by Hanna Lutz
Public space is public space. I myself like to consider it as space not only accessible for the public (if this is ensured at all), but in the first place being made and maybe even protected by the public. In my last blog entry I already gave an overview about the predicted loss of public space as well as about Urban Hacks that sought to maintain (or almost fight for) its ideal forms. In this second article of my series I will give a selection of Hacks that are direct reactions to the privatisation of public space and will put the focus on the Urban Hackers’ ways to deal with these occurrences.
The privatisation of public space usually means the transfer of publicly owned into privately owned space. Most common example for this kind of “semi-public space” is the so-called Business Improvement District (BID). The idea behind it is to strengthen the self-organisation of local retailers and property owners by creating a local community group. Their activities reach from commonly managing safety and cleanliness, joint city marketing and advertising to the development of overall management and maintenance concepts for an entire district. Hereby they partly replace responsibilities of the public administration and gain substantial influence on the area. This can result in the exclusion of certain groups that aren’t suitable for the BID image just like homeless, punks, skateboarders, traceurs ect. Since private property right can differ from public law, BID managers are allowed to determine the accessibility, the way of use up to the regulation of dress code within the semi-public space. Obviously, those areas become “clean and safe” for everyone – everyone they approve of one’s presence. Consequently, the inherent characteristics of the public space – such as free access and openness of behaviour – are threatened.
The action “Public Private Space” is carried out by the Spacehijackers, an England based group of “Anarchitects”, that “oppose the hierarchy that is put upon [them] by Architects, Planners and owners of space” (1). Their project is a reaction to the restrictions and regulations around the famous City Hall of London. It is an area thought to be a „bastion of public space“ (2), but because it belongs to More London Development Ltd., an off shore investment company that only rents the land to the Greater London Authority, public law is invalidated and this openness appears to be a “scam” (3).
As a reaction to the manifold restrictions on use of and on behaviour within this area, the Spacehijackers chose a low budget Communication Guerilla strategy. They designed a sign saying “Welcome, Please be aware this is private property. No Smoking, No Photography, No ball-games, No drinking, No skateboarding, No graffiti, No music, No heavy petting, No oaps, No begging, No Loitering, No protesting, No picnics, No Hoodies, No singing, No risk, No fun, No hope, No chance, No way. Enjoy your visit!” and with this refer to existing rules (i.e. no skateboarding, no drinking, no smoking, no loitering etc.) but also add rather unlikely actions (i.e. heavy petting) and fully harmless groups (like oaps) to the list to highlight the absurdity of those excluding regulations. The last bit “No risk, No fun, No hope, No chance, No way. Enjoy your visit!” almost tops it all. But the Spacehijackers go even further when they actually approach people telling them how to behave (“You, stop cycling, and you stop looking at me! No loitering, move on!) or even tell the More London Securities to leave the private property (dialogue see here). Their goal is to demonstrate the absurdity of the regulations resulting from the privatisation of public space.
Another Urban Hack that is linked to the privatisation or general loss of public space is an action called Parking Day. Initially performed in San Francisco to generate a critical debate around the lack of public space, it is now an „annual open-source global event where citizens, artists and activists collaborate to temporarily transform metered parking spaces into ‘PARK(ing)’ spaces: temporary public places“ (4). In 2011, citizens of 162 cities in 35 countries participated by transforming a single metered parking space into a temporary public park until the meter ran out. They called attention to the fact that a big part of the public space is used for traffic and even is sold to private owners in order to create privately managed parking lots.
In recent years, participants planted temporary urban farms, produced ecology demonstrations, held political seminars, built art installations, opened free bike repair shops and even held a wedding ceremony on PARK(ing) lots and therefore expanded the idea up to the point where a wide range of community needs are fulfilled on these grounds in order to reclaim the public space.
The two given examples of Urban Hacks differ from each other in many ways. Whereas the actors of Private Public Space initiated a rather subversive action that tries to make fun of current private property rules and even aims to mess with their representatives, participants of PARK(ing) Day tend to occupy (semi-) private space and use it for their own (public) purposes. Whether these actions indeed help to maintain or regain free accessibility and an undetermined way of use or if they lead to even tighter rules is not shown yet. However, both Hacks have the same goal: defending public space and its inherent characteristics.