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It is a common affirmation that open spaces are the scenarios of civic life par excellence. However, is this citizen right really guaranteed in contemporary public places? 

This post is related to the lecture led by Dr. Georgiana Varna, who emphasized in the definition and appropriation that people make of public spaces. According with her research, open places in the cities face several phenomena that threaten to reduce their public character. Among these facts are the fragmentation, commodification and the exaggerated control or vigilance, which are turning these spaces into a kind of semi-private hybrid, as can be seen in shopping malls or theme parks (Varna, 2014).

Inclusion and democracy

In the way that the Agora and the forums were the most important places of civic congregation in Ancient Greece and Rome, the plazas and parks currently provide the possibility of interacting and relating with others in the built environment. UNESCO defines public space as the “area or place that is open and accessible to all peoples, regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, age or socio-economic level”. Likewise, the American Planning Association establish diverse characteristics that ideal public spaces must comply, among which stands out the fact that they must “promote human contact, community involvement and social activities”.

Both definitions underline the important role that public spaces play in today’s cities, as places that promote social inclusion and coexistence, in equitable environment (Parkinson, 2012). However, in addition to their recreative function, public spaces have been historically scenarios of cultural revolutions and political manifestations, which have transformed our world and implies the democratic power of these places.

Image 1. Protest by the Occupy Movement in Vancouver, Canada.
Privatization and control

Many cities around the world are using as a strategy of urban revitalization, the implementation of commercial corridors and retail areas along the central streets or pedestrian streets. A fact, that although it brings benefits in terms of increasing the value of the land, in addition to a greater presence of pedestrians-shoppers, is a form of mutation in which the open space becomes a kind of open-air shopping centre, or as some American cities call it, “Streep malls”. Thus, the notion of a public place becomes confusing since, although it remains an open and accessible space, private businesses now have a greater influence in the control over those places, seeking to protect their interests and their potential customers.

“The gradual transformation of people from citizen to consumer is something that is pervading many kinds of public life”

Parkinson, 2012

In the UK, one case that shows the previous phenomena is the multiplication and expansion of Privately Owned Public Spaces (POPS), which are open-air places like plazas, gardens and parks which are accessible, but not completely ‘public’, by the fact that they are private property, maintained and guarded by its owner. (Garrett, 2015). In London, several open spaces in business districts like Canary Wharf are in fact Pops, managed by large companies, and where their use by citizens is usually more restricted than normal public places, especially in night time and non-work days.

Image 2. Trafalgar Square, public space maintained by Greater London Authority.
Image 3. Open space owned and maintained by the Canary Wharf Group.

The previous example clearly shows the transmutation of these “new” spaces, which physically seem to be public, but socially and psychologically they are interpreted as private places. Thus, when people are in controlled spaces and the legal boundaries of the allowed activities are not clear, they tend to limit their behaviour and social interactions by themselves, in many cases, with the purpose of not having embarrassing problems with security agents, even for minor things such as taking a picture (Garrett, 2015). In the same way, some sociologists affirm that controlled places are in reality ‘dead public spaces’, because elements that add the spontaneous and, certainly, chaotic character to traditional civic places have been suppressed. (Sennett, 1977).

In conclusion

Guaranteeing that public places continue to be truly inclusive and democratic spaces, but at the same time safe and active, must be a purpose in which we must start working. While the safety of people is important, having extremely restrictive and controlled spaces is also a way of confining individual and collective liberties. Achieving a balance between the rights of citizens and the interests of private owners is not an easy task. However, it is necessary to establish urban regulations that clarify the limits of each one, assuring the right to free expression and the enjoyment of open spaces, which has been one of the achievement of our society.

Image 4. Example of hyper-controlled open space.


Sources of images:



American Planning Association. Characteristics and Guidelines of Great Public Spaces. (

Garrett, B (2015). The privatisation of cities’ public spaces is escalating. It is time to take a stand. In The Guardian (

Garrett, B (2015). PSPOs: the new control orders threatening our public spaces. In The Guardian (

Madanipour, A. (2010). Whose public space?: International case studies in urban design and development. London: Routledge.

Mela, A. (2014). Urban public space between fragmentation, control and conflict. City, Territory and Architecture. SpringerOpen Journal. (

Parkinson, J. (2012). Democracy and Public Space: The Physical Sites of Democratic Performance. Oxford.

Sennett, R. (1977). The fall of public man. Penguin Group.

UNESCO. (2014). Inclusion Through Access to Public Space.  (

Varna, G. (2014). Measuring public space: The star model. Design and the built environment.



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Planning and Landscape
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