Private Use Of Public Spaces

Over the past two years that Engine has been located just by Tower Bridge, we’ve enjoyed the small park outside the Mayor’s building, which has a great riverfront view of Tower Bridge and the Tower of London. It’s a perfect place to have lunch in the summer and a pleasant walk to and from the studio.

Being designers, we’re always analytical about what could be improved (i.e. whingeing)- from the strip lighting that is exactly at eye level so that you can’t see into the park in the evening because of the glare, to the increasing yuppification and commercialisation of the site with tourist-priced cafes.

In particular, it seems the architects have had a dramatic lack of vision when it comes to sustainability – from the slate paving which requires the employment of two people and bristle-cleaning machines to be run across it every day to clean out the lichens which would make the surface slippery, to the fact that the mayor’s building needs a bespoke crane (with its own housing) to clean it’s uniquely awkward windows.

so many ruined photos…

However, a much more disconcerting and entirely avoidable trend of selling the park as advertising space has been on the rise recently. We’ve seen cars emerging from synthetic meteorite craters complete with lighting rigs and auditoriums, guest only Budweiser 100m races, sculptures such as a giant swimmer gliding through the ground as if it were water, and the space was enjoyably overrun by multicoloured Sony bunnies.

Perhaps it’s the council trying to milk the space’s prime location for some cash as we enter a recession, but the moments when the line is overstepped are sometimes painfully obvious. I doubt that any of the architectural renders, with semi-transparent families playing and relaxing in the park featured mega-scale PR stunts or the space completely fenced off.

The closing off of the park is a textbook example of how getting the use-value, exchange-value balance wrong can have keenly felt effects for all users.

The space generates money which goes back into the government pot, which is a good thing. A constantly changing space can be entertaining. But this is a publicly-funded park, fulfilling a need for relaxing breathing space in the city and something which no doubt secured the planning permission to counterbalance the massive financial buildings built around it at the same time. The public aren’t consulted on these changes, probably due to the sheer number and ephemerality of them.

Poor, poor nature.

The sponsorship of the space is its effective temporary privatisation, meaning that the public lose the benefits, and sometimes, entry to the park altogether. This is most acutely felt by those who live or work locally, and generates bad feeling towards the council, and particularly towards the sheepish-looking Mayor’s building directly overlooking the park. In fact, the park is owned by the Potter’s Field Management Trust , with a mix of public and private sector directors. It’s mission statement to maintain the park in the interests of public welfare, with specific mentions of appropriateness of events may have been subject to some bending because of this mix of interests on its board.

Looking at the recent backlash to a saturation of billboards and advertisements in Sao Paulo, how do we gage the revenue generated against less tangible factors, such as the experiences and annoyance of the public, the loss of trust towards the authorities and the perception of the thousands of tourists who pass the site everyday to see we’re selling out (and in the case of the giant New Zealand rugby ball, obscuring) our landmarks?