Public and Private Space around London

Upon arriving in Kensington and Chelsea, most people’s curiosity leads them to the nearest garden square.  Intending to have a picnic beneath stately trees, smell the lovely flowers, or kick a football on grass, the hearts of visitors deflate when it becomes clear that the gardens are private.  Yes, Hyde Park is just up the road, but to have a garden in your own backyard would be lovely.  The fact is that many residents do have a garden in their backyard, but it’s private and they pay a fee for access so any snoopy passersby can’t come in and trample their petunias.  Londoners come across private space perceived as public space many times each day, from gardens to shopping malls to open areas of congregation.

The areas around City Hall in Southwark are a prime example.  Once a dilapidated industrial plot, the thirteen acre site was redeveloped in the late 1990s and boasts prime office space and a master plan by Foster & Partners.  Tourists following the Jubilee Walk criss-cross the space along the river, and commuters cross the pedestrian areas by the thousands.  A sunken amphitheatre space encourages passersby to sit, and art installations complement elaborate water features.  The views of Tower Bridge, the Tower of London, and other City landmarks across the river are unparalleled.

But would you believe that all of this space is private?  Foreign investors own the entire development, known as More London, including the open plazas which appear to be public domain.  The owners permit the public to use the outside space, and even let office space to the mayor and the Greater London Authority, but the area is nonetheless private.  A debate between those who feel corporations should not be able to infringe upon their bicycling rights along the riverfront and those in favour of large privately funded, economy-boosting development.

Similar controversies have arisen around London.  Development in and around old Spitalfields Market in E1 triggered emotions from both sides, as have various projects on extensive formerly industrial sites in the Docklands and East London.  Similarly, the 100 acres owned by Canary Wharf Group have been ripe with public space wrangles.  Situations concerning development tend not to pop up in the West End or Kensington & Chelsea as often simply because large-scale comprehensive schemes rarely happen.  Access to green spaces in these neighbourhoods troubles garden committees periodically, however.

While there is no right answer to any questions raised by the private versus public debate, larger trends are evident.  London remains a centre for development, and clearly demand for space continues to increase.  Developers are interested in comprehensive plans including elaborate landscape architecture to foster public interaction.  This pleases owners whose rental incomes will increase if their space is more desirable.