“It may well be the case that democracy and capitalism, which at moments in their youth were allies, cannot live together once both have come of age.” So wrote the historian EH Tawney in 1938.
Tawney’s prescient quote could well apply to London today, where the “Boris Boom” is overseeing a version of extreme capitalism that is privatising vast swaths of the capital. Publicity so far has focused on the 250 planned skyscrapers, but at least as important is the fact that all this new development will be privately owned and privately controlled. Nine Elms in South London, for example, an enormous, 195-hectare private estate that will be home to the new ultra-high security American embassy, is typical of this new wave of privatisation. So is London’s Olympic Park, which is private in as much as all the new communities within it, such as the Olympic Village, are also privately owned.
But does this mean that London – boosted by the receipts of quantitative easing, a lax tax regime and foreign oligarch money – is becoming the most private city in the world?
It is notoriously difficult to quantify and map the privatisation of space and place.Dubai, which must lay claim to being one of the most privatised cities in the world, is defined by its newness – and it is this newness which is generally an indicator of how private a place is likely to be. This is because today’s dominant economic model is reflected by high-security, privatised plazas which house shopping areas, conference centres and luxury apartments in an environment less reminiscent of the public realm than an airport lounge.
How does it happen?
In general, the privatisation of public space in the west accompanied the traumatic transition from an industrial economy to one based on financial services, shopping, entertainment and “knowledge”. This model began in 1970s America, where downtown waterfront areas that were former industrial heartlands were redeveloped into entertainment complexes: Baltimore’s Inner Harbour, described by the Urban Land Institute as “the model for post-industrial waterfront redevelopment”, is the prime example.
London’s Docklands, once the hub of the UK’s shipbuilding industry, became a centre for privatised financial services districts such as Canary Wharf, gated developments and private campuses such as the Excel, the enormous conference centre where the potential to “lock down” the site ensures it is well suited to host such events as the Defence and Security Equipment International Exhibition.
War very often leads to heavily privatised areas, too. In downtown Beirut, the rebuilding of the city centre provided the opportunity for Rafik Hariri, a billionaire businessman and the former prime minister, to form Solidere, a company that has remodelled a 200-hectare area of the city centre.
Jerold S Kayden at Harvard has coined the term Pops (“privately owned public space”) for these types of places, and found that there are 503 in New York City alone. One of the highest profile is Manhattan’s latest tourist attraction, the High Line, which also appears to be the model for London’s contentious Garden Bridge – an urban “park” that bans all sorts of activities, closes for corporate events, does not allow political protest and requires groups of more than eight people to book ahead.
Indeed, the key question in determining how “private” a city might be could be about access, rather than ownership. Zucotti Park, another Pops in New York, was for many months the venue for the Occupy Wall Street protests. Contrast that with London’s Paternoster Square, home to the London Stock Exchange, where Occupy was quickly evicted when the owners took out an injunction. Political activity has been almost entirely squeezed out of London’s square mile, and Occupy had no choice but to camp outside St Paul’s Cathedral, on the only genuinely public space left in the city.
So while it may be impossible to name a city or a place as the “most private” in the world, what we can say is that societies with high levels of inequality are also those where the privatisation of the public realm and life behind gates increasingly defines the urban fabric. In Britain and North America, where democracy remains the system by which we define ourselves, the spread of this kind of city space is extremely problematic, as it suggests that Tawney was right. While our leaders preach democracy, the increasingly private architecture of our cities is telling a more honest story.