Who Wins When a New Park Seems Public But is Privately Owned?

Bonnie Alter/CC BY 2.0

A huge new square, Granary Square, has just been opened in a formerly gritty part of London. The King's Cross area is undergoing a major urban transformation, and this 8,000 sq.M park, one of the largest new spaces in Europe, is part of the regeneration.

It used to be a railway yard from the 1850's and there is much to praise: the lovely and fascinating fountains, the benches made out of chunks of old wood, and the bits of railway heritage left in the ground.

Bonnie Alter/CC BY 2.0

But the park is not public: it has been redeveloped by a private developer and they own it and run it. Why should we care? There are lots of benefits to redevelopment: cash-starved City councils get a lovely space and don't have to pay and we can all sit out in it and enjoy it.

Sort of. These privately run parks are often characterised by lots of security: forget about cycling, skateboarding, busking, filming, and of course, political protests. One only has to think of the problems for the Occupy movements in New York and London . They thought that they were demonstrating in public places but in fact they weren't and they got turfed out.

Bonnie Alter/CC BY 2.0

One could also argue, as representatives of London Sustainability Exchange do, that the developers want the public spaces to be ornamental, corporate-looking and not very sustainable. For example, in Granary Square, "it's just a massive paved [area] … fountains which are very nice for cooling but don't actually really cool you if there's no shade. It's energy intensive. In terms of upkeep you need to keep cleaning and grouting them out, but biodiversity is poor."

Bonnie Alter/CC BY 2.0

So what about the square? The fountain has 1,080 individual water jets, each with their own pump and light and are programmed to shoot up and down or stay at rest. There are huge tanks underneath and all water used is recycled, with a spare tank acting as a constant filter to clean the water.

As for shade: there is a little orchard of of lime trees in the far corner. A poem inscribed in the ground around them reads: “Kings Cross, dense with angels and histories. There are cities beneath your pavements. Cities behind your skies. Let me see!”

Bonnie Alter/CC BY 2.0

A generous set of steps spills down to the Regent's Canal; they are a nice touch, forming an informal amphitheatre that leads onto the footpath for the canal.

In Aberdeen, Scotland, a battle is raging over the redevelopment of a public park in the middle of town by a private developer. Annie Lennox, who was born in Aberdeen called the proposal “another dogs dinner of crap concrete development, ravaging the only authentic, historical green space in the city centre”. In these austerity times it is going to be something that we all have to watch.

Tags: Architecture | London | Urban Life | Urban Planning