Pseudo-Public Spaces

Recently, The Guardian made waves with a story on the spread of “pseudo-public spaces” in London. Pseudo-public spaces appear to be typical public spaces such as parks and plazas, but are privately owned and subject to (often secret) rules that are enforced by private security. Some of London’s most prominent landmarks are surrounded by corporate-owned plazas such as the London Eye, King’s Cross, and even City Hall. As the The Guardian explains:

“ [Pseudo-public spaces] appear unrestricted to the average person as long as they are behaving in ways that corporate landowners approve of, such as passing through on the way to work or using the area for spending and consumption. It is only by exhibiting unsanctioned behaviour – holding a political demonstration, for example, or attempting to sleep rough in the area – that citizens are able to discover the limitations on these seemingly public sites.”

People have a general expectation of what is permissible in public spaces. For the most part, the rules are fairly permissive in a truly public space, and the first amendment generally applies to individual activity. In pseudo-public spaces, however, not only are the rules unclear, but the ownership of these spaces is often opaque to the greater public. This disruption to longstanding notions of public space is subtle, but has major implications for cities and the public realm. The Guardian report quotes Tony Leach of the organization Parks for London as saying:

“I’m a strong believer that parks are our last remaining truly democratic public spaces, and that should continue. A lot of our great protest and reformist movements started in parks because they were natural gathering places. These spaces are a representation of our freedom in society, which is little by little being eroded. I think a lot of people just don’t realise it.”

Pseudo-public spaces are created through concessions from local governments to property owners – often when the local government can’t afford to build or maintain the infrastructure. It may at the time sound good in theory, but this isn’t simply contracting out park maintenance. Rather, this is a privatization of the public realm in the densest parts of a great city. Sound familiar?

I give you … The Commons

In Minneapolis, The Commons park in Downtown East exhibits many characteristics of a pseudo-public space. It’s publicly owned but its use is reserved for Vikings and other stadium events on certain days. One year ago at its opening, commentators raised questions about its pseudo-public/private nature. As MinnPost’s Peter Callaghan wrote:

“Who would run it? Who would pay for it? Was it public or private or somewhere in between — the worst of both worlds?”

Meanwhile, the city still struggles to pay for its construction, maintenance, and programming. There are plenty of other nebulous pseudo-public spaces in the area: Gold Medal Park, the plazas at US Bank Stadium and Target Field, and, of course, there’s that never-ending question about what the skyways are.

The Guardian has produced a map of London’s pseudo-public spaces for the public to see where these spaces have crept into their city. How many spaces like this are in our own Twin Cities? Share what you know. Let’s bring this information into the public realm.

Ben Surma

About Ben Surma

Ben Surma grew up in Greater Minnesota (or as he likes to call it, "Greatest Minnesota") and now lives in the Twin Cities. He discovered urbanism overseas and wants to bring a little bit of it back here.

8 thoughts on “Pseudo-Public Spaces

  1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

    The Commons and the stadium plazas are all publicly owned, even if they have private company tenants that have rights to use them.

    There are many downtown plazas where the public and private blur a bit. If you’re on the sidewalk in front of US Bank Plaza, you’re in the public but not if you’re on the plaza itself. Then there’s the ambiguity of where Gateway Park ends and Voya’s property begins. And what about the Walker Sculpture Garden? Oh, how about the new fake “woonerf” at the Mill City Quarter?

      1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

        Right, but it undermines the comparison. The Guardian piece is about places that look public but aren’t. The Commons and the plazas are public except when they’re rented out to a private tenant. Should the city try to treat them otherwise (e.g., suppress political speech there), it will almost certainly find that courts disagree.

  2. Tyler HamiltonTyler Hamilton

    The biggest two forms of spaces that function as public spaces, yet where our rights don’t apply under current law, would have to be the common areas of indoor shopping malls, and skyways. There is some case law in California which has extended the right of free speech/assembly to these spaces, which would be a great thing to bring to Minnesota, either through a legal challenge, or state legislation.

    1. John Charles Wilson

      This is why I advocate a “Civil Rights Act II”, that would extend all Constitutional rights to places of public accommodation, even if they are private property.

      The original Civil Rights Act ended the excuse of “private property” for racial discrimination. Though maybe a few bigoted business owners “suffered”, the country as a whole gained – including business owners who understood a dime was just as silver if offered by a black hand as by a white one.

      The “Civil Rights Act II” would protect such things as free speech in places like malls, which are open to the public but are private property. Such a law would *not* permit truly harmful activities any more than the First Amendment permits such on a public sidewalk. Reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions would still apply. Any decent business would actually benefit in the long run. (Example: protesters at a mall getting hungry afterwards and buying food in the food court.)

      Half a job was done in 1964. Does America have the courage to do the other half?

  3. David MarkleDavid Markle

    Perhaps the most famous pseudo public space in the U.S. may be the small fenced park on Beacon Hill in Boston, Louisburg Square, accessible only to residents of the various surrounding properties. They have keys.

    1. Will

      Gramercy Park in New York is also operated on the same scale. As for those that don’t have keys and people can stroll right in, Zuccotti Park, focus for those Occupy Wall Street protests years ago, is a wide-open block in lower Manhattan that is privately owned.

  4. David MarkleDavid Markle

    Remember the controversy a few years ago concerning a protest at the Mall of America? It went to court and Judge Jack Nordby in an interesting opinion found in favor of the protesters, and his ruling got overturned on appeal by the property owners. But I tend to agree with Nordby.

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