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The invasion of the commons

One of the transformations in London over recent decades has been the opening out of the Thames embankments to the public. You can now meander from Vauxhall Bridge in the west to beyond Tower Bridge in the east, along the city’s historic riverside.

Stunning views of the Houses of Parliament, St Paul’s, the Tower of London, Tower Bridge and Tate Modern are unobstructed by traffic. Unlike Rome and Venice, where architectural gems like the Spanish Steps and the Doge’s Palace are often spoiled by garish corporate logos, there are no jarring advertising hoardings. This entirely free pleasure in Europe’s largest city is one of the success stories of Ken Livingstone’s eight-year mayoral stint.

But now, the process is going into reverse. London’s bridges and its squares and open spaces are being appropriated and privatised. And increasingly, under the false flag of the 2012 Olympic Games, vast schemes are being devised which will subvert past gains.

So much so that architectural writer Rowan Moore has coined the words “publoid, publate, privlid” to describe the sinister process by which corporate owners convert areas once open to the public into “managed and controlled spaces with uniformed wardens”.

This is what happened in Broadgate, Canary Wharf, City Hall and Paternoster Square. “Ultimate control”, as Moore notes,“ is in the hands of private landowners”.

That’s why the protesters who sought to occupy the space outside the London stock exchange found all entrances to Paternoster Square sealed off by police cordons and they ended up at the foot of St Paul’s at the mercy of the church fathers. This was despite the redevelopment of the square being billed as a “public space”.

Now, a £50 million proposal by the Singaporean asset-management company Venus for a floating park to run from the Millennium Bridge to Tower Bridge is currently under scrutiny. Under the shiny corporate-speak it is the latest and insidious move of a widespread hybrid beast that has reared its head in the last decade. This is “the pseudo-public space, in which the City of London and its satellites are world leaders”, as Moore notes.

English Heritage and the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment are voicing disquiet. English Heritage says the view of St Paul’s would be affected by “flashy and corporate” features of what is fundamentally “a gigantic hospitality suite with a fairly nice walkway threaded through it”.

And it is not only the high property value City part of the Thames that is being threatened. Further east in Stratford, locals are worried about a plan for an “experiential, hospitality and entertainment” venue. Former accountant Lance Forman hopes to bring 8,000 visitors a day to a tiny island on the River Lea, day and night. Olympic corporate guests will be comfy on a gigantic sofa and watch the games on a 30x7 metre screen.

Like the Olympics themselves, this proposal is promoted as “building a lasting legacy for the area”. But those who live and work there say it is a disaster waiting to happen.

The invasion of the “commons” is not a new process and not unique to London. The turbo-charged hey-day of globalisation saw the entire planet subjected to this process. With the growing resistance to the crisis, to the banks and corporate power, the state is showing the mailed fist in favour of the owners of private property. Out go security guards, in come riot police with tasers, tear gas, pepper spray and batons.

The clearing out of occupiers in New York’s Zucotti Park and the arrest of several St Paul’s activists outside the Guildhall in the last 24 hours makes it crystal clear that not only the right to protest, but simply to live, breathe and look at the world around you in a relatively free way is rapidly becoming a thing of the past.

Corinna Lotz
A World to Win secretary
15 November 2011

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