Farrer On ... Protests show value of our public spaces

Appearances can be deceptive.

Occupy London's recent decision to camp in Paternoster Square was strategic - it wanted to use a democratic right to peacefully protest and exercise freedom of speech in one of London's public squares, most famous for the power of money. The problem was that while the square looked public - it wasn't. Much of what seems to be public in our urban realm is actually privately owned. This is a deception that often goes unnoticed.

Were we to make a crude comparison between some of the privately-owned public spaces with those that are truly public, it would be stark. For quality, investment, management and maintenance, privately-owned space wins every time. So it is easy to understand why private investment in public spaces is so beguiling. But behind the manicured lawns and 24-hour surveillance is a murky truth that explains why we cannot afford to hand over our shared spaces to the private sector.

To better understand this, we must look at what democracy means for our cities today. Public spaces that are owned by the state are by nature democratic places where everyone is afforded equality, freedom and choice. When a public space is privately owned, these core values are lost. What is replaced is a tension between the individual who owns the space and the people who use it. The space is no longer democratic. What follows is a clearly-defined set of conditions that protect the owner. The result is a list of "can't dos", such as photography, cycling, skateboarding, demonstrating or protesting - all things that are central to a healthy society.

With the decline of the public realm as an integral part of our collective national conscience, we have exchanged public socialising, debating and exploration for the perceived safety and control of private places. This has taken the value of the individual and placed it above the needs of our society. The knock-on effect is that both our social lives and our urban realm become sterile.

In its struggle to find a patch of ground on which to voice its beliefs, Occupy London has brought to light an unexpected consequence of ownership and power in our cities today. It has highlighted that the cost of selling our public space is too great and it must remain in public ownership. There cannot be a price on democracy and freedom.

Noel Farrer is a founding partner of farrer huxley associates

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Founding partner of Farrer Huxley Associates Noel Farrer on landscape and green space

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