Roger Marks flickr cc

What is POPS and Why is it Bad for the City?

Increasingly large swathes of our cities are being turned over to private management and security firms. Architects and planners who talk about building “high quality public realms” are often creating sites that are anything but public, being subject to increasingly strict and exclusive protocols of who can enter, use, and depend on these formerly public spaces, from the homeless to lunching workers. POPS – privately owned public space – is the misleading acronym given to this creeping privatisation of public space. So, what exactly is POPS, and why is it bad news for our imperilled right to the city?

Privately owned, unpublic space.

A 2014 map produced using data from the Office of National Statistics depicts, across a reasonably small area of the City of London, a number of spaces which are designated as being ‘Private Open Spaces’, while others exist in a more uncertain status of ‘Open Spaces’ whose accessibility and ownership are uncertain.


When journalist Jack Shenker recently attempted to access a number of these more ambivalent Open Spaces along the Thames Pathway walk, he was variously misled, turned away, and recorded by private security personnel who claimed that these sites were not open to the public. Later examination of planning documents revealed that, in fact, they were. Regardless, the private sector often controls their gateways and access points, and makes use of security and surveillance to deny access to space that is, legally, part of the commons. It blusters, threatens, and obscures our right to the city. But it also often outright owns it.

POPS is a loose term that describes a range of urban design and architectural interventions. When developers submit planning proposals, these invariably feature some form of ground level area – pavement, access routes, walkways, gardens, and squares. These can be extensive, and offer contiguous spaces which private companies officially administer, kindly ‘allowing’ the public to make use of them. It is about restricting ownership of the commons into the hands of developers, who then gain authority to shape the kinds of activity, and people, who enter and use that space. If you want to sit down and have a picnic, check whether you can bring ‘outside’ food into the space. If you want to set up and busk, check whether you have to have a licence to do so. Want to sleep rough or beg? Move along. Invariably, ownership of this ‘public’ space is as much about creating the kind of public you want using it, than giving it over to the public.

Unsurprisingly, city councils are uncritically fond of them; New York’s department of planning suggests that POPS “are an amenity provided and maintained by a developer for public use,” also ironically sometimes known as ‘bonus plazas’. It’s clear the only winners in this scenario are contract holders. The public are only as useful as the money they carry and spend.

All talk.

Cynical urbanists will know that developers’ talk about a ‘quality public realm’ can often be simply that: talk. A way of making a development appear more attractive to local planning authorities and investors. So-called ‘quality public realm’ means franchise for new businesses, a trapped audience (market) for specific kinds of retail and vending licence, and knock-on effects in terms of higher land values and rents. ‘High quality public realm’ is good for landlords and adjacent, smaller developments. It’s why councils and developers talk about driving regeneration through ‘keystone’ developments, because they can serve as ‘anchors’ in the urban fabric to attract more and increasingly elite businesses, investors, and franchisees, while clearing out those they deem are deterrents to them. The public realm is not about public use, but private attraction. It’s about turning ‘unproductive’ land (ie where surplus value isn’t being accumulated and farmed) into ‘productive’ land. It is straight-up enclosure; a conflict against the commons.

The “framework of new parks, squares and streets” in the King’s Cross redevelopment (Granary Square) justify a language of excitement and exclusivity; such that, “when it comes to an address, King’s Cross has it all,” with “unbeatable connections, an historic, canalside setting, beautiful parks and squares.” It ‘justifies’ increased rents and sale tags. The King’s Cross space appears public (you can walk into and out of it at will), but it is not. Similarly, proposed developments such as London’s Garden Bridge mean, as reported in the Guardian, “it will be forbidden to protest or assemble in groups of more than eight people without permission,” meaning that the government’s war against protest and dissent has joined hands with the private sector.

Defensive and securitised.

POPS is full to the brim with subtle and, often, not-so-subtle defensive and preventative architectures. These aim to manipulate and structure the ways in which people encounter and make use of them. Anti-skating clips, benches that cannot be lain down on (by rough sleepers, for example), ‘mosquito devices’, the use of CCTV cameras as deterrents. And, always, the presence of private security companies acting in concert with the police. Property owners are becoming increasingly aggressive in creating what online data-blog Dismal Garden identifies as a topography of intolerance and social cleansing, from anti-homeless spikes situated outside of a London residential complex, to metal spikes installed in the niches outside of a Manchester Selfridges. This is how the neoliberal urban wasteland comes into being: piece by sterile piece.

Whereas ‘genuine’ public space is controlled by the singular, ‘total’ jurisdiction of the police, POPS is a jurisdiction in which policing and private management become conflated and mutually reinforcing. Any number of times private security have called the police to intervene where an individual has broken the private rules of these Frankenstein spaces. It entitles the police to enforce their increasingly diaphanous public order controls: transgressing a private rule becomes a matter of public disorder – a criminal offence that, under new laws, has become further criminalised and carries increasingly harsh sentencing. Public Space Protection Orders (PSPOs) severely restrict citizens’ freedoms within the city. Hackney council has already attempted to outlaw rough sleeping under these instruments. Private land trusts can simply refuse it, and call on the police to remove those they deem as breaching the peace. Invariably, these people look like the poor, disabled, and minorities.


It’s growing. Increasingly large swathes of London have been handed over to private developers; bids on large-scale projects often carry with them extensive ‘bonus plaza’ land, such as the new King’s Cross redevelopment. The recently compiled map referred to above reveals the lengthening tendrils of POPS throughout the city.

Such jurisdictions are invisible, albeit recognisable; we do not realise their existence until we contravene their rules. You are not aware of these jurisdictions being written upon your body until you are moved on, or told to stop acting in a particular way. Trafalgar Square is managed by private security, as I recently found out while drinking on its steps during a hot summer afternoon, while Broadgate, Bishops Square, Cardinal Place, Nine Elms, Paternoster Square – the list continues – are all privately owned. Some are squares, some walkways, some are paths. Some look different; some, through visible authorisation and branding, proudly declare their private ownership.

Emma Parlons Life of Yablon

Not going away any time soon.

POPS is bad for cities because its increase is at the detriment to truly accessible public land (the commons). As Richard Sennett has written about the right to the city, “dead public spaces” are not public because they are not spontaneous and open. Truly open space allows us to be a public. Restricted private space entitles us little else than to be subject to victimisation, policing and control. It is a purge authored by permissions and rules.

These spaces are not designed to meet the needs of the general public, but the commercial and usage intentions of private developers. They create sterile and hostile zones where the homeless are not welcome, and where an increasingly broad range of activities – and people – are unwelcome. The privatisation of the city entails the restricting of the horizons of people who use, work in, and are dependent on cities and public space for their survival. Its complex strata of invisible jurisdictions subject urban dwellers to an increasingly numerous range of protocols and controls. It becomes a farmed-out continuation of government policies of social cleansing and privatisation that the state is pursuing through changes to permitted development, extensions to Right to Buy, and the asset stripping of public land and infrastructure into the private sector.

Our well-being within neoliberal cities is already under strain; the fight-back against creeping architectural privatisation is a deeply political one. The occupation of private space should be reoriented as an act of returning to those places that have always already belonged to us.

Photos: Roger Marks/Flickr; Emma Parlons/Life of Yablon

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Published 10th January 2016

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