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Fabric of Place

On public, private and communal space

On public, private and communal space

by Bob Allies

One of the defining aspects of the structure of a settlement is the nature of, and the relationship between its public and private space. Private space might be described as space that is owned and maintained by a single individual, family or institution. Public space is space which is not only in the public domain but in public ownership. Space, that is, which is assigned to and maintained by the community, whether in the form of the parish, the town, the city or the state.

As citizens, we need both. We need spaces within our lives which are entirely under our control and which we can reserve entirely for our own use. But we also need spaces which we can share with our neighbours, spaces which we hold in common and for which we assume mutual responsibility.

Typical London terrace, Burlington Arcade, Piccadilly, London

Fundamentally, of course, what distinguishes public space from private space is the way in which it is owned. But in any consideration of towns and cities – and the ways in which we use them – what makes the distinction so significant is the manner in which these different types of space elicit different types of behaviour, each one offering us radically contrasting opportunities for privacy or security, interaction or exchange. It might be argued that the most successful urban environments are those where the distinction between the public and the private is entirely unambiguous, where the dividing line between one and the other is completely clear. In a typical eighteenth or nineteenth, or early twentieth-century London street for example, the division between the private and the public, between the house and the street, is defined by the line between the pavement and the front garden, a divide sometimes made explicit by the evidence of a locked gate, but more commonly represented by the casual presence of an open one.

The value of this distinction is, not least, that it clearly defines the respective responsibilities of the two different land owners – the public and the private – to look after and maintain that which falls under their control. Spaces whose ownership is ambiguous, and for which neither party accepts responsibility, are exactly those which are likely to deteriorate and fail. Nevertheless this simple polarity between what is public and what is private is not sufficient to describe the full spectrum of types of space that can be found, or created, within our towns and cities, nor the range of ways in which we can manage and operate them.

Within the last decade there has been a growing debate about the way the public domain has been subsumed by the private sector, with shopping centres and city office quarters being cited as examples of this malaise. This ‘privatisation of public space’ has appeared not only to undermine the potential and vitality of our public life but, because of the manner in which it places control of the opportunities for civil engagement into private hands, has seemed to some observers even to threaten the resilience of our democracy itself.

In fact the problem is not so much that existing public space is being withdrawn from the public domain and thereby privatised, as that what in new developments is being promised as additional public space is in fact being retained under private ownership and control. This is a real problem, and there is much to be said for the argument that urges more careful scrutiny of this process. It is also important, however, to recognise that, historically, towns and cities have always included elements of publicly used private space, or, to reverse it, privately owned public space. The history of urbanism provides us with a number of precedents for more complex, and subtle, overlaps between public use and private ownership, most of which have generally proved helpful rather than hurtful to the evolution of our urban environment.

So in the example of the London street referred to earlier, the space of the front garden is inarguably in private ownership, but it is a space which at the same time acknowledges and allows an appropriate level of controlled public use. In a typical London street in other words, it is the front garden, or area, that both connects and separates the private world of the home from the public world of the street. It is semi-public, or semi-private, and its ambiguity in this respect is entirely beneficial. Conversely where, in London, the ground floors of houses have been converted to shops, the garden, or area, is removed and full public access is not just tolerated, but encouraged.

Cathedral precincts, shopping arcades, market buildings are all examples of private spaces which allow controlled public access, but which retain the capability to close themselves off at certain times of day and night. But there are also examples such as university campuses, churchyards, stations, airports or indeed rural rights of way, which although privately owned and controlled, nevertheless allow unrestricted access to the public at any time. Conversely, while some public spaces – streets, squares, greens, commons – allow unrestricted public access, others, such as parks, limit access by members of the public to certain times of the day.

There are two points that are worth making here. The first is that to achieve an entirely appropriate level of public use, spaces do not have to be accessible to the public all of the time. And the second, is that the public use of space does not itself require public ownership: privately owned spaces can and do have a role to play in the framing of our urban life.

There is also, however, one further category of space which needs to be accorded its role within the structure of the city. This is communal space, space which is in the common ownership of a group of individuals – or families, or institutions – and which is maintained jointly by them.

In London, the most familiar and most famous example of this is the garden square, where the ownership of the central garden is shared between all those who own the houses on its perimeter. In fact the history of the London garden square is more complex. The first squares built in London in the seventeenth century were neither enclosed by railings nor planted, and it was not until the eighteenth century that residents, through private Acts of Parliament, sought permission both to enclose the central space and assume financial responsibility for its maintenance. Of these the first, in 1725, was St James Square, followed soon after by Lincoln’s Inn Fields, 1734, Red Lion Square, 1737, Cavendish Square, 1737, Charterhouse Square, 1742, Golden Square, 1750, Berkeley Square, 1766, Grosvenor Square, 1774, and Hoxton Square, 1776.2

Today most of the squares in central London – whatever their legal ownership – are open to the public during the hours of daylight, while those outside the centre remain the preserve of those who live around them.

In a garden square it is the fronts of the houses that face the garden. In subsequent nineteenth-century London residential developments – in Notting Hill and Maida Vale for example – an alternative typology was developed in which communal garden spaces were drawn instead into the interiors of the urban blocks, allowing residents to move directly from their back gardens into the landscape which they shared.

In the twentieth century, driven more by an interest in the benefits of living communally (at least to a degree) than by a negative concern to protect against the outside world, a number of small-scale residential projects tested out a modern equivalent. The small terraces of family houses designed by Howell and Amis, in South Hill Park, London, 1956, and Neave Brown, in Winscombe Street, London, 1964, both sacrificed space at the back of the houses in order to gain larger areas of communal gardens. The careful manipulation of the distinction between the private and the public domain, the layering of public, semi-public, private and semi-private space was key to Brown’s architectural proposition and constituted an explicit rejection of the ambiguous and indeterminate open space that he believed characterised other contemporary schemes.

Gated housing estate, Souillac, France

At a larger scale, the SPAN developments designed by Eric Lyons and Ivor Cunningham in the 1950s and 1960s in London and Cambridge were arranged around areas of shared green space jointly maintained by all the residents. Land that might have been included in private gardens was effectively reallocated to the common domain. The Span estates were never enclosed, or separated, remaining a privately owned part of the public realm. Since then however there has been a growing tendency to add just such a barrier around similar estates, a measure which has prompted widespread criticism, with the phrase “gated communities” invoked in condemnation.

In fact what makes the notion of a gated community so problematic is not the creation of communal space per se, but the manner in which the communal ownership is overlaid on the generic, physical structure of the conventional city. What really disturbs is the disruption caused to the continuity of the public domain, not the principle of communal spaces being separated from it. It is, in other words, the arbitrary withdrawal of a section of the highway, or street, or footpath from public use – the moment where the divide occurs – that seems so offensive. In our understandable rejection of the gated community we should not however lose sight of the importance of ‘communal space’ as a legitimate and valuable component of the urban environment, particularly in those areas where – for reasons of sustainability – we are now electing to build at much higher densities than we have in the past.

For a family living in a flat, on an upper floor, in the middle of a city, the benefit of an immediately accessible secure area of communal space cannot be overstated. The knowledge that your children can play safely and mix with others without requiring direct supervision is enormously reassuring. Common ownership helps to encourage community cooperation. Mediating between the public and the private domain, communal space – space that is shared, space that is protected, space that is set apart – has an important part to play in the shaping of the twenty-first century city.