London set to get a charter for POPs

Friday 15 February 2019

Canal Corridor Kings Cross, Winner New London Awards 2018, Public Spaces category © John Sturrock

London is to get a charter to improve privately owned public spaces across the capital, but should also work on creating a logo to make such spaces, their owners and the rules that they impose more transparent.

Those were some of the key points made at Top of the POPS - the future of privately owned, publicly accessible space at NLA earlier this week.

Professor Jerold S Kayden, Frank Backus Williams Professor of Urban Planning and Design, Harvard University said that the usual critiques in this area – that POPs are products of neo-liberalism, inherently undemocratic, exclusionary and private needed a more nuanced approach. ‘I popularised the term POPs’, he said. ‘I did that because I realised that there was a typology of space which was not physical or morphological but was inherently characterised by this axiometric tension between private ownership and public use’. In New York there is probably around 20million sq ft of extra space in residential and office towers in return for the now more than 550 POPs that have ‘sprung up’ in the city.

But publicly owned public space is not always better public space, he added, and indeed one of the oddities of New York’s spaces was that Occupy Wall Street chose the privately owned Zuccotti Park because they realised they had more democratic rights there than the public, heavily rule-bound City Hall Park some blocks to the north. Kayden also told the story of how he fought – successfully – Donald Trump’s lawyers to win back a public bench in Trump Tower the now-president had removed to be replaced with a store selling memorabilia, despite receiving a zoning bonus and a larger tower for having committed to the bench.

It was important to be demanding and precise about public amenities, use up to date public data, stop private owners from squeezing the public out of public space, increase public awareness, perhaps through a new logo to brand all POPs in NY (‘London could do with a little bit of signage at its public spaces’), and even designate a POPs advocate or minister for public spaces. ‘Let’s make sure that te POPs we have are as public as possible, but that takes skill, commitment and passion from all of us.’

Professor Matthew Carmona, Professor of Planning and Urban Design of the UCL provided the London perspective on what is often a thorny issue debated with great passion, but which is often characterised by ‘misinformation and dogma’ more than clarity and pragmatism.’ The situation is much more nuanced than the tussle between two rather polemical positions, he said, often that ‘privatisation is bad’ as in The Guardian and the rarer proponents such as Patrick Schumacher of Zaha Hadid Architects, that such privatisation is always good because of the ‘entrepreneurial zeal’ it can bring to the management of public spaces. In fact, as Carmona’s research shows, much of the POPs are in fact opening up through redevelopment the formerly closed off or ‘walled’ docks and redundant land or infrastructure in the city, allowing more public access. ‘Arguably, what we’ve witnessed is a public-isation of private space, rather than the reverse’ he said. A classic example is King’s Cross.

There has, though, been a key movement in this area, with the mayor committing to producing a charter, albeit likely to be to do with new public spaces rather than existing, suggested Carmona.

During a panel discussion, director of placeshaping at Westminster City Council Deirdra Armsby said there was a big question about how public authorities are equipped to manage the spaces we’ve got, but that it was the ‘joy’ of public space that we should not lose sight of in debates about how they are managed. Ben Smith, trustee of National Park City Foundation revealed that London is to become the first national park city. Other speakers included Matthew Carpen, managing director of Barking Riverside, all of which is ‘technically POPs’, and Harbinder Singh Birdi, partner at Hawkins/Brown on the work his practice is doing to create extensive public space as part of the Thames Tideway project. LB Croydon executive director of place Shifa Mustafa showed how her borough is also looking to invest public money from its critical infrastructure pot on a small area where half the land is privately owned, and has learnt lessons from the impact Boxpark’s own spaces have made. And while Tim Haddon, head of campus at Paddington Central showed how investment in the public realm there has shifted perceptions and – perhaps as a result – lifted footfall and rents, LDA design director Benjamin Walker suggested that good public spaces can contribute to dealing with the 9 million people in the UK who suffer from chronic loneliness. ‘It’s about creating a place that we feel we own and where we feel we belong’, he said.

Finally, Alison Minto, operations director at Meanwhile Space showed how its work involved looking to create new life in areas such as railway arches in Loughborough Junction in Brixton. ‘We do a lot of trial and error’, she said.

By David Taylor, Editor, NLQ

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Top of the POPS: the future of privately-owned, publicly-accessible space


What is the future of public space in London? As more of London’s private land opens for public access, what are the key challenges being tackled to ensure places function for all? How will these new places be managed and maintained and how is good quality public space designed and delivered?