mayor. At Space Probe Alpha the protest deployed the guise of a tourist group, with photography rendered ‘commercial’ by the exchange of a penny each time a shot was taken. The logical conclusion of such laws is mounting monitoring and securitisation such as the Garden Bridge’s almost parodic plans revealed recently to track visitors via their mobile phone signals. 

(Above) Will Self addresses the protestors at Space Probe Alpha's mass trespass.

(Left) Green party mayoral candidate Siân Berry follows suit.

To celebrate Nairn more productively, we could turn to the Townscape series he helped create - a series not about architecture or town planning, but about an observation of the public life of private lives, an exploration of the urban scene piled high with its paraphernalia. In a recent video for the Architecture Foundation, Self argued part of the solution to creeping privatisation is greater public awareness and action, going out into the city and testing the extent of the bylaws. From this perspective, the act of joining a walking tour ceases to be that of a passive observer, but of an active participant in the shaping of a place. And where better to start than with the AF’s second Outer London walking tour, interrogating some of Stratford City with Merlin Fulcher on the 12th of March.