When POPS go pop

POPS expands to Privately Owned Public Spaces. Now that part of the title doesn’t seem as elusive, I will go on to elucidate the ‘POP’ part of it, which would run into the rest of the article. I am largely borrowing my references from Carl Yost’s originally published article in Metropolis Magazine as “A Plaza is No Guarantee of Democracy”.

A major concern that has been raised here is that of majority of the populace doesn’t seem to enjoy privately owned public places with the same ease as they claim to enjoy a public space or a public place owned and maintained by the city. The reason behind the seeming discomfort owes to the fact that private owners still thrust a sense of ownership in the space by means of vigilance and an established imperative of what someone should or should not do in their space. On the other hand, public spaces don’t seem as intimidating and have a sense of freedom as many people describe it. However, Yost claims that the occurrences are not binary as users may view them. He states that peace rallies like those that took place in Ferguson recently that were violently interrupted lead us to debate that the issues to be dealt with are not about just privatization or design but may be underlying political and social issues as well.

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Ferguson- A peace protest in progress

I would say that the author’s claims are not completely biased but I wouldn’t completely dismiss public views as false either. Each of these issues may be seen of assortments in different scenarios with different spheres of influence with the commonality being that the public realm is exposed to affliction, shame and violence. I call this the ‘Pop’ of public spaces. ‘Pop’ in this context refers to an outburst or unease. With reference to different scenarios that have been addressed above, I would like to isolate and investigate both government and privately owned public places.

POPS-1: Privately owned public spaces:
These spaces come about that for every 1 square foot space given towards public usage, the developer/owner gains ten square feet of buildable area. With the alluring value of real estate investment some 320 buildings have ‘offered’ 550 public spaces in exchange of space and other incentives from the government. Although on the pretext of being publicly accessible spaces, most of these zones are cordoned off or highly restrictive of activities that may be performed. Zuccotti Park is an illustrious example of the same.

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Notice seen at Zuccotti Park

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Notice on Sony plaza tables

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View of IBM building’s sculpture park

The concern that arises here is of democracy, not of design. While planners and designers may be involved in physically creating spaces that invite, it is finally left to the property owner to impose clauses on the land he owns. Quoting Jerold Kayden, professor of urban planning and design at Harvard’s Kennedy School, “… (POPS) occupy a somewhat murky terrain in terms of what activities and conduct of public users within the space should be acceptable and what goes beyond the pale.” Whether any part of the city will be left for its people is the greatest fear of its society. Has democracy dwindled over real estate valuation?

While it may compel the state and city governments to intervene for streamlining, it may also be important for its people to voice what they want governments to do. A good starter maybe to create a common set of clauses to be followed in POPS that are stipulated by the government as to what private organisation can or cannot be permitted to exercise over a public realm. Several private campaign groups are already turning into vox populi towards this cause. Read more

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DSGN AGNC‘s mappings of privately owned public space (POPS) in Manhattan

POPS-2: People owned public places

These comprise public plazas, parks, playgrounds and streets. While the government may layout a few clauses towards taking care of public property, public places do not pose all the issues faced by a privately owned space. But, these come with a gamut of issues too. Most occurrences of upheaval are caused in rallies, campaigns or small group gatherings or anything that get the cops sniffing for ‘suspicious’ activity. In several instances, campaigners have complained that peaceful rallies have been disrupted using violent methods by police forces, some even involving arrests. The Ferguson incident is an example that created violent outbreaks with cops employing tear gas on protesters. While speculations treat the event as racially biased, it is quite clear that these are wars waged towards people by people and only the government is vested with power to resolve incidents of such manner and prevent them from re-occurring.

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Police firing tear gas at demonstrators in Ferguson

When both public and private spaces for the public affect their users in different conditions, one might ask what a planner or an architect can do to influence a better change. Although this is a research topic by itself, in short it could be said that architecture has the power to influence social behavior. While a designer by himself/herself may not have control over eventualities that arise as an outcome policy making, he/she certainly can create social impact based on the design program interpretation and usage amongst many other factors. The High Line, New York by Diller and Scofidio is one such great example of architecture that changed and revitalized Chelsea, the place through which it passes.

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The High Line- Before Revitalization

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The High Line- Today

Quoting Winston Churchill,

“There is no doubt whatever about the influence of architecture and structure upon human character and action. We make our buildings and afterwards they make us. They regulate the course of our lives.”

But is architecture alone enough to make a social or rather democratic change? Being an architect myself, my answer to say ‘maybe not’ is quite valid.

By: Carola Winnie

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