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THE PRIVATIZATION OF PUBLIC SPACE:

NEOLIBERALISM AND THE POLITICS OF PLACE


Zeynep Turan
Working draft: January 2015 version

INTRODUCTION
Public space, where individuals come to connect with society to express themselves and to participate in a
collective process of debating common interests, is under siege by forces seeking to privatize this domain for
the purposes of economic gain, political control, and cultural dominance. The rise of neoliberalism in the late
1970s and its deepening in the 1990s has metastasized into a more formidable assault as public spaces have
become symbolic, and in some cases literal, battlefields between contending actors. The business sector, from
multinational corporations to local commercial interests, look to restructure public space both physically and
politically, to make it not only hospitable to markets but as a vehicle for transmitting market values to society.
With their large and ever-growing populations, and often as focal points for economic development, political
activity, and cultural platforms, cities are at the forefront of the struggle over the privatization of public space.
Over roughly the past twenty-five years globalization has accelerated as technology has afforded greater
mobility, and capital, which endlessly seeks to penetrate and incorporate new markets, has contributed to
building a more interconnected world. However, the spread of globalization has been uneven, it flourishes
first and best where locals develop a taste for the foreign. Urban places have always been and remain hubs of
movementpeople come to cities to engage in production, exchange, and consumption, both material and
ideological. Cities are gateways to globalization, and they perform functions other than economic, they also
embody cultural and political values. In this sense, cities, therefore, are barometers of globalization and reveal
the state of the public sphere in the face of privatization pressures. The purpose of this essay is to analyze the
evolution of public space in the contemporary period by examining recent episodes signalizing new modalities
and at the same time situating them with reference to burgeoning social movements that defend specific
public space and is so doing have sparked a larger grand debate on public-private issues and the future of
cities.
New York City as a major cosmopolitan center and the center of global financial marketssome might also
point to its international political importance given it hosts the headquarters of the United Nationshas not
surprisingly been a flashpoint for the privatization of public space. In 2011 as the Occupy Wall Street (OWS)
movement began to garner attention for speaking out against an economic system that has primarily benefited

the wealthiest 1%, the place in which they figuratively as well as literally pitched their tents was Zuccotti Park,
a privately owned public space about a block away from the New York Stock Exchange. This space became a
microcosm for the very issue that fueled protest: Was this park a place for free expression or simply an
aggregation of landscaping for the corporate atmosphere? In short, OWS raises the issue of what is public
and what is private? What can be owned and what is in the domain of the "commons"?
The privatization of public spaces represents a new wrinkle in these debates because although such initiatives
promise the advantages of both the public sphere and the private sector, they also frequently are fraught with
the disadvantages of each. In this paper I overview the origins of this phenomenon broadly and examine
cases of it in New York City. In the conclusion I reflect on the impacts of these instances, including how it is
influencing the struggle over the privatization of public space.

CONCEPTS OF PUBLIC SPACE


In order to understand the ongoing metamorphosis it is necessary to unpack key concepts used to describe
types of public space. The terms space and place have particular meanings and salience in characterizing
areas. Space here means an area that is fundamentally abstract and undefined with regards to ownership
and management as well as its perceived economic or social-political purpose. Place, by contrast, indicates
that a location has been invested with particular social meaning.
By adding the adjective public, the idea of space is recast. Public space is a place in that it is structured
to enable access to the community without discriminating on a basis of gender, class, race, etc. Truly public
spaces bolster equality by being accessible and welcoming places made and managed through inclusive
processes. Even though universal access seems like a utopian ideal for each public space, traditionally public
spaces also provide for participatory processes such as free speech, assembly, protest or political action, and
equally important, un-programmed spontaneous encounters. Some examples of public spaces are: plazas,
parks, town squares, marketplaces, public commons and malls, public greens, piers, special areas within
convention centers or grounds, sites within public buildings, lobbies, airports, and concourses.
The nature of public space, however, has changed recently with the recent wave of emergent local and
national politics. What we have been seeing in the last thirty to forty years is a different kind of public space
that is the product of public-private partnerships. The first variety is privately owned private spaces,
otherwise known as POPs. The second variety is privately managed public spaces, or PMPs, ostensibly
preserve more of a public character given the property remains under public jurisdiction they nevertheless
illustrate the slow creep of private authority. PMPs are exemplified by such entities as Business
Improvements Districts (BIDs) and parks that are administered and financed primarily by private associations

such as non-profits or conservancies. Overall, in a practical sense, the private-public divide is far murkier than
the polar opposites implied. In fact, it is more useful to recognize there is really more of a continuum from
public to private spaces.
NEOLIBERALISM AS A DRIVER OF PRIVATIZATION
In the contemporary era, the primary driving force for privatized public spaces is economic: First, relative to
other costly needs, the expense of maintaining public spaces is simply too great for public authorities to
bearoften pressed by other financial burdens they invariably finding political support to invest in public
space lacking. Second, private sector actors see this as an opportunity to influence how urban space is
allocated and used.
The economic imperative to privatize public spaces is rooted in the global process of neoliberalism. This
school of thought crystallized and became prominent in the late 1970s. Political leaders such as Margaret
Thatcher in the United Kingdom and Ronald Reagan in the United States contended that governments had
become bloated bureaucracies that were not only wasteful and unaccountable in their use of resources but
generated unsustainable debt and fundamentally served their own interests, not that of the societies they
governed. According to their critique, the best solution to the corruption and incompetence of public
authorities was to incorporate what they saw as successes by private enterprise: increased competition leading
to greater efficiency. Therefore, their solution was to streamline the state by slashing funding for public works
projects. Since then the approach of allowing private sector initiatives to substitute for downsized public
institutions has become widespread. This ideology has become particularly prominent and promoted by the
libertarian-leaning Tea Party movement.
From the perspective of business, the shrinking and retreat of public authorities empowers the private sector
to play a greater role in society. In the case of public spaces, particularly ones that require an infusion of
capital to be maintained, private actors see potential: First, contributing to the preservation of public space is
good for the social and political reputation of the private sectorit demonstrates a commitment and
willingness to give back to communities. Second, such contributions are also good for business on several
levels: Corporate social responsibility attracts new consumers as do clean and safe public spaces adjoining to
business districts. Furthermore, there are often regulations regarding land use that permit businesses to
redevelop or expand their properties if they set aside land or build an area for public space.
THE PRIVATIZATION OF PUBLIC SPACE IN NEW YORK CITY
With a population of near 20 million people, the New York City metropolitan area (which spans parts of the
states of New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, with major concentrations in New York, Newark, and
Jersey City) is the largest urban environment in the United States. In terms of urban policies, New York City

has often been a bellwether for major cities in the US and around the world, and thus efforts to privatize
public space there are often viewed as precedent setting.
Privately Owned Public Spaces in NYC
The deepening effects of neoliberalism discussed above help to explain burgeoning privatization of public
space in New York City. Specifically, there is a serious shortage of available funds from government to
maintain let alone improve public spaces. The reality is that the budget for parks is not sufficient for high
quality upkeep, and, moreover, that every new park must finance itself. Furthermore, contemporary
regulations create an incentive for business to step into this breach. For instance, in 1961 New York City
instituted a zoning resolution that granted developers contributing to creation and/or maintenance of public
space a bonus floor area ratio (FAR) of up to 20 percent of the total floor area of their building. In fact, the
bigger the contribution to public space, the bigger the bonus. This means that a covered pedestrian space
with significant social amenities provides up to 12:1 FAR bonus to the developer whereas a sidewalk
widening renders a mere 3:1 bonus. The upshot is that for every square foot of indoor public space built, a
developer is allowed to construct an additional 12 square feet of residential or commercial space on top of the
allowed zoning code.
New York City has both privately owned public spaces (POPS) and privately managed public spaces (PMPS).
POPS are the legal property of private developers and real estate firms. According to the NYC Department
of City Planning, POPS, are an amenity provided and maintained by a developer for public use, in exchange
for additional floor area. They typically contain functional and visual amenities such as tables, chairs and
plantings for the purpose of public use and enjoyment. POPS are permitted in the Citys high-density
commercial and residential districts and are intended to provide light, air, breathing room and green space to
ease the predominately hardscaped character of the Citys densest areas. The Zoning Resolution has allowed
for several different types of privately owned public space, including plazas, arcades, urban plazas, residential
plazas, sidewalk widenings, open-air concourses, covered pedestrian spaces, through block arcades, and
sunken plazas. NYC has 530 POPS, all in Manhattan except for three in Brooklyn and one in Queens. The
program has produced more than 3.5 million square feet of public space in exchange for additional building
areas or other considerations, such as relief from certain height and setback restrictions. The most popular
and most visually apparent type of POPS is outdoors spacesplazas, residential plazas and urban plazas,
sometimes called bonus plazas. The NYC Department of City Planning requires that POPS must subscribe
to the following design principles: Open and inviting at the sidewalk (easily seen and read as open to the
public, conveys openness through low design elements and generous paths leading into the plaza, visually
interesting and contains seating); accessible (enhances pedestrian circulation, located at the same elevation as
the sidewalk); provides sense of safety and security (contains easily accessible paths for ingress and egress,

oriented and visually connected to the street, well-lit), and provides places to sit (accommodates a variety of
well-designed, comfortable seating for small groups and individuals).
Zuccotti Park
In Lower Manhattan in 1968, to commemorate the staging ground for what would be the first protest against
British taxes on tea in the early 1770s, between Broadway on the east, Trinity Place on the west, Liberty Street
on the north, and Cedar Street on the south, a parcel was turned into Liberty Plaza Parkthough it should
also be noted that it was part of a bargain between NYC and US Steel which wanted to build a taller building
at what became known at One Liberty Plaza. Located only about a block from the World Trade Center, this
park was severely damaged as a result of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Several years later, the
park was renovated and rechristened Zuccotti Park; the new name derived from the John Zuccotti, who
spearheaded fundraising to refurbish the park and was chairman of Brookfield Office Properties, the
company that owns the piece of land.
In September 2011 the Occupy Wall Street protest movement began, and the proximity of the park to the
NY Stock Exchange and the headquarters of financial services corporations, along with the feature that it was
ostensibly public space led to organizers to use it as a base of operations. It was not lost on protesters that the
park was once called Liberty Plaza but had since been renamed in honor of businessman, and thus the
symbolism of reclaiming the name of liberty in the name of liberty was also inspiring. It was also perhaps
simply a fortuitous turn of events as originally the protest leadership wanted to occupy One Chase Manhattan
Plaza, seeing that bank as representative of economic elites, but that space had been closed off to the public.
With OWS increasing the pressure through a stinging critique of disparitiesWe are the 99%and
galvanizing forces opposing capitalism and economic improprieties, it appeared Zuccotti Park was primed to
become a political platform for dissent. For nearly a month the park hosted OWS activists around the clock,
and the New York Police Department did not intervene because the founding agreement of the park
stipulated that it remain open 24 hours a day barring a safety issue.
However, in early October, Brookfield Properties contended that it had to clear the park for reasons of
sanitation. Despite that OWS protesters cleaned the park, safeguarded the flowerbeds, and generally
maintained access for pedestrians, Brookfield Properties continued to argue that the park was threatened.
Shortly after midnight on November 15, the New York Police Department forcibly removed protestors.
Subsequently although activists initially to be allowed to return to the park after it had been cleaned, by the
time cleaning and maintenance had been completed, the New York Supreme Court denied permission for
protesters to return. The park continued to be closed off by police until January 2012, and though a group of
OWS protesters pursued legal remedies, they eventually withdrew their lawsuit and turned their attention to

other forms of activism in other places. As it turns out, Zuccotti Park is indeed Zuccotti Park, not Liberty
Plazathe lesson of this POPS is that regardless of the terminology, at its root, it is more privately owned
than it is a public space.
Privately Managed Public Spaces in NYC
In contrasts to POPS where private actors have clearly displaced public authority, PMPS are under the formal
control of government but effectively are administered by management companies. The archetype of PMPS is
a business improvement district (BID), a public/private partnership formed to revive, foster, or strengthen
commercial activity through creating a safe, friendly space that pulls in shoppers. BIDs create conditions that
attract and retain businesses and generate jobs, which ultimately produces greater tax revenues for
governments. To accomplish this, BIDs collect money from constituent members to pay for private security,
cleaning, and maintenance. New York City is home to the nation's largest, most comprehensive network of
BIDs in the country. The City's sixty-eight BIDs annually invest over $100 million in neighborhoods across
the five boroughs. BIDs are exclusively in well-to-do New York City neighborhoods where business revenues
are expected to be high but are not found in low-income neighborhoods that already lack public spaces.
Union Square
Created in the 19th century at a major crossroads in lower Manhattan (the southwest corner is Broadway and
14th Street), Union Square was established as a public space to serve as a gateway to the main parts of the city.
By the late 19th century the square had become a place for political activity, particularly radical agitation. In
1984, the Union Square Partnership, an early exemplar of BIDs, was formed.
Sharon Zukin observes that Union Square has come to perform six functions: First, it is a space of
democracy; protests take place there and petition campaigns are often found along the park on weekends.
Second, it is a space of consumption; stands, bookstores, clothing stores are along around the square, and
after Thanksgiving a temporary holiday market is set up. Third, it is a classic market place; a farmers market is
held there three times a week. Fourth, it is a public square; a site for shared experiences. Fifth, it is a place to
play; the playground draws children and their parents making for a lively and entertaining environment. Sixth,
it is a national and local symbol; the park is recognized as a stage for expressing patriotism and enacting other
politically iconographic activities. However, Zukin argues that the Union Square BID is a perfect illustration
of the dilemma of public interest versus private interest (2010). On one hand, the area provides a refuge from
the chaos of the city for New Yorkers and tourists alike. On the other hand, it serves corporate sponsors and
business, particularly the restaurant on the squares northern edge.
In sum, Union Square has been structured to promote selective exclusion, which means that certain types of
people are not welcome (such as the homeless) or they simply seem out of place in it because the BID

maintains the grounds as what Zukin calls manicured places; clean, safe, and predictable. This
fundamentally reduces the vitality and vibrancy of the space by catering to only one sort of personmiddleclass or affluent tourist with a level of purchasing power beyond that of the poor. Moreover, the BIDs skews
the benefits of Union Square as a public space towards the rich while marginalizing the poor as it leases more
space to restaurants and sells billboard rights to corporate sponsors. It can similarly influence who is attracted
to the space and how large an audience by limiting the number of vendors as well as determining them. The
process becomes reinforced and is reiterated as the property values around the park increases as a
consequence of the BID, which also plays a part in enforcing market norms against unions, the unemployed
and welfare recipients. Ultimately, Union Square underscores the homogenizing impacts of BIDs and how
they decisively shape user type and subsequent decrease in socio-economic diversity. This effect broadly
translates into excluding particular political and cultural groups as BIDs effectively become gatekeepers to the
space, thereby raising issues of representation and participation.
The High Line
Another version of PMPS can be found in parks, and one that is frequently regarded as foreshadowing the
future of public spaces in New York City is the High Line Park, which was completed in 2014. Owned by the
City of New York and managed by Friends of the High Line, it was built on an historic freight rail line
elevated above the streets on the West Side of Manhattan. It runs from Gansevoort Street in the Meatpacking
District to West 34th Street, between 10th & 11th Avenues. Friends of the High Line was founded in 1999 by
community residents as a non-profit conservancy working with the New York City Department of Parks &
Recreation to ensure that the High Line is maintained as an extraordinary public space for all visitors to
enjoy. In addition to overseeing maintenance, operations, and public programming for the park, Friends of
the High Line works to raise the private funds to support more than 90 percent of the parks annual
operating budget, and to advocate for the preservation and transformation of the High Line at the Rail Yards,
the third and final section of the historic structure, which runs between West 30th and West 34th Streets.
The economic benefits New York City has reaped as a direct result of the High Line are significant. The first
two of the projects three segments have cost $133.6 million ($112.2 million of which has come from public
funds, with the balance donated by private and corporate sponsors) and, in a remarkable return on
investment, have spurred some $2 billion in ancillary development, primarily housing adjacent to the park,
about 2,500 apartments thus far. Those units have been selling for an average $2,000 per square foot, nearly
twice the Manhattan median of $1,028.
In addition, about a half-million square feet of new office space and a thousand hotel rooms have been added
to the surrounding neighborhood. The High Line thus far has drawn more than five million visitors (about
half from the New York metropolitan region, the rest domestic and foreign tourists), greatly benefiting local

restaurants and retail businesses, and creating 12,000 jobs since 2009, an impressive figure during a period of
soaring unemployment nationwide.
The park has also had a surprisingly low local crime rate, with not a single serious offense reported on the
High Line since it opened. That is largely the result of Parks Enforcement Patrol officers who issue one
quality-of-life summons (person has to appear before a judge) every other day on average, mainly for drinking,
but also for bicycles and dogs, which are prohibited on top the structure.
Its annual day-to-day operating costs are between $3.5 and $4.5 million dollars, and are entirely funded by the
non-profit Friends of the High Line. The Friends of the High Line spends more per acre on its park than is
spent on any other park in the city. When the High Line was constructed, the surrounding area received a
total of at least $4 billion in private investment. The City is also expecting that the Park and the businesses
nearby will yield $900 million in tax revenues over the next 30 years.
The High Line is a public space; it is open to anyone. However, given that it is underwritten by private money
the nature of this space as truly public is uncertain. One observer, Katherine Jose, zeroed in on the key issue
when she wrote, Is the High Line a good measure of the effectiveness of corporate-government action for
the public good? Or a measure of how much property and business owners in the immediate vicinity (an
expensive one) are willing to pay to walk to Chelsea Market among tapered concrete planks, Art-Deco railings,
and wild quinine? In other words, she is questioning whether this development serves the public interest or
is it merely to benefit a privileged subset of society?
The High Line is, of course, not the only park in the city with private funding. A number of other publicprivate partnerships are thriving all over the cityCentral Park, Bryant Park, Battery Park City, and Madison
Square Park, to name a fewhave conservancies that raise money privately to supplement what the city can
spend. Often the conservancies pay for much more than the city. It is unclear what the ratio of public to
private money will be for two other on-going projectsMoynihan Station, which will replace Penn Station
on 34th Street, and the park in Brooklyn along the East Riverand, therefore, what the quality of these public
spaces will be.

CONCLUSION: THE IMPACTS OF THE PRIVATIZATION OF PUBLIC SPACE


The privatization of public space began as a coping mechanism to preserve parks, but its present trajectory is
turning this approach into an agent of substantial urban change. The initial idea was to maintain public space,
not safeguard it only for the wealthy while the poor are left with nothing but blight. This development is of

great concern as the current economic state of affairs is leading more cities down this path. In fact, several
American cities like Seattle and Atlanta are attempting to replicate the High Lines enormous success.
In short, the privatization of public space reiterates and exacerbates the division between rich and poor. I
think in this time of austerity it is unreasonable for the cities to spend to spend over $100 million on one
single park project, when that amount of money can be spent on more socially inclusive projects such as lowincome families or public education. Nonetheless, at present the parks that receive the lions share of
resources are in the vicinity of middle class-upper class neighborhoods, whose residents already have access
to all kinds of urban retreats. Yes, private funding might be necessary for undertaking public projects, but this
should not be at the expense of the economically disadvantaged.
As long as the government struggles, so, too, will its parks, because unlike, police and fire departments, it is
not strictly an essential service, and it is not even close to what the city might call a necessary public amenity.
How useful is the idea of taking the expense of a park in a rich neighborhood off the Parks Department's
hands if the Parks Department mandates that all parks in all neighborhoods be "self-supporting?" When
parks become luxuries, its essentially only the luxury class that ends up with more parks.
A comparative study by Jeremy Nmeth and Stephen Schmidt of publicly owned versus privately owned
public spaces in NYC (89 pops, 62 publicly owned) highlighting what is socially at stake with mushrooming
POPs and their management style (2009). This study shows that the privately owned public spaces are more
controlled or behaviorally restrictive than their publicly owned counterparts. Both publicly owned and
privately owned public spaces tend to encourage use and access equally but privately owned public spaces
also feature elements that control use and behavior such as surveillance cameras. In publicly owned parks, the
rules are posted with hours of operation, etc. Privately owned spaces depend on cameras, security guards, and
small-scale design features and corporate logos to control access to spacescorporate design of public spaces
make use of architectural determinism. Furthermore, they found that POPs tend to include more corporate
imagesthat drive consumption.
The NYCs zoning resolution does not require owners of privately owned and managed spaces to have their
rules and regulations inspected by the planning department. This lack of accountability and public input
completely undermines the participatory practices that have been the recent emphasis in the planning
profession. My perspective is one that is cautionary. Public spaces are essential aspects of social life and they
become repositories of collective memories and cultural practices. Private ownership greatly affects this; it
severely impacts citizenship and erodes individual and group liberties because the issue is not just private
ownership but control of public spaces.

To summarize, in thinking about public space, we need to be cognizant of not only its physical cornerstones
but also philosophical ones. We need to ask probing questions: Is the space respectful of cultural diversity?
Has the public participated in a process of defining needs? Is the space a vehicle for enriching the public
sphere by allowing for free expression and association? Does the nature of public spaces reiterate or restore
class-based order? Can principles of economic justice be reconciled with private means of sustaining public
space?
For built environment professionals, it is important to analyze publicness of both publicly or privately
owned public space. Jeremy Nmeth and Stephen Schmidt measure publicness based on the following
conceptual model: ownership (public/government versus private/corporate), users/use (diverse & collective
versus homogenous & individual use), and management (inclusive/open versus exclusive/closed). They argue
that increased programming and personal safety concerns interfere with the ability to create and maintain
simple welcoming places. Social life in public spaces contributes fundamentally to the quality of life of
individuals and society. As urbanist William Whyte suggested that we have a moral responsibility to create
places that facilitate civic engagement and community interaction.
How can we privately pay for public space to keep them public while the governments and local authorities
allocate much less public funds for public services and space? Government must retain a vital role in making
decision on the allocation of resources. To that end, spending on POPs must also subsidize other public
spaces or a percentage of funds must be set aside for maintaining and creating public spaces throughout the
city. Short of that, we must accept a key tragedy: safe, secure spaces can be established and maintained, but
that they will be unevenly distributed.
Justly addressing inequality has always been problematic for societies and the present direction of the
evolution of public space toward new modalities featuring privatization is representative of a disturbing trend
of taking that which is public and placing it into private hands in the name of efficiency and expedience.
However, what is needed to maintain this valuable and increasingly scarce domain is a reassertion of public
authority. This is not to suggest that there is no acceptable role for private actors but rather that the process
of deliberating the allocation of public assets must be participatory. Ideally the state (national governments)
should be the guardians of public spaceindeed it is in their long-term interests as it conducive to a happier
citizenrybut given the economic and political challenges governments face, it may be an unrealistic
expectation in the present political context. Therefore, what is needed foremost is a public debate on the
stakes of privatizing public space.

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