Protest and pseudo-public space

What is pseudo-public space and what does it mean for protest?

The series 'protest and...' is a series of readings of articles, essays and books that elaborate on a form of protest.

In July of this year The Guardian has published an investigation into the realm of public space. Their results were stunning. More and more important public spaces throughout London have been bought and privatised, meaning that governmental and national law are no longer sovereign in these ‘pseudo-public spaces’ (POP’s). Now these former public spaces are liable to private interest. What do these companies want with their acquired public space? And most importantly, what does this mean for protest? Before going into these questions, we should first shortly define public space and private space.

What is public space:

Ideally seen, public space is the space that, in opposition to private space, is freely accessible. Already since the late 14th century public means “open to general observation”, since the 15ht century public is described as “pertaining to the people” or “open to all in the community”.[1] Meaning there should be no mechanism of exclusion or ‘ticketing’ present. Access is a right, not a privilege. Private, since the 14th century, means: “pertaining or belonging to oneself, not shared, individual; not open to the public,”[2] Private has also been described as not public, meaning that private negates its meaning from public.

   Most of public spaces are commonly used as an intersection between different destinations – private or public – through traffic for example. Nonetheless, when speaking about public space, we often and mostly refer to parks and squares. These have no explicit function in relation to a destination and thus offer a non-functional surplus. This surplus is undetermined, meaning that it has no direct or explicit function that lies outside itself. It is there for the sake of being there. It thus offers the public the possibility to give it a function themselves. Lie on the grass, sit on a bench, meet some friends, drink a coffee and of course – within the democratic spectrum – engage in different acts of resistance and protest of which these public spaces are often the stage.

            As I said, this concept of public space is ideal, meaning that public space nearly never is as free and undetermined as described above. Governmental and national law still count in public space. Public space is thus often guarded and patrolled by police and surrounded by private space (companies, shops, houses), because public space is not just the intersection between different destinations. It is also the intersection between people, making public space a destination for social encounter. When both intersections, the functional and non-functional, are combined, public space becomes, so to say, a visibility. Public space is where bodies and subjects expose themselves to others and the world. It therefore is a political space. It is thus also the only place where being visible is one of its main functions. This visibility means that one’s action become a performance: that is what makes it an effective place for protest, for protest mainly relies on realising consciousness of a specific subject through showing it. 

Form public to pseudo:

Within the sphere of public space described above there is thus a certain sense of indeterminateness and visibility which make it effective for protest and any form of social encounter. Yet public space is defined by law and surrounded by private space. In this situation, the boundaries between public space and private space are quite clear. One generally knows public law, which is often also expressed in public space through signs. One knows, that when a public space is left and a private space is entered, one has to act ‘different’. You often can’t, for example, eat food in private space. These are the rules we are educated regarding the intersection between private and public in relation to law.

            Since a few years there has been a new phenomenon on the rise. This phenomenon is the privatisation of public space – without making it un-public. This creates a new kind of space in the landscape of urban life: pseudo-public space. This is a new threshold between private and public space. A, so to say, owned no-mans-land between the borders of private and public. The consequence of this new phenomenon, is what we will be exploring in this article. It is about the creation of a new threshold between public and private space.

            This new phenomenon showed itself for the first time during the Occupy protest in 2011 when they occupied the ‘public’ space in front of the London Stock Exchange in Paternoster Square in London,[3] but where evicted by the police because the Paternoster Square was privately owned. They were trespassing in public space. Afterwards the Guardian started an investigation into privately owned public space in London, of which a still-growing map is made.[4] Private ownership thus seems to invade the public sphere which is often used as the sphere of protest: making such a protest impossible and even paradoxical: protesting capitalism in privately owned space. What are the consequences for use of the public space through the emerge of pseudo-public space? And what does in mean for protest? 

The new threshold introduced by pseudo-public space

Jack Shenker, writer of the investigation done into pseudo-public space in London by The Guardian, also wonders what consequences this new form of space might have. One of the most important is that it places the human being using the former public, but now pseudo-public space into a threshold between law and criminality. The reason for the existence of this threshold between law and criminality is because private owners of public space have their own security, and when those are asked what rules apply to the space they oversee, they say they are not allowed to say[5]. So as a user of this space, you are never sure whether you are trespassing or not: you are not the one who decides, it’s the private owner that has the power over making you a criminal or not. Therefore, you can never be sure what you can and cannot do. In the same article a homeless man is interviewed in this new domain of space. He describes his first encounter with it: he was laying down on a patch of grass – a place he describes as a public park – and every time he closed his eyes, a security guard came to him saying he could not close his eyes. This shows that the only way of knowing whether you are doing something wrong is by doing it wrong. This steals any form of agency over one’s own action within public space, for one can never be sure when one is doing something that is prohibited or not.

   In this new public space – pseudo-public space – everyone is innocent and a criminal at the same time. It moves us into the threshold between public and private. When Hannah Arendt described totalitarianism, one of the most important traits she ascribed to it was its fluidness. Every civilian was always a ‘possible’ criminal. It criminalises before a crime has been committed.[6] Therefore one is never sure whether one is doing something wrong or not.[7] This sphere of ‘possibility’ as Arendt describes it, is what is introduced with the new pseudo public space. But what is there to gain for the companies that own this public space? Do they want to become the new totalitarian leaders? What do they want with their new power? 

Why own private public space?

The process of privatising public space is a process of colonialization. But what is there to gain for companies? What are the resources they want to colonialize in this newly acquired land? Exceeding commercial space into public space, does not seem to offer any commodities or services to sell. Aside, owning public space privately means that city services such as maintenance, garbage collection and policing are not available to these spaces. The companies that own these spaces thus have to do it themselves, meaning that it not just seems unprofitable, it seems very costly. This conflicts with what companies are often aiming for: profit.

            If it is not clearly profitable, why would a company want to own public space? The first and most obvious answer is that ground prices in London are high. Owning ground, especially in the centre of London, may be a lucrative investment. This may have to do with city policy of selling off land, thus opening the possibility for companies to buy it. Nevertheless, land prices and development rate, aside from housing projects, haven’t been skyrocketing in reference to before the economic crisis in 2008.[8] Aside this land cannot be used to build new buildings on. When looking at The Guardian’s map, the privately owned public space, is mostly the space in between buildings – sidewalks, streets and squares. It seems that this land can in no way ensure profit. Yet, in 2007 The Royal Institute of Charted Surveyors described a growing corporate ownership of land that appeared to be public.[9] Which they called a “quiet revolution in land ownership”. Direct profits through investment in land or exploration or development of the land may thus not be the best answer to look at.

            A better explanation is offered in Ciara Nugent’s article on why developers want to own public space,[10] which is that “ownership of public space is a trade-off for the rights to bend the rules in planning and zoning”. It is a way of gaining influence, power. Developers that take on the provisions of some public space are often allowed to build wider, taller buildings on or around it. For example, Granary Square in London’s Kings Cross, which is Europe’s biggest privately owned public spaces. When Cushman Wakefield, the estate company that runs charge of a part of Granary Square was asked why they used this public space, the reaction had been to “attract visitors to the 100,000 square feet of boutiques”. The word attract seems to imply the argument Cushman Wakefield makes: control the surroundings, control the people in it. The public space is thus designed to get people to move to the private space that surrounds it. Nugents refers to Tridib Banerjee, who described the benefit of public space for companies, said that “the public is welcome as long as they are patrons of shops and restaurants, office workers, or clients of businesses located on the premise.” [11] He adds that what distinguishes public from private space is that access is no longer a right, but a privilege.  

The danger pseudo-public space poses to protest

Access is no longer a right but a privilege. How does this influence our notion of public space which we developed in the beginning of this article? First of all, through this notion of pseudo public space, public space is losing its surplus, it indeterminateness. This diminishes the trait of public space as a space where you can add function to it, because of the fact that it lacks function. The open-stage of public space disappears through privatisation of it. The privilege Banerjee describes that replaces the right means that the surplus of public space is being replaced by an economical function: to go to the shops that surround it, reducing public space to a basic transitory – as in traffic – place. As a mere intersection between destinations. If one or one’s actions do not fit into the purpose private owners adhere to public space, one will be removed – just as the Occupy protesters or the homeless man closing his eyes. Even without you knowing whether you do something wrong. More explicitly, as shown in the article by The Guardian, private owners refuse to publicise the rules they apply to their pseudo-public space. Public space and the people in it thus so become a threshold.

            This means that the undetermined places protest needs to give voice to a certain topic, are diminishing. Therefore, changing the right to protest into a privilege, which will only be a privilege when allowed by the private owner of the pseuo-public space. If it’s not an allowed privilege, it will be a crime. My forecast is that it will be seen as a crime, for one of the main functions of protest is to question the system that is in place – but the system that is in place does not benefit that. One question remains, which is, what can we do about it? 

Protest as mapping

The Guardian askes the readers of the article on pseudo-public space to add locations to a map they have made. This is an important step in finding whether places are suitable for protest. Yet this is just the first step. The second step is to define the rules that are made up by private owners that dictate the use of these pseudo-public spaces. The only way to find out what is allowed and what is not is by exceeding the laws without knowing the laws. This would mean to find these spaces and find out what it takes to attract the attention of a security guard. The first and most important step in resistance towards this new phenomenon is thus to render it visible.

Written and published bij Eef Veldkamp, 12-2017.

[1] Harper, Douglas. 2017. "Public". Online Etymology Dictionary. Lancaster: Douglas Harper.

[2] Harper, Douglas. 2017. "Private". Online Etymology Dictionary. Lancaster: Douglas Harper.

[3] Shenker, Jack. 2017. "Revealed: The Insidious Creep Of Pseudo-Public Space In London". The Guardian, 2017.

[4] Ibid., See the map through this URL:

[5] Ibid., “Unsanctioned behaviour”.

[6] Arendt, Hannah. The Origins of Totalitarianism. Orlando: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1979. 465-466; 350.

[7] Ibid., 464.

[8] GLA economics. 2016. Figure 4.2. "Economic Evidence Base For London". London: GLA economics. 143-144.

[9] Shenker, Jack. 2017. "Revealed: The Insidious Creep Of Pseudo-Public Space In London". The Guardian, 2017.

[10] Nugent, Ciara. 2017. “Owning public space is expensive. So why do developers want to do it?”. CityMetric, New Statesman, 2017.

[11] Nugent, Ciara. 2017. “Attracting the ‘right sort” in “Owning public space is expensive. So why do developers want to do it?”. CityMetric, New Statesman, 2017.