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A literature review on the privatisation of public space

Devereux, Michael; Littlefield, David

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Michael Devereux
Associate Professor of Teaching and Learning in Architecture and Urbanism


This literature review was undertaken at the request of Grosvenor Estates in order to better understand the academic context and literature around the perceived phenomenon of the privatisation of public space. The review considered a range of print material including peer reviewed academic papers (the focus of the study), newspaper articles, and reports and position papers by public bodies / think tanks.

The subject is, in short, a complex and nuanced one. Some writers are very vocal opponents of private-owned public space. Such criticism is arguably a natural and important consequence of the social and economic patterns which are playing out at the interface of public and private domains. Others take a more pragmatic view and see the partnership between public and private interests as addressing the changing governance model of cities, and as a way of providing high quality, desirable 'public' space for the contemporary city.

The review explores issues such as:

- how is the public defined?
- how is public space defined?
- is there clarity over the extent to which private operators have assumed ownership of once public space, compared with providing access to space that was formerly inaccessible?
- do all public spaces have to serve all publics? Is there a danger that, in seeking to be open to all social groups, public spaces might satisfy nobody?
- do the boundary conditions clearly demarcate the public/private interface, or is the threshold zone more fuzzy and indeterminate? How does a user know where they are? Does the user need to know anything of the ownership of the space they are in?
- is there a distinction between private and civic space?
- how does society guide and moderate behaviours, and how does the control of these behaviours vary (if at all) between the public and private sectors?
- how might an urban “right to roam” change the user/owner culture? Might a “law of place” be a useful way forward?

As such it serves as solid basis for further exploration of the themes discussed so as to enhance knowledge and to impact upon the future design of urban public space.


Devereux, M., & Littlefield, D. (in press). A literature review on the privatisation of public space

Report Type Project Report
Acceptance Date Jan 2, 2017
Publicly Available Date Jun 24, 2019
Peer Reviewed Not Peer Reviewed
Keywords public space, private space, urban design, privatization of public space
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