Danae Haratsis 

In the current times of austerity, what we perceive as public is in clear retreat: public services undergo deep cutbacks, public housing is privatised and public space is increasingly no such thing6. Despite the abundance of open spaces in London, we growingly come across the crucial difference in property ownership and ownership of one’s experience of the city. Indeed, although London planning has become particularly adept at the delivery of high quality public realm, its regulations, restricted access and surveillance often bring about a sense of exclusion. These civil spaces therefore lose their civic association, inversing the definition of civicness as institutions’ capacity to stimulate, reproduce and cultivate civility. How can this duality and ambiguity re-emerge in London’s homogenized spaces? In an attempt to institutionalize the ambiguous coexistence of civil and civic entities, can architecture serve as a spatial, structural and formal translation of collective and individual ambitions?

Public spaces form one of the most essential components of a city, giving areas a sense of place. They are indispensable nodes of social interaction, as beyond their mere physical entity as open space they are the places where social life materialises its community values.

In recent years, we have witnessed a multitude of projects revitalising London’s public spaces. Amongst others, the pedestrianisation of Trafalgar Square, the transformation of the South Bank, the creation of the Olympic park, as well as many more, smaller-scale, initiatives to improve London’s high streets, rivers and parks, have led the capital’s evolution into a more people-friendly metropolis.

In this process, London planning has become particularly adept at the delivery of high quality public realm as part of large scale private developments. This phenomenon, initially explained by budget pressures on local authorities, has been exacerbated in an age of austerity. The increasing quantity and size of these private developments, as well as the proliferation of Business Improvement Districts (BID), smaller scale Privately Owned Public Spaces (POPS) and the creation of Public Spaces Protection Orders (PSPO) introduce new layers of complexity and their consequences are multiple.

Land ownership largely determines control of access to a space; furthermore, it is often through the management of said space that the look and feel of the environment are created. Finally, codes of conduct imposed tend to differ from those applying to spaces in public ownership. While notionally open to all, these spaces policed by overzealous public security and CCTV, impose rules and regulations restricting access and behaviour. Taking the Thames Path as an example, the 213-mile public right of way runs from the river’s source to the Thames Barrier, with over 60 miles going through London. However, gated access, private riversides and permitted hours in various parts of the route positively blur the line between public and private, leading even Boris Johnson to admit Londoners may feel excluded from parts of their own city1.

David Harvey - Rebel Cities 

The recent revival of emphasis upon the supposed loss of urban commonalities reflects the seemingly profound impacts of the recent wave of privatisations, enclosures, spatial controls, policing and surveillance upon the qualities of urban life in general, and in particular upon the potentiality to build or inhibit new forms of social relations (a new commons) within an urban process influenced if not dominated by capitalist class interests. Through these experiences we see there is a crucial difference between property ownership and the ability to take ownership of your life in the city and your direct surroundings. In a city like London, privileged in terms of the quantity of its public spaces, how can this feeling of exclusion be countered? Another parameter to consider is the current expansion of mega-projects with large footprints that overtake existing urban tissue: little streets and squares, density of street-level shops and modest offices, and so on. These mega-projects might raise the overall density of the city, but as Saskia Sassen argues, they in effect de-urbanise it - and thereby highlight the often overlooked fact that density might not be enough to have a city3.

And so in these times of i ncreasing neoliberal privatisation, homogenisation and control of urban spaces we observe a wide range of experiments attempting to reclaim and reconfigure the city: urban farming, guerilla gardening, pop up stores, occupying abandoned sites for new purposes, and so on. These initiatives spark pertinent questions such as who owns the city, how do citizens shape the urban landscape? When is a space perceived as truly ‘public’? How can the city’s public realm be appropriated? Italo Calvino - Invisible Cities. With cities it is as with dreams: everything imaginable can be dreamed, but even the most unexpected dream.. conceals a desire or, its reverse, a fear. Cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears, even if the thread of their discourse is secret, their rules are absurd, their perspectives deceitful, and everything conceals something else.

Cities’ identities are based on the future, the unknown. They always represent new territories to discover, new people to encounter, new ideas to debate and new backgrounds to consider. Cities foster new concepts growing from this battle of ideas and ideologies, from the clash of unexpected perspectives.

If we envision London of tomorrow to preserve its nature as an absorbing place of complexity and diversity that enables encounters, innovation and co-existence, its design, politics and ownership schemes should be able to allow for miscellaneous unplanned and unexpected uses. Indeed, London plans of larger developments should look beyond simple diversity and for complex engagement amongst actors, beyond a simple mix of functions and toward the possibility of true civic association, the formation of new business networks, or the encouragement of institutions.

Civility and civicness are often discussed as intertwined notions, however although they overlap there are also clear distinctions. In the revitalisation of London’s public realm, we have seen clear improvements in the city’s ‘civil commons’: pedestrianisations, sidewalk cafes, bike paths, pocket parks. Civicness, on the other hand, would be more interwoven with public institutional settings: public spaces speaking of power, forums propitious to dialogue and debate, protest and conflict resolution. Civicness then also becomes the possibility conferred to institutions to stimulate, reproduce and cultivate civility. How can this duality and ambiguity re-emerge in London’s homogenized civil spaces? Public Institutions and formalism have always been tightly knit. In an attempt to institutionalize coexistence of civil and civic entities, can architecture serve as a spatial, structural and formal translation of collective and individual ambitions, a snapshot of a political climate7?

Envisioning a domain that goes beyond streets and squares, equipped with facilities, services and other amenities which bring to the city a collective and integrating character instead of the present privatising thrust, could we interpret the public sphere into a series of civic complexes as “centres of resistance” acting as gatherings of ideologies about the collective space?


1.    Dezeen
2.    Muji
3.    Ikea
4.    Postcard, by the author
5.    Airplane space requirements.
6.    New York micro apartments Carmel Place plan, nArchitects.


1.    Research by JLL indicates only 12% London’s workers aged 22-39 can afford to buy on their own, based on a typical 20% mortgage deposit. 2.    Based on the same JLL research, the proportion of London workers aged 22-39 able to afford Pocket’s one bedroom houses doubles, from 12% to 22.5%.