Privitizing Downtown and Building Posh Publics

This is a draft of a paper for my Politics of Public Spaces class…

In this paper I seek to explore various policy approaches to the urban environment that prioritize capital accumulation through securing access to spaces by preferred publics. I will mainly focus on downtown development projects, but touch on some concepts that explore the preferred publics of suburban shopping malls and other spaces of consumption. Because most of the literature we have reviewed has dealt with western policies and built environments, I also hope to reflect on how these themes relate to the production of space in Beirut.

Since beginning the graduate program in urban planning and policy, my professors have continually reiterated that in any urban intervention, there are winners and losers. At first, I understood these winners and losers to be determined on a case-by-case basis. I imagined a planner weighing pros and cons, contemplating stakeholder interests, and ultimately planning for the most achievable common good. In a semester and a half, my naiveté has dissipated into pure pessimism.

In this globalized world, the role the built environment plays in the accumulation of capital is disturbingly clear. The version of capital accumulation I will refer to is based on David Harvey’s description of neoliberalism and particularly the ways it effects the built environment. In this sense, the state is an enabler and preserver of private property rights, the guarantor of the security and legal structures required to preserve private property rights, and the creator of new markets for private exploitation (Harvey 2005).

Returning back to the idea of winners and losers in the production of space, understanding the broader scale of who and what the built environment is produced for can only be understood through the neoliberal economic policies that not only drive but are foundational elements of urban development today. At the government level, development policies are created and justified by the claim that large-scale projects, neighborhood redevelopment and downtown renewal benefit the public good.

When urban interventions effect the entire city, the region it is a part of, and in some instances the nation as a whole, the idea of winners and losers becomes much more suggestive of an entrenched system of preference for a certain public over another. Who is this public that these urban interventions benefit, and how is this public created? Additionally, what becomes of the other publics, and who builds spaces for them?

The process of negotiating the public good certainly predates the advent of neoliberalism, and Ehrenfeucht and Loukaitou-Sideris’ discussion of sidewalk usage in 19th and 20th century Los Angeles provides a solid starting point for examining the tensions between public and private usage of space, as well as the creation of policies based on a preferred usage for “public” space. The public space referred to in this article is municipally created sidewalks and streets, and the interested stake holders included the municipality, the street vendors who used the space to sell vegetables and food, the local population who purchased from those vendors, and the citizens of Los Angeles interested in using the sidewalks as a primary route for circulation throughout the city.

Ehrenfeucht and Loukaitou-Sideris dissect the nexus of interests in Los Angeles sidewalks by examining the negotiations concerning obstructions, maintenance, speech and vending (p. 111). The authors point out that the involvement of private actors in the improvement of public space was indeed occurring during this time period. Because street improvements undertaken by the municipality directly contributed to increasing the value of adjacent properties, many private entrepreneurs contributed to the infrastructure upgrading (2007 p.112).

In the instance of Los Angeles sidewalks, a spectrum of publics was revealed through the process of negotiation to establish the public interest. While the transportation-minded publics and the engineering-minded government officials deemed circulation to be a priority, vendors and those who purchased their wares identified with a different public interest. Ultimately, the enhancement of circulation was preferred over the right of vendors to use sidewalk space, and this preference was codified in city ordinance. However, different publics continued to seek access to the sidewalks and through the process of amendment the ordinance continued to reflect that ongoing debate.

What is striking about the example of 19th and 20th century Los Angeles sidewalks is that it reveals a bit about the processes today’s pseudo-private, neoliberal cities may be eliminating. While by no means perfect, the process of negotiation in 19th and 20th century Los Angeles kept the many publics and the interested private enterprises on a relatively level playing field, with municipal and legal institutions functioning as a forum for that negotiation to take place.

The use of institutional structures for public negotiation in Los Angeles contrast significantly from those utilized for the redevelopment of New York’s Times Square as chronicled by Kristine Miller (2007). While in Los Angeles the definition and production of public bodies and public spaces remained an open interaction between the municipality and citizens utilizing legal frameworks to negotiate space, the story is very different in Times Square. Miller argues that the discourse in Times Square was not about what the public could or could not do in the Square, but who New York City leadership and their private sponsors deemed to be the proper public for the Square.

The redevelopment of Times Square cannot be viewed as independent of New York’s leaderships idea of public interest simply because the land set for redevelopment was acquired through eminent domain. However, Mitchell pointedly states that within New York Consolidated Laws, public interest is relatively undefined, and the laws merely stipulate requirements such as just compensation and that a project must be for a, “public use, benefit or purpose” (2007 p.47).

Despite this loose definition, I would argue that in the eyes of New York leadership, the redevelopment of Times Square was justified as serving the interests of publics they deemed desirable- most specifically those publics contributing to Times Square through consumption and the provision of consumable goods. In this sense, the redevelopment of Times Square was about spatially dictating appropriate functions and users of space while eliminating the original users. The original users were deemed to be an undesirable public that promoted or at least harbored vice, unsavory behavior, unhygienic activities and low-end consumption. The new envisioned Times Square was a space for high-end, touristic and internationalized consumption.

While in the Times Square debate, issues of physical blight and misconduct were used as legal justifications to acquire property by eminent domain in order to rejuvenate the economic potential of the project space, officials in the United Kingdom used misconduct as the public justification for spatial restructuring and give the consuming public a way to “reclaim the streets” (Jayne, Valentine & Holloway 2008). Physical blight in urban neighborhoods was not the target of officials, but behavior – particularly excessive drinking- was considered a blight preventing the preferred publics orderly consumption. The attempts at spatial restructuring undertaken in British cities to sequester undesirable drinking behavior also represent a different approach to dealing with undesirable publics.

While in Times Square, the venues frequented by undesirable publics were destroyed and replaced with venues likely to attract more desirable publics, Stoke-on-Trent took steps to separate or zone civilized behavior from uncivilized behavior (Jayne, Valentine & Holloway 2008). What can we deduce from the city’s decision to provide a specific quarter for undesirable behavior? On one hand, Stoke-on-Trent’s decision to specify a zone for the undesirable behavior it sought to combat is realist in that policy makers recognized that British binge drinking practices could not be eliminated altogether. On the other hand, such a policy can be interpreted as reflecting the city’s desire to “have its cake and eat it too”; by sectoring the city into zones for low-brow and high-brow drinking and entertainment, Stoke-on-Trent can reap economic benefits from both the uncivilized and civilized publics.

The reasoning behind policy makers and developers desires to create safe places of consumption is well illustrated by Lynn Staeheli and Don Mitchell in their critical examination of a shopping mall in America (2006). In reaction to severe downtown disinvestment and persistently poor weather conditions, developers in Syracuse sought to establish a shopping mall, city center and contained space of consumption all under one private roof. However, upon examining the extent of regulation that takes places in the Carousel Center and other similar town square shopping complexes, it becomes clear that snow is only one of the unwelcome parties in Syracuse’s “new city center.”

The Carousel Center demonstrates the slippery slope of privatization well; the combination of the prioritization of consumer comfort with an enclosed private space helps to rapidly change our perceptions of what is and is not public space, as well as what is or is not appropriate behavior in public. If downtown Syracuse is no longer a viable space of consumption, does that mean it is no longer a viable public space? Additionally, if developers’ ideal space of consumption is a place protected from uncomfortable encounters with people of different classes, where can political protestors, picketers or individuals with grievances be heard?

The identification and promotion of a certain public is also well demonstrated by Setha Low in her chapter “Clean and Safe? Property Redevelopment, Public Space, and Homelessness in Downtown San Diego.” Low argues that the creation of an acceptable public and the exclusion of an unacceptable public was justified in order to establish urban renewal in San Diego’s downtown district. The unacceptable public was discouraged from using the space through a combined strategy of design and security. In Low’s example, park benches were modified to discourage sleeping in order to exclude the homeless population. The green spaces of public parks were replanted as prickly greenery to discourage people from sitting or sleeping. Police and privately hired Community Ambassadors worked in tandem to discourage unwelcome behavior.

Low frames San Diego’s downtown renewal by examining the politics of property. Low rejects the simple dichotomy of space as either public or private, and suggests two additional forms of property to consider. The first form is the “pseudo-public space,” best exemplified by the suburban mall downtown. The second form is the “pseudo-private space”; a space owned by the state and public, but subject to control and regulation by private interests (Low 2006).

Low argues that the hybridity of “pseudo-private space” is ultimately more destructive than outright privatization because it transforms our notion of publicity. She states, “It transforms the meaning and practices- the regime-or property such that the very expectation that there is a public good is undermined” (2006 p.153). She further argues that “pseudo-private spaces” are cornerstones of redevelopment projects which favor accumulation as the main reason for maintain and improving public spaces in the city. Returning briefly to Syracuse: if the only space in a city for accumulation is an isolated suburban mall, do the downtown public spaces that are not adjacent to spaces of consumption lose their right to improvement?

It is interesting to think of a space such as Solidere as “pseudo-private space” similar to downtown San Diego. While San Diego sought to eradicate the discomfort caused by homelessness to the consumer population, Solidere seeks to eradicate the low-class public and the apparent ills associated with them. By embracing this notion of “pseudo-private space,” the Lebanese government and Solidere have prioritized accumulation in the Beirut Central District (BCD), and through a combination of design and security, actively seek to protect the access of an acceptable public while discouraging access to the unacceptable public (those not contributing to accumulation).

While attempting to compare Solidere to spaces such as Times Square or downtown San Diego, a key difference stands out; following the civil war in Lebanon, the BCD was war-torn and uninhabitable. The choice to allow a private company to take control of the downtown district was made based on the claim that the government did not have the capability to rebuild the district quickly. The development of the BCD is touted on billboards as propelling Beirut back to its former glory, but looking at the effect of Solidere on Beirut as a whole reveals a different story.

Considering the generally positive public opinion of the design interventions in Times Square, San Diego, the Carousel Center, and downtown Beirut reveals the real danger of privatized developments that create pseudo-public spaces. Our idea of publicity is being transformed by every privately financed city sewer pipe installed and every private security guard hired. If consumption and the accumulation of capital continue to play such a central role in the production of space in our cities, and if political protest and the lower classes remain antithetical to those goals, the preferred public is the silent and rich. If this neoliberal model of privatization continues, we must seriously ask ourselves who will build the city for everyone else.

Works Cited
Ehrenfeucht, R and Loukaitou-Sideris, A (2007). Constructing the sidewalks: municipal government and the production of public space in Los Angeles, California, 1880–1920, Journal of Historical Geography, 33(1): 104-124.

Harvey, David (2005). A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Oxford University Press. Jayne, Mark, Valentine, Gill and

Holloway, Sarah (2008). Fluid Boundaries-British Binge Drinking and European Civility: Alcohol and the Production and Consumption of Public Space. Space and Polity, 12(1): 81-100.

Low, Setha (2006) Clean and Safe? Property Redevelopment, Public Space, and Homelessness in Downtown San Diego.” The Politics of Public Space. Low,Setha & Smith, Neil. Routladge.

Miller, Kristine (2007). Designs on the Public: The Private Lives of New York’s Public Spaces, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press (Chapter 3: Condemning the public in the new Times Square, pp. 45-70).

Staeheli, Lynn and Mitchell, Don (2006). USA Destiny? Regulating space and creating community in American shopping malls, Urban Studies, 43(5-6): 977-992.


About kimberlyrose

Former defense policy analyst, current housing project coordinator, and full time birder, outdoor adventurer, fisherwoman and hunter.
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One Response to Privitizing Downtown and Building Posh Publics

  1. Dave Brown says:

    Nice treatment of a fascinating subjct, Kim. Looks like a nearly final draft to me. And I had wanted to hear more about what you are studying. This did it for one subject anyway.

    Your vacation travel plans sound hectic and wonderful. Have a ball!

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