6.26.2009

Public and Private Space

Photo of the Four Horses Fountain in MoscowHaving just returned from Russia, I’ve been thinking a lot about public and private space. The country has been experiencing rapid privatization since the early 1990s. Many aspects of urban life, from transportation to housing to recreation, are becoming less public.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Private space can encourage responsibility for quality maintenance. We’re usually more likely to repair and improve upon places we own than places we share with everyone.

According to the logic of privatization, public maintenance is best contracted to independent businesses. In a way this makes sense. It provides incentive for efficient work, and as long as high quality is a requirement, we should get intended results at lower costs.

So why do market efficiencies often result in low-quality public space? Strip malls, for example, or dilapidated waterfronts. I guess it has to do with our priorities, and how much we’re willing or able to pay. If public space isn’t valued, there will be little incentive for businesses to compete over insufficient funds allocated toward its maintenance.

We expect to pay more for higher quality cars and houses. But what about bridges, water, roads, and other public entities? Not that we should pay more than we get in return, but it seems that quality services indicate a well-functioning society. While I found the parks, trains, and streets of Moscow nicely maintained, I heard that some neighborhoods are filled with uncollected garbage, and that the metro system was built at the rest of the country's expense. It's important that the benefits of public investment are distributed fairly.

Supporters of privatization might argue that services should be purchased directly by those who benefit from them, so as to reduce the misapplication of public funds. In its most extreme form, this might involve gated communities providing their own infrastructure, tollbooths at every bridge and roadway, and people hiring private companies for protection from crime. This could be considered fair in the sense that services would be more closely related to the amount we pay. However, it is less fair that children from wealthy families should start out with such major advantages over other children in education, health care, and basic safety. While salaries in lower paying fields like teaching and the military might rise with private demand, their services would be controlled by those who could afford them.

Photo of Tsaritsino ParkIn looking for ways of maintaining public space, Russia’s experience with socialism could offer useful lessons. While there are many aspects of Soviet rule that didn’t work, there are others that continue to benefit city residents. These include accessible transportation, parks, and cultural resources. It will be interesting to see if Russia can draw selectively from capitalism without losing the advantages of its socialist legacy. At the very least, we can study these advantages and see if they might work in other cities.

Is responsible maintenance of public space possible? Working on this would be a sound investment in our quality of life. Of course, the money for public investment has to come from somewhere. This is a question for economists, but it also has to do with where we place our values. If we care enough to improve upon the quality of our surroundings, we can make this happen. It will be important to figure out what improvement would mean and how to go about it. If we make this a priority, things could get better sooner than we think.

(Photo of the Four Horses Fountain by Miroslava De Abreu Coelho. Photo of Tsaritsino Park from Flickr user initsownway1701.)

16 comments:

Daniel said...

Privatized space typically has to be oriented somehow, whether directly or indirectly, toward making a profit. Activities like lingering for a while with friends, holding a political rally, bringing your own lunch from home, etc. are not really accepted there. There are no real alternatives for truly public space.

That being said, the soviet model was way to centrally controlled for me - at the national level. I visited U.S.S.R. a couple years before it fell, and I can attest to the non-functioning of public property there. Everything was in perpetual "maintenance." To me it seems that the local government is best suited to operate public space. They know the needs of the community, and are most likely to respond to feedback from the people who actually use it.

Peter Sigrist said...

That's an interesting point about public maintenance during Soviet times. I agree that too much centralized control should be avoided. Local government seems much better suited for managing the commons. It also provides a structure through which people can participate. It would be good if volunteer efforts (like neighborhood cleanups, landscaping, repairs, house painting, etc.) could be supported somehow by local and national government.

Benjamin Hemric said...

Peter Sigrist wrote:

Is responsible maintenance of public space possible?

Benjamin Hemric writes:

For the past 25-30 years or so, here in NYC two types of semi-private / semi-public organizations have been making a big difference: 1) Business Improvement Districts, a/k/a BIDs (non-profit organizations of property owners that are chartered by NYC that and which are allowed to assess fees from local property owners to fix-up and maintain local streets and parks); and conservancy type organizations (non-profit organizations that are given a franchise, so to speak, over a city-owned park for which they collect private donations to improve and maintain the park as a supplement to NYC's efforts).

An examples of BID that has made a TREMENDOUS difference in the maintenance of public spaces (streets and parks, etc.) is the BID for the Herald Square area of NYC, the 34th St. Partnership. These days there are a great number of BIDs for business districts all over the city (including business districts in the outer boroughs, like the Bronx and Queens).

An example of a conservancy that has made a TREMENDOUS difference is the Central Park Conservancy. (There are now similar organizations for other parks, like Prospect Park in Brooklyn, too.)

In essence these organizations create "gated communities," but without the gates.

Peter Sigrist said...

Thanks, Benjamin. Those sound like great programs. I'll look forward to learning more about BIDs and conservancies.

Peter Sigrist said...

Here's an interesting section on the Central Park Conservancy in relation to other parks and community gardens, from Concrete and Clay.

Benjamin Hemric said...

Benjamin Hemric writes:

I haven't read the Bender book (although I believe I may have skimmed through it once) but from the excerpt that's been provided, and from the review of it by Zachary M. Schrag (for which there is a link provided on the same website as the excerpt), it seems to me that Bender's criticisms of conservancies are largely misplaced.

While what follows is not, obviously, a full critque, I think it might be useful, nevertheless, to consider the Bender excerpt on the Central Park Conservancy in light of some the comments that were previously made in this thread.

In the original post, Peter Sigrist wrote (in part):

While I found the parks, trains, and streets of Moscow nicely maintained, I heard that some neighborhoods are filled with uncollected garbage, and that the metro system was built [in the Soviet era] at the rest of the country's expense.

In his comment to the original post, Daniel wrote (in part):

I visited U.S.S.R. a couple years before it fell, and I can attest to the non-functioning of public property there. Everything was in perpetual "maintenance."

In a subsequent comment Peter Sigrist wrote (in part):

That's an interesting point about public maintenance during Soviet times. I agree that too much centralized control should be avoided. Local government seems much better suited for managing the commons. It also provides a structure through which people can participate. It would be good if volunteer efforts (like neighborhood cleanups, landscaping, repairs, house painting, etc.) could be supported somehow by local and national government.

Book reviewer Zachary M. Schrag wrote (in part):

Missing [from Bender's arguments] is a clear statement of how infrastructure development could have been more democratic in the past.

Addictive Picasso said...

Literally 10mins before reading your post, I came across a speech here that evokes the power and meaning of public ownership of public space.

It's the Earl of Rosebery, Chairman of the London County Council and later Prime Minister, at the official opening of Brockwell Park, London on Whit Monday, 6 June 1892, reported in The Times:

"Whatever revolution may occur, whatever political change may take place, the face of nature may be transformed; but, whatever happens, this is preserved to you and your descendants for ever as an open space. No landlord can take it from you, no building society can take it from you, no Monarch can take it from you; you are safe for ever and ever. It is with this consideration that I rejoice to be with you today."

Pretty amazing eh?

Peter Sigrist said...

That is an amazing quote! And very appropriate. Thank you for posting it.

Benjamin: Yes, I'm reluctant to be too critical of the Central Park Conservancy. They have a clear focus, and from what I've heard about the park in the 1970s, their efforts have really helped make it more safe, clean, and widely used.

Anonymous said...

As a boy from a former Soviet Bloc country I can say that things private are as much a disaster if not worse for the citizens of a country. Now things look better but the average citizen, who is usually poor, has no say now on much of what happens within the country. Yes before the system was terrible today unless you have money you have no say.

Peter Sigrist said...

Under capitalism, man exploits man. Under communism, it's just the opposite. - John Kenneth Galbraith

This quote may sound cynical, but I think the opposite is also true: people do a lot of good things in both cases.

I'd like to see limits on the influence of money in politics. Maybe that's like trying to place limits on the influence of water in farming. Still, preventing injustices and abuses of power would be like fresh air.

tsarchitect said...

Don’t forget the most important public-private partnership: the street. In a well-functioning street where property owners open up to public space and the government takes care of some basic needs, the street corner is already a thriving public space. The city provides the geometry and paths. The property owners provide the architecture and sometimes even take care of the public section - not only as part of a BID, just the street in front of the store. It doesn’t always work, but getting people to care about public property even if it is “their” part, is a big improvement that reduces the amount of investment required by a government.

Also, how far did you go outside of central Moscow? There are plenty of gardens around the massifs that are maintained well enough, but are themselves just not that comfortable. Honestly, there’s just so much parkland that centralized agencies can’t readily improve areas or allocate funding for them. In St. Petersburg, there are definitely public parks that charge to enter. It’s a pittance, like 10RR, but still a charge.

Peter Sigrist said...

Aside from a weekend trip to St. Petersburg, the farthest I made it outside the center was the last stop on the light green line (I think Marina?) and the Botanical Garden. I stayed near MGU. I was amazed at the amount of parkland. I've made a list of parks to visit when I return in August.

Great point about street corners and the areas in front of businesses. I've heard awnings described as transitions between public and private space. I especially like the ones that cover outdoor seating. There was one restaurant close to where I stayed that built a kind of tent for outdoor seating, and beside it they had what looked like an herb garden, right on the sidewalk.

David Bruce said...

Private ownership of spaces that otherwise appear public present some interesting issues. How are basic rights affected by this trend. Private spaces have the power to limit unacceptable behavior. If truly public spaces are displaced by private ownership along with them go freedoms of speech, assembly and protest. Private spaces that take on the image of their public counterparts do not guarantee these rights.

The transformation of urban environments through privatization of public lands places public rights in a precarious position. It is the responsibility of local citizens to maintain a value for public spaces and remain active in local governance to produce and procure these spaces.

Is there an alternative that would preserve the rights of citizens even on privatized or quasi-public spaces? Could or should local governments have the ability to encroach upon private land in a way that would preserve public rights in the case of spaces that assume a public image? What would happen if truly public spaces disappeared and the potentially waning public sphere were to fade along with it?

It has been said that the health and vitality of a city can be indicated by its public spaces. What if public space becomes an illusion?

Peter Sigrist said...

David: Those are really important questions. Thanks for bringing up the differences between actual and quasi- public space, and how these differences affect our rights.

cw said...

look up subbotnik
-required public clean up of community spaces-
creating a sense of ownership of socialized property

Patric said...

Peter, I found your blog on Public and Private Space, a year after your last post. I will be conducting a workshop on private and public space for a university in Maine in January 2012 and would like to use some quotes from your blog. Interestingly though, the Occupy Wall Street movement is an excellent example of public space being privately used by citizens, or in the case of NYC private property being used publicly. Although more complex than simply regular maintenance the success of public space is proven through hands on organized care with financial resources. Having recently revisited Pruitt-Igo Myth documentary by Chad Freidrichs, one wonders how even well-kept public/private parks and/or buildings are sustainable if residents do not take pride in their surroundings and are impoverished due to a lack of opportunity within any form of government, especially a plutocracy which is now the case in the USA.