Unpacking the complexities of privatised public space in London

9 Mins read

Just three years ago, a visit to the Somerset House meant squirming through a throng of commuters, students and tourists while trying to cross the heavily congested roads encircling the island of King’s College London’s (KCL) buildings between Aldwych and Strand.

Today, the 200-metre stretch of Strand is a traffic-free public space adorned with colour coordinated chairs, seasonal flowers and public art.

The one-way traffic around the Aldwych gyratory has been transformed into a two-way flow, allowing better connections to the surrounding area and improved air quality. The pedestrianised space at the Strand brings out the scale and presence of historical buildings like the Grade I listed St Mary le Strand and Macroni House where BBC Radio debuted in 1922.

Newly planted greenery not only adds biodiversity, but also buffers out street noise. The flexible open area is scheduled to host a number of social and cultural events throughout the year. Nick Ryan’s VoiceLine — a sound installation of the BBC radio archives — was its first public artwork, commissioned by Northbank BID. The redeveloped Strand Aldwych ticks all the boxes that make a public realm successful.

Malak Metwally, a part timer at Holy Crêpe, found the street food stall standing in front of St Mary le Strand while commuting between her classes at KCL. The new space, which opened in December 2022, “feels like it belongs to the students,” she says.

On sunny days, many of her customers take the crêpes to outdoor seats: “If this was on a typical high street, it would never have attracted so many people,” Malak adds. The pedestrianisation of roads has not only enhanced visibility of the historical church, but also local cafes and restaurants that were previously hidden behind cars.

While the site and buildings hold a rich historical context, Strand Aldwych is predominantly an educational area. Together with Northbank BID, Somerset House Trust, London School of Economics, and 180 Strand, KCL is one of the major stakeholders out of the 70 involved in the scheme. Its founding building has occupied the site since 1831.

Jen Lin, a PhD student at the university’s History department, observes that the change has allowed people to “actually enjoy living and working here instead of just coming to work and going straight back home.” However, he emphasises “it’s important for people to be able to express their feelings in public, to be able to have demonstrations and protests.”

Public information signage at Paternoster Square
The controversial redevelopment of Paternoster Square in the 1960s was demolished in 1995 when Mitsubishi Estate started rebuilding the site with Whitfield Partners [Herin Kim]

The problems of privatised public space

Occupy London was part of a series of international protests against wealth inequality and corporate corruption that took place between 2011 and 2012, first set off by protestors’ encampment of Lower Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park in New York.

In the UK, protestors settled in the area outside St Paul’s Cathedral after landowners banned them from entering Paternoster Square. Owned and managed by the Japanese group Mitsubishi Estate, Paternoster Square is a public space also home to the London Stock Exchange which relocated from Threadneedle Street in 2004.

In 2012, Richard Sennett, Senior Advisor to  the United Nations on the Council on Urban Initiatives and author of Building and Dwelling, reflected on how Occupy in New York and London sparked urbanists to rethink the city “to enable urbanities to bring public space to life.”

In 2019, King’s Cross estate faced scrutiny for using facial recognition technology in their surveillance cameras in parts of their 67-acre site in North London. While the use of the system was not illegal, King’s Cross abandoned the software after facing backlash over the lack of transparency.

“They should have had a signage up as you enter the area or a consent form saying how long they’ll store their photos,” says Anthony Salvatore who works for security control at the Courtauld Gallery. Previously, he worked as security staff at the King’s Cross development. Surveillance technologies are used to detect crime and identify terrorists, but as Salvatore remarks, many would agree that the “rules should be clearer.”

Single seater blocks at Strand Aldwych
Armrests and single seaters prevent the homeless from sleeping in public. [Herin Kim]

Privately owned public spaces (POPS) have been criticised for their ambiguous public access restrictions. While the rules are never clearly listed, the range is diverse, from banning petty activities like taking photographs, unsanctioned journalistic activities, to preventing homeless people from occupying the site.

Defensive architecture has become prevalent in London’s urban design; also known as hostile architecture, features include slanted benches at bus stops, and metal spikes installed into pavements or window sills.

For the Strand Aldwych project, Furnitubes, a UK-based street furniture maker, placed their bespoke Railroad benches; also described as inclusive seating, the modular design inspired by rail tracks includes armrests that divide the wide seating area  into individual sections, preventing people from lying down.

Benches at Capper Street, a regenerated area part of the West End project.
The pocket park at Capper Street is part of Camden Council’s £35m street improvement scheme where defensive architecture has been applied [Herin Kim]

When London-based photographer Kane Hulse took his tripod out at the King’s Cross site, security staff asked him to stop. “It feels a bit silly when stuff like that happens,” he recalls. In his experience, such cases are prevalent in the City.

For their in-depth investigation in 2017, The Guardian reached out to more than 50 landowners asking for detailed information of restrictions placed in their properties, but received a full set of answers from only two companies. For information on the Strand Aldwych area, Northbank BID — who developed the initial Vision for Aldwych in 2015, and the Place Shaping team at Westminster Council, were contacted for confirmation of ownership, but neither commented.

With POPS being a politically delicate issue and developments being so complex in its structure and plan, local authorities and landowners may be evasive towards providing any response. But how much are the public actually concerned about the ownership of their favourite lunch spots?

Picnic benches and timber chairs at Strand Aldwych
Led by Westminster Council, the Strand Aldwych project involved more than 70 stakeholders over five years of conception [Herin Kim]

What matters to the public

“To be honest, it doesn’t affect me,” Salvatore comments, “if this [Strand Aldwych] was public, it might not have been as well-funded. If you go to King’s Cross, it’s immaculate. Any rubbish, they clean it up straight away.”

According to the Greater London Authority’s research in 2020, among the 1,134 respondents of their survey, 39% identified private-ownership of public spaces as a problem compared to 37% who did not. The former also agreed that public spaces should be owned and maintained by the public sector while 34% of respondents didn’t mind as long as they are run well.

The majority of Londoners use public spaces for passing through or for private leisure time such as eating lunch, listening to music and reading.

Since the regeneration, Karly Maxwell, staff member at KCL’s AI department, has been enjoying her lunch outside on sunny days. From her office, she says she can often spot workers maintaining the new gardens and roads. “Would it be any different if it’s publicly owned?” she asks.

For Tom Lonsdale, a Chartered Landscape Architect and High Street Task Force expert, the debate is “almost meaningless” as “the land beneath the paving may belong to private companies,” he says. But if the whole space has been adopted by the council, the question of ownership becomes redundant.

Paternoster Square and the central column
Protestors from Occupy London were banned from Paternoster Square in 2011 [Herin Kim]

Road adoption is a process where local authorities take ownership over private streets. Under Section 38 of the 1980 Highways Act, councils can come to an agreement with the developers or landowners (if the developer is not the landowner) to adopt private roads into public highways and maintain the surface and structure at the public’s expense. However, some small areas between adopted roads and the wall of a building, may be privately owned and maintained. In a redevelopment scheme, local authorities may persuade landowners to eliminate any visible divisions in paving between such areas.

For anyone outside the urban planning sector, it is a highly nuanced topic to understand. Like the Strand Aldwych scheme which was incubated in 2015 and completed in 2022, public realm developments involve a protracted and complex process from gathering funds and stakeholders to conceptualising the identity, interviewing locals and construction.

Writing for the Architects Journal, Matthew Carmona, Professor of Planning and Urban Design at the Bartlett School of Planning, draws attention to voices that suggest that the “public sector increasingly struggles to devote adequate resources to the creation, let alone the management of public spaces.”

Using the term “public-isation of private space”, Carmona postulates that the dominant narrative of public space has been about the loss of publicness; a one sided understanding of privatisation as something “always bad”.

While restrictions should be in clear communication or re-evaluated if unnecessary, making public spaces owned by the public sector will not guarantee the wellbeing and sense of community in those spaces. For locals like Maxwell, what matters is something more concrete like comfortable seating, greenery, well maintained gardens — what she calls a “wholesome vibe.” Having worked six years in the area and being asthmatic, Salvatore feels a significant positive change in air quality from reduced traffic.

Features of public space in London

View of St Paul's Cathedral from Reflection Garden
The centrepiece of the Reflection Garden mirrors St Paul’s Cathedral [Herin Kim]

Fulfilling a functional role while creating a sense of community and identity is a challenge in public realm developments. “It’s rather chicken and egg,” Lonsdale says. “To some extent the design will influence the way that it’s used. But for a scheme to be successful … the form needs to follow the function.”

According to the Extending London’s Public Realm Design Guide, public spaces aim to achieve several functions: to be accessible as possible, have a positive environmental impact, allow space for both movement and rest, promote community engagement, a sense of public ownership and sustain the well-being of Londoners with room for physical exercise and social interaction.

This is not to overlook the importance of identity and narrative of public spaces. The 23.3 metre-tall column at the centre of Paternoster Square is a recreation of the Corinthian columns of St. Paul’s Cathedral’s West facade that was built by the Palladian style British architect Inigo Jones. The geometric shapes continue to the neatly aligned grey granite and yellow buff sandstone paving. Meanwhile, the archway underneath the London Stock Exchange building provides additional shade for passers by.

A more recent development in the City, the Reflection Garden at 25 Cannon Street opened in July 2022. As part of City of London’s “Destination Plan” to reinvent the Square Mile area’s leisure and culture offering, Tom Stuart-Smith Architects worked with the water feature specialist Andrew Ewing to create a pool mirroring the East side view of St Paul’s.

Although it is nowhere as spacious as Paternoster Square, the stone paving around the boundary of the pool offers seating to visitors or workers looking for a peaceful spot for lunch. Adjacent to the garden is a five-storey office and retail space by Pembroke which offers a public roof garden overlooking Sir Christopher Wren’s iconic dome.  

Rooftop gardens and raised green spaces are popular strategies that combine built environment and natural ecosystems, tackling the biodiversity challenge in urban planning. In 2015, Crossrail Place at Canary Wharf and the “Walkie-Talkie” at 20 Fenchurch Street, both opened up their roof gardens. Another publicly accessible winter garden will open in the 650,000 square foot office building at 50 Fenchurch Street in 2028. Owned by the Clothworkers’ Company since 1528, the property also includes two listed buildings that have been kept private, but which will become accessible as part of the new street-level public realm. 

Although studies prove that urban ecosystems like rooftop gardens can improve a building’s energy performance – they should not become box ticking exercises for land owners and developers. According to Lonsdale, incorporating vegetation on a roof is costly and technically demanding, which will make future maintenance more difficult.

A similar issue affects urban plantation like the 41 new trees planted in Strand Aldwych. According to landscape architect Henry Arnold in his article “Sustainable Trees for Sustainable Cities” (1993), maintaining the longevity of trees planted in unnatural environments requires specially designed soil mixtures and planting methods.

What makes a successful public space

Placemaking for public space needs to balance the fine line between future proof design for mixed functions such as biodiversity and wellbeing, and a contextual understanding of the local area and its people.

With many of its stakeholders involved in the creative industry, the conceptualisation of Strand Aldwych was focused on making it into a platform for cultural programmes and events, “where art is made, not just displayed, where performances are rehearsed, not just performed.”

Before entering its construction phase, Strand Aldwych hosted a number of temporary events and pop up spaces in September 2021 including a skatepark installed by Vans in the main road, associated with the exhibition on skateboarding culture at Somerset House, and food trucks for Northbank BID’s alfresco programme.

The fountains at Granary Square
Home to more than 120 businesses including Google, Met and Nike, the King’s Cross Estate is one of London’s successful urban regeneration cases [Herin Kim]

At the centre of arguably the most successful case of urban regeneration in London, Granary Square has become an iconic public realm, offering spaces to rest, move, eat and play in. The presence of Central Saint Martins college contributes to the area’s creative and leisurely atmosphere.

The main feature is the Granary fountains, composed of 1,080 individually programmed jets which you can control via an app. Designed by The Fountain Workshop, the jets are underneath the pavings, allowing the rectangular area to be used flexibly for other activities or events.

The Granary Fountains or the VoiceLine at Strand Aldwych are some examples of the wide range of artworks such as lighting installations and sculptures that not only shape the personality of the space, but also serve as external triggers for conversations between visitors. American urbanist William H. Whyte referred to this concept as “Triangulation”.

To incorporate such artworks and other features to enliven the narrative and environment of the public space, more and more schemes are being funded in combination of the private and public. As a result, discussions around urban public space in the city and its politics have become so nuanced for the public; the predominant users of the space.

While petty restrictions on public access must be removed when necessary, for those using the Strand Aldwych area, what determines the public interest is not legal ownership, but rather pragmatic design and cultural events curated for the public sphere. Sitting at the new picnic table under the shade, Maxwell says, “If this is all privately owned and they’re letting people sit here and have lunch here, then I’m all for it.”

Featured image by Herin Kim

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