Tuesday, 1 November 2011

At St Pauls

A visit to St Paul's Cathedral on a weekday lunchtime to see the anti-capitalist protest camp - protestors, sightseeing workers and sightseeing tourists all very well behaved - prompts some thoughts about public space and private space in the city.  The protestors' original target was said to be nearby Paternoster Square, home of the Stock Exchange, but what is called a square, and one might think is 'public' space, turns out to be private land.  Normally full at lunchtime, today it is empty, fenced off behind temporary barriers guarded by the police. But as I understand it, the protestors only get to stay where they are now because they are on a different bit of private land, but owned by the C of E rather than a (secular) property company - presumably if they were in the middle of the road they would be moved on.

 The landowners'  'control' of the Paternoster Square turns out to offer them less control than they might have thought, since the protestors' action has effectively led to its closure in any case. 

The question of the private control of apparently public spaces has been discussed extensively in recent years, in Anna Minton's book Ground Control and elsewhere.  As ever, it is nothing new - several of London's residential squares were 'gated communities' with controlled access in the nineteenth century. 

The Government's urban design guidance By Design refers to the desirability of public and private spaces being clearly distinguished. This is simple (though still often messed up) when it comes to the 'fronts and backs' of traditional urban blocks when contrasted with the ill defined spaces of postwar planning, but more complex when it comes to spaces like Paternoster Square.  In the traditional city, we find spaces like the Inns of Court where one is in no doubt that although one can visit, one is there on sufferance and could be excluded - with their gatehouses and doors, arguably a more 'clearly distinguished' arrangement than that found in Paternoster Square, which look invitingly public but turns out not to be.  But then we have been reminded only this week that we still live in a feudal society....

What would Jane Jacobs do?