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The First Map of London's ‘Pseudo-Public’ Space Epidemic

Unwittingly, thousands of Londoners cross zones of reduced civil liberties on a daily basis

London’s public spaces are undergoing a quiet but profound transformation. An increasing number are, in fact, no longer public. 


About 50 of these ‘privately-owned public spaces’, or Pops, have now been identified by the Guardian newspaper on this, the first comprehensive map of these areas. Many are in busy parts of the city centre, and are traversed by countless Londoners every day.

Not that they’d notice. Most Pops are not signposted; people generally only become aware of them when they break the rules that govern these spaces. Those rules are drawn up by their private owners, and are usually as un-advertised as the exact borders of each Pops. Quite often, they proscribe activities that are perfectly legal in ‘genuine’ public spaces: taking a picture, doing an interview, protesting, taking a nap. 

One of these twilight zones of civil liberty is the More London estate. Located on the south bank of the Thames close to Tower Bridge, it surrounds London City Hall, the democratic heart of the British capital – home to the directly-elected Mayor, and the 25-seat Assembly that scrutinises him. But the area around the egg-shaped building is owned by the Kuwait Investment Authority, the sovereign wealth fund of the emirate.

As a Guardian reporter found out in person, More London’s private security guards can and will stop interviews on the estate. In fact, they told him that they can prevent any kind of unsanctioned journalistic activity – but refused to reveal the exact extent to which other ‘normal’ rights and liberties were restricted on the property. 

More London’s estate, surrounding London City Hall.

The newspaper quoted Daniel Moylan, Conservative councillor in Kensington & Chelsea and Chairman of Urban Design London, complaining about the creeping democratic deficit caused by this and other ‘pseudo-public’ spaces:

"It’s extremely worrying (that) private landowners have the power to coerce us in what appear to be public streets and squares. If they have power over us then we must at least know what those powers are, where they get them from, and how they are held accountable".

London has long had a complex and problematic relationship between the private ownership of land and its public use – see entry #820 on this blog for more on the ‘landlordism’ "sucking out London’s lifeblood".

The Guardian recalls that large areas of Belgravia, Marylebone and Pimlico were fenced off in the 19th century. Only after lengthy legal battles were these ‘gated communities’ opened up to public access and scrutiny. Yet even today, hundreds of so-called garden squares in central London remain off limits to all except local residents. 

Nevertheless, the trend in London has long been towards more public oversight of urban space. Only in recent years has that trend started to reverse. Local authorities, keen to save money on the design, upkeep and policing of public spaces, have ceded those prerogatives to the developers of large real estate projects such as Canary Wharf on the Isle of Dogs and Nine Elms in Battersea. 

Virtually all large developments under way or planned contain some form of privately-owned public spaces. Some academics, comparing the current phenomenon with the privatisation of common lands in the 17th and 18th centuries, are even calling this the era of 'urban enclosure'. Indeed, if the process continues unabated, one could justifiably wonder whether genuine public space, with all the rights and liberties attached to it, will become an exception rather than the rule.

Pops at King’s Cross. Under construction: Google’s new HQ.

'Pseudo-public' spaces are an inevitable by-product of modern cities, in which privately-owned open spaces are accessible for the public to use the facilities (shops, bars, etc.) on offer. And indeed, some commenters on the article in the Guardian prefer these pseudo-public spaces to some of the less well-maintained and not so closely-monitored 'genuine' public spaces elsewhere.

Even so, the problem remains that unaccountable corporations – often based outside the UK – dictate rules of behaviour, which they can change as they please (or which staff on the ground can make up as they go along), without clear oversight in the interest of the general public. Some examples:

  • In 2011, Occupy protesters were removed from Paternoster Square, outside the London Stock Exchange, on the grounds that they were trespassing on private land owned by the Mitsubishi Estate Company.
  • In Pancras Square, part of King's Cross Estate, lying down on the grass is okay, but not sleeping. One homeless man told the Guardian that as soon as he shuts his eyes, he is accosted by security guards.
  • Taking pictures is becoming increasingly problematic, with photographers being informed by security guards that they are on private land, and their activity is subject to prior permission – even in what looks like public space, such as Tower Place, adjacent to the Tower of London.
  • Public drinking is considered sufficient reason for removal from certain Pops.  
  • Confronted with the creeping privatisation of public space, London Mayor Sadiq Khan has promised that the next update of the London Plan – a document outlining the city’s urban development strategy – will contain a commitment to maximising access to Pops, while minimising the restrictions they impose on those who enter into them.

    But a good start would be to know how many of those spaces there are. Other major cities, including New York, Toronto and Rotterdam, have registers of similar ‘pseudo-public spaces’ (see #441 for more on San Francisco’s version). London lacked one, until now. In cooperation with the Greenspace Information for Greater London (GiGL), the Guardian has drawn up the first comprehensive map of London’s Pops. Some extracts from the database:

  • Granary Square (1), Wharf Road Gardens (2), Gasholder Park (3), Lewis Cubitt Park (4) and Pancras Square (5) together comprise an area of 1.71 hectares in the King’s Cross area of Camden, owned by King’s Cross Central, a partnership between Argent Kings Cross and Australian Super.  
  • Via his Hong Kong-listed company CC Land, Chinese billionaire Cheun Chung-kiu owns the open space at the Leadenhall Building (11).
  • The Canary Wharf Group owns Cabot Square (27), Canada Square Park (28), Jubilee Park (29), Westferry Circus (30), West India Quays (31), the Crossrail Place Roof Garden (32) and Reuters Plaza (33) – together 3.74 hectares of real estate in the Docklands area of the borough of Tower Hamlets.
  • The sovereign wealth funds of various Gulf states own large parts of London. The Abu Dhabi National Exhibitions Company owns the 2.59-hectare ExCel Centre (23), located in the borough of Newham. The St Martins Property Group, a subsidiary of the Kuwait Investment Authority, owns More London (26), a total of 4.35 hectares in the borough of Southwark. Qatari Diar, a subsidiary of the Qatar Investment Authority, owns several estates at or near the former Olympic Village in the borough of Newham via Get Living London: Victory Park and Portlands (19), Mirabelle Gardens (20) and Water Glades (21) – together 4.81 hectares.
  • The map is based on data reluctantly provided by local authorities and landowners themselves. The paper has invited the general public to add to the database - more on which at this GiGL page.

    Images from the Guardian article on Pops. Many thanks to Jeremy Hoogmartens for sending it in. The article is part of the Guardian Cities series. Click here for access to GiGL

    Strange Maps #852

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    A "very massive star" in the Kinman Dwarf galaxy caught the attention of astronomers in the early years of the 2000s: It seemed to be reaching a late-ish chapter in its life story and offered a rare chance to observe the death of a large star in a region low in metallicity. However, by the time scientists had the chance to turn the European Southern Observatory's (ESO) Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Paranal, Chile back around to it in 2019 — it's not a slow-turner, just an in-demand device — it was utterly gone without a trace. But how?

    The two leading theories about what happened are that either it's still there, still erupting its way through its death throes, with less luminosity and perhaps obscured by dust, or it just up and collapsed into a black hole without going through a supernova stage. "If true, this would be the first direct detection of such a monster star ending its life in this manner," says Andrew Allan of Trinity College Dublin, Ireland, leader of the observation team whose study is published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

    So, em...

    Between astronomers' last look in 2011 and 2019 is a large enough interval of time for something to happen. Not that 2001 (when it was first observed) or 2019 have much meaning, since we're always watching the past out there and the Kinman Dwarf Galaxy is 75 million light years away. We often think of cosmic events as slow-moving phenomena because so often their follow-on effects are massive and unfold to us over time. But things happen just as fast big as small. The number of things that happened in the first 10 millionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang, for example, is insane.

    In any event, the Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy, or PHL 293B, is far way, too far for astronomers to directly observe its stars. Their presence can be inferred from spectroscopic signatures — specifically, PHL 293B between 2001 and 2011 consistently featured strong signatures of hydrogen that indicated the presence of a massive "luminous blue variable" (LBV) star about 2.5 times more brilliant than our Sun. Astronomers suspect that some very large stars may spend their final years as LBVs.

    Though LBVs are known to experience radical shifts in spectra and brightness, they reliably leave specific traces that help confirm their ongoing presence. In 2019 the hydrogen signatures, and such traces, were gone. Allan says, "It would be highly unusual for such a massive star to disappear without producing a bright supernova explosion."

    The Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy, or PHL 293B, is one of the most metal-poor galaxies known. Explosive, massive, Wolf-Rayet stars are seldom seen in such environments — NASA refers to such stars as those that "live fast, die hard." Red supergiants are also rare to low Z environments. The now-missing star was looked to as a rare opportunity to observe a massive star's late stages in such an environment.

    Celestial sleuthing

    In August 2019, the team pointed the four eight-meter telescopes of ESO's ESPRESSO array simultaneously toward the LBV's former location: nothing. They also gave the VLT's X-shooter instrument a shot a few months later: also nothing.

    Still pursuing the missing star, the scientists acquired access to older data for comparison to what they already felt they knew. "The ESO Science Archive Facility enabled us to find and use data of the same object obtained in 2002 and 2009," says Andrea Mehner, an ESO staff member who worked on the study. "The comparison of the 2002 high-resolution UVES spectra with our observations obtained in 2019 with ESO's newest high-resolution spectrograph ESPRESSO was especially revealing, from both an astronomical and an instrumentation point of view."

    Examination of this data suggested that the LBV may have indeed been winding up to a grand final sometime after 2011.

    Team member Jose Groh, also of Trinity College, says "We may have detected one of the most massive stars of the local Universe going gently into the night. Our discovery would not have been made without using the powerful ESO 8-meter telescopes, their unique instrumentation, and the prompt access to those capabilities following the recent agreement of Ireland to join ESO."

    Combining the 2019 data with contemporaneous Hubble Space Telescope (HST) imagery leaves the authors of the reports with the sense that "the LBV was in an eruptive state at least between 2001 and 2011, which then ended, and may have been followed by a collapse into a massive BH without the production of an SN. This scenario is consistent with the available HST and ground-based photometry."

    Or...

    A star collapsing into a black hole without a supernova would be a rare event, and that argues against the idea. The paper also notes that we may simply have missed the star's supernova during the eight-year observation gap.

    LBVs are known to be highly unstable, so the star dropping to a state of less luminosity or producing a dust cover would be much more in the realm of expected behavior.

    Says the paper: "A combination of a slightly reduced luminosity and a thick dusty shell could result in the star being obscured. While the lack of variability between the 2009 and 2019 near-infrared continuum from our X-shooter spectra eliminates the possibility of formation of hot dust (⪆1500 K), mid-infrared observations are necessary to rule out a slowly expanding cooler dust shell."

    The authors of the report are pretty confident the star experienced a dramatic eruption after 2011. Beyond that, though:

    "Based on our observations and models, we suggest that PHL 293B hosted an LBV with an eruption that ended sometime after 2011. This could have been followed by
    (1) a surviving star or
    (2) a collapse of the LBV to a BH [black hole] without the production of a bright SN, but possibly with a weak transient."

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