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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:
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:
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.
Strange Maps #852
Got a strange map? Let me know at email@example.com.
All this from a wad of gum?
- Researchers recently uncovered a piece of chewed-on birch pitch in an archaeological dig in Denmark.
- Conducting a genetic analysis of the material left in the birch pitch offered a plethora of insights into the individual who last chewed it.
- The gum-chewer has been dubbed Lola. She lived 5,700 years ago; and she had dark skin, dark hair, and blue eyes.
Five thousand and seven hundred years ago, "Lola" — a blue-eyed woman with dark skin and hair — was chewing on a piece of pitch derived from heating birch bark. Then, this women spit her chewing gum out into the mud on an island in Denmark that we call Syltholm today, where it was unearthed by archaeologists thousands of years later. A genetic analysis of the chewing gum has provided us with a wealth of information on this nearly six-thousand-year-old Violet Beauregarde.
This represents the first time that the human genome has been extracted from material such as this. "It is amazing to have gotten a complete ancient human genome from anything other than bone," said lead researcher Hannes Schroeder in a statement.
"What is more," he added, "we also retrieved DNA from oral microbes and several important human pathogens, which makes this a very valuable source of ancient DNA, especially for time periods where we have no human remains."
In the pitch, researchers identified the DNA of the Epstein-Barr virus, which infects about 90 percent of adults. They also found DNA belonging to hazelnuts and mallards, which were likely the most recent meal that Lola had eaten before spitting out her chewing gum.
Insights into ancient peoples
The birch pitch was found on the island of Lolland (the inspiration for Lola's name) at a site called Syltholm. "Syltholm is completely unique," said Theis Jensen, who worked on the study for his PhD. "Almost everything is sealed in mud, which means that the preservation of organic remains is absolutely phenomenal.
"It is the biggest Stone Age site in Denmark and the archaeological finds suggest that the people who occupied the site were heavily exploiting wild resources well into the Neolithic, which is the period when farming and domesticated animals were first introduced into southern Scandinavia."
Since Lola's genome doesn't show any of the markers associated with the agricultural populations that had begun to appear in this region around her time, she provides evidence for a growing idea that hunter-gatherers persisted alongside agricultural communities in northern Europe longer than previously thought.
Her genome supports additional theories on northern European peoples. For example, her dark skin bolsters the idea that northern populations only recently acquired their light-skinned adaptation to the low sunlight in the winter months. She was also lactose intolerant, which researchers believe was the norm for most humans prior to the agricultural revolution. Most mammals lose their tolerance for lactose once they've weaned off of their mother's milk, but once humans began keeping cows, goats, and other dairy animals, their tolerance for lactose persisted into adulthood. As a descendent of hunter-gatherers, Lola wouldn't have needed this adaptation.
A hardworking piece of gum
A photo of the birch pitch used as chewing gum.
These findings are encouraging for researchers focusing on ancient peoples from this part of the world. Before this study, ancient genomes were really only ever recovered from human remains, but now, scientists have another tool in their kit. Birch pitch is commonly found in archaeological sites, often with tooth imprints.
Ancient peoples used and chewed on birch pitch for a variety of reasons. It was commonly heated up to make it pliable, enabling it to be molded as an adhesive or hafting agent before it settled. Chewing the pitch may have kept it pliable as it cooled down. It also contains a natural antiseptic, and so chewing birch pitch may have been a folk medicine for dental issues. And, considering that we chew gum today for no other reason than to pass the time, it may be that ancient peoples chewed pitch for fun.
Whatever their reasons, chewed and discarded pieces of birch pitch offer us the mind-boggling option of learning what someone several thousands of years ago ate for lunch, or what the color of their hair was, their health, where their ancestors came from, and more. It's an unlikely treasure trove of information to be found in a mere piece of gum.
The non-contact technique could someday be used to lift much heavier objects — maybe even humans.
- Since the 1980s, researchers have been using sound waves to move matter through a technique called acoustic trapping.
- Acoustic trapping devices move bits of matter by emitting strategically designed sound waves, which interact in such a way that the matter becomes "trapped" in areas of particular velocity and pressure.
- Acoustic and optical trapping devices are already used in various fields, including medicine, nanotechnology, and biological research.
Sound can have powerful effects on matter. After all, sound strikes our world in waves — vibrations of air molecules that bounce off of, get absorbed by, or pass through matter around us. Sound waves from a trained opera singer can shatter a wine glass. From a jet, they can collapse a stone wall. But sound can also be harnessed for delicate interactions with matter.
Since the 1980s, researchers have been using sound to move matter through a phenomenon called acoustic trapping. The method is based on the fact that sound waves produce an acoustic radiation force.
"When an acoustic wave interacts with a particle, it exerts both an oscillatory force and a much smaller steady-state 'radiation' force," wrote the American Physical Society. "This latter force is the one used for trapping and manipulation. Radiation forces are generated by the scattering of a traveling sound wave, or by energy gradients within the sound field."
When tiny particles encounter this radiation, they tend to be drawn toward regions of certain pressure and velocity within the sound field. Researchers can exploit this tendency by engineering sound waves that "trap" — or suspend — tiny particles in the air. Devices that do this are often called "acoustic tweezers."
Building a better tweezer
A study recently published in the Japanese Journal of Applied Physics describes how researchers created a new type of acoustic tweezer that was able to lift a small polystyrene ball into the air.
Tweezers of Sound: Acoustic Manipulation off a Reflective Surface youtu.be
It is not the first example of a successful "acoustic tweezer" device, but the new method is likely the first to overcome a common problem in acoustic trapping: sound waves bouncing off reflective surfaces, which disrupts acoustic traps.
To minimize the problems of reflectivity, the team behind the recent study configured ultrasonic transducers such that the sound waves that they produce overlap in a strategic way that is able to lift a small bit of polystyrene from a reflective surface. By changing how the transducers emit sound waves, the team can move the acoustic trap through space, which moves the bit of matter.
Move, but don't touch
So far, the device is only able to move millimeter-sized pieces of matter with varying degrees of success. "When we move a particle, it sometimes scatters away," the team noted. Still, improved acoustic trapping and other no-contact lifting technologies — like optical tweezers, commonly used in medicine — could prove useful in many future applications, including cell separation, nanotechnologies, and biological research.
Could future acoustic-trapping devices lift large and heavy objects, maybe even humans? It seems possible. In 2018, researchers from the University of Bristol managed to acoustically trap particles whose diameters were larger than the sound wavelength, which was a breakthrough because it surpassed "the classical Rayleigh scattering limit that has previously restricted stable acoustic particle trapping," the researchers wrote in their study.
In other words, the technique — which involved suspending matter in tornado-like acoustic traps — showed that it is possible to scale up acoustic trapping.
"Acoustic tractor beams have huge potential in many applications," Bruce Drinkwater, co-author of the 2018 study, said in a statement. "I'm particularly excited by the idea of contactless production lines where delicate objects are assembled without touching them."
Australian parrots have worked out how to open trash bins, and the trick is spreading across Sydney.
- If sharing learned knowledge is a form of culture, Australian cockatoos are one cultured bunch of birds.
- A cockatoo trick for opening trash bins to get at food has been spreading rapidly through Sydney's neighborhoods.
- But not all cockatoos open the bins; some just stay close to those that do.
Dumpster-diving trash parrots
In a study about these smart birds just published in Science, researchers define animal culture as "population-specific behaviors acquired via social learning from knowledgeable individuals."
Co-lead author of the study Barbara Klump of the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior in Konstanz, Germany says, "[C]ompared to humans, there are few known examples of animals learning from each other. Demonstrating that food scavenging behavior is not due to genetics is a challenge."
An opportunity presented itself in a video that co-author Richard Major of the Australian Museum shared with Klump and the other co-authors. In the video, a sulphur-crested cockatoo used its beak to pull up the handle of a closed garbage bin — using its foot as a wedge — and then walked back the lid sufficiently to flip it open, exposing the bin's edible contents.
Major has been studying Cacatua galerita for 20 years and says, "Like many Australian birds, sulphur-crested cockatoos are loud and aggressive." The study describes them as a "large-brained, long-lived, and highly social parrot." Says Major, "They are also incredibly smart, persistent, and have adapted brilliantly to living with humans."(Research regarding some of the ways in which wild animals adapt to the presence of humans has already produced some fascinating results and is ongoing.)
Clever cockie opens bin - 01 youtu.be
The researchers became curious about how widespread this behavior might be and saw a research opportunity. After all, says John Martin, a researcher at Taronga Conservation Society, "Australian garbage bins have a uniform design across the country, and sulphur-crested cockatoos are common across the entire east coast."
Martin continues, "In 2018, we launched an online survey in various areas across Sydney and Australia with questions such as, 'What area are you from, have you seen this behavior before, and if so, when?'"
Word gets around
Credit: magspace/Adobe Stock
Although the cockatoos' maneuver was reported in only three suburbs before 2018, by the end of 2019, people in 44 areas reported observing the behavior. Clearly, more and more cockatoos were learning how to successfully dumpster dive.
As further proof, says Klump, "We observed that the birds do not open the garbage bins in the same way, but rather used different opening techniques in different suburbs, suggesting that the behavior is learned by observing others." One individual bird in north Sydney invented its own method, and the scientists saw it grow in popularity throughout the local population.
To track individual birds, the researchers marked 500 cockatoos with small red dots. Subsequent observations revealed that not all cockatoos are bin-openers. Only about 10 percent of them are, and they are mostly males. The other cockatoos apparently restrict their education to a different lesson: hang around with a bin-opener, and you will get supper.
Thanks to the surveys, the researchers consider the entire project to be a valuable citizen-science experiment. "By studying this behavior with the help of local residents, we are uncovering the unique and complex cultures of their neighborhood birds."
The few seconds of nuclear explosion opening shots in Godzilla alone required more than 6.5 times the entire budget of the monster movie they ended up in.