Digital revolution makes public space the most valuable urban asset

07 February 2020Isabelle Baraud-Serfaty and Renaud Le Goix


Isabelle Baraud-Serfaty, Founder of Ibicity, urban economy consultant, Lecturer at Sciences Po.


Renaud Le Goix, Lecturer at Université Paris-Diderot-Paris 7 (Sorbonne Paris-Cités), member of the Géographie-cités research unit.

What can we learn from comparing urban economic models? Are we moving towards the privatisation of city making?

Renaud Le Goix A comparative and historical approach helps us to observe the spread, and in a sense the triumph, of the entrepreneurial model for urban production. The system we often come across today is that of macro-plots, in other words very large lots handed over to single private developers. This model, which leads to the privatisation of circulation and access routes, recalls the gated communities and condominiums that have existed for so long in the USA. These examples show how hard it is to manage these common areas openly, and highlight the tendency to want to control their modes of use and the effects they have on property values. It appears that the more the scale of intervention of private developers increases, the more the process of enclosure intensifies: public access tends to be restricted, excluding anyone who doesn’t belong to the “club”. In the United States, the process of the privatisation of public space arises directly from city financing models. Local resources are highly dependent on property values, which, as they rise, increase fiscal contributions to local government budgets. Restricted access has been all the more strongly encouraged because by increasing property values it has provided responses to fi nancial difficulties experienced by local governments. During the Nixon and Reagan administrations, local governments were fi nancially throttled by a 50%–plus reduction in federal funding. This prompted a gradual shift from a managerial system, which aimed to provide the population with facilities according to fi scal capacity, to a process where attractiveness and competition are used to lure investors. This entrepreneurial regime has repercussions on the way public space is produced. A good example is New York, which has developed large-scale Privately Owned Public Spaces (POPS) schemes since 1961. In 1975, the city was bankrupt. A deal with private developers made it possible to continue to produce quality public spaces without paying the price: they obtained supplementary building rights based on the number of square feet of public space they agreed to develop. This entrepreneurial model then became more widespread because very large cities compete to attract property investors and large firms: they tend to copy one another. This contributes to the spread and standardisation of urban models (international architecture and commercial outlets, etc.) and responds to economic development benchmarks.

Isabelle Baraud-Serfaty We have to distinguish two different scenarios where the “privatisation” of public spaces is concerned. First there’s the situation where such spaces belong to a group of private joint owners, who are either owner occupants or small investors. We often see this in France when a developer intervenes on the scale of a macro-plot and disappears when the last home is completed. Open spaces, whether accessible to the public or not, are usually owned by the owners association (in France the Association Syndicale Libre). This is also the model for gated communities in the US. The second scenario, which is very common in England, is where open spaces belong to financial investors who own entire neighbourhoods. These are also known as POPS. In both scenarios, the question of who owns and manages public space increasingly tends to be bound up with that of the creation and management of services within the neighbourhood. As well as the public or private ownership of public spaces, their accessibility is what defines them. The issue of knowing whether they are open to all or not does not only arise in terms of public access, but also where urban service providers are concerned: whether these be minicabs, charging stations, external communication, micro-mobility or logistics, public space is a key resource for them. In this regard, it is interesting to look at work in America on ‘curb management’1. The kerb is where the different functions of a roadway meet. This loading-and unloading area is where the most profound changes occur in terms of new uses and new partnerships between public and private players. There is no single word for kerb in French: A new term would be useful to materialise its reality and the specific issues relating to it.

R.L.G. Indeed: the response with regard to financing and privatisation depends on the nature of the public space we’re talking about. Traditionally, in Europe, the notion of public space refers to a somewhat mythified agora, ranging from the Roman forum to the Place de la République in Paris: in other words, a place for public speaking. But it is notable, for example, that in the regime of protest we are experiencing with the “Gilets Jaunes” movement, the key places for public demonstration are road roundabouts, toll plazas, and shopping centre car parks. This reveals that the notion of public space is conditioned by the way people perceive themselves and construct themselves in social and political terms. I discussed this in an article in Histoire magazine entitled Occupy Wall Street2. The latter movement was only possible in Manhattan in 2011 because the conditions for available space were met. The gathering took place in a type of public space where the police could not rapidly intervene: a POPS, namely Zuccotti Park. The private owner, mindful of his public image, did not wish the police to step in. This shows that an interpretation focusing on the regime of ownership and the system that defines rules of use is not enough to define what public space is. Whatever the judicial framework may be, social perception is a decisive factor.

What factors are bringing about the most significant changes to public space today?

I.B.-S. Without question, the digital revolution and the fact that its actors have entered the world of urban development. In our study of new urban economic models3, Clément Fourchy, Nicolas Rio and I analyse the way the “city of modes of use” has taken over from the “city of infrastructures”. The “city of infrastructures” emerged in the nineteenth century at a time of industrial-era urban growth, with the creation of major utility and service networks (drinking water, sewers, public transport, electricity and gas). The existence of these networks was a necessary and suffi cient condition for providing the services. Now, the key to a good urban service is its ability to respond to individual needs and modes of use. Large service networks are still necessary—there can be no car pools without roads and no smart grid without a network—but the key actors delivering the services are those who are able to address user needs as closely as possible, in particular digital platforms. The pavement or sidewalk is a good example of this change. Historically, the constitution of public space as we perceive it today and the creation of large-scale utility networks have taken place simultaneously. In France, a law passed in 1845 created pavements, while individualised services (water-carriers, rag-and-bone men, and so on) were replaced by unifi ed collective systems. Today, the subsidiary of Alphabet (Google’s mother company) dedicated to urban innovation is called Sidewalk Labs! It has undertaken to digitalise the kerb: access to information on public space, which can potentially be monetised, thus becomes a prerequisite for physical access to it. With the individualisation of services that the digital revolution, we are now capable of assigning a cost to each and every user, of providing bespoke services, and of “calculating [costs] to the nearest cent”, in Dominique Cardon’s words4. Are we moving towards the hyper-individualisation of urban services? With the emergence of what Nicolas Colin and Henri Verdier term “the multitude”5 and the development of short supply chains, are we not, in a way, returning to the situation that existed before large networks, raising the question of city neighbourhoods that might not enjoy the same level of services? The project that Sidewalk Labs is developing in Toronto will perhaps provide some answers. Doesn’t the French model show that public authorities can continue to produce quality public space despite fi nancial constraints and the increasing presence of new private actors?

R.L.G. Yes, because in France, there are still tools that public authorities can use to intervene in terms of planning. This means they have to shoulder the cost, which can be high. The ZAC6, for example, is a system that hardly exists anywhere else. It makes it possible for municipalities to take charge of creating high-quality, genuinely public spaces. Planned developments around Grand Paris Express stations illustrate this. But this is not true everywhere. Where the market is buoyant, there is a real opportunity for tight municipal control, by establishing competition between interested private investors. This is less true in other types of administrative area: the power of local authorities, which is fragmented and has little leverage in terms of expertise and negotiation, is much more dependent on models put in place by private developers.

I.B.-S. There’s a distinction to be made between three categories of private actors, who interact with the public sphere in the production of urban space. Urban service providers (such as Veolia and Suez in France) operate in the framework of a public service delegation system, acting as subcontractors for public authorities. Firms operating within the planning and property development chain work under a regime of authorisation and depend on decisions made at local authority level: standard building permits, decisions to use planning tools such as POPS or macro-lots, and so on. Conversely, the new digital actors are much more user-oriented and do not require local authority approval. This means that a system where the public has prerogatives with respect to planning, in particular where public space is concerned, and sub-contracts to private firms, is being superseded by a system where the private sector proposes modes of use without local authorities’ having even thought about providing them. This means that the way spaces occupied by the public and private sectors are articulated is now formulated in very different terms. What changes to collective regulations are required?

I.B.-S. In a context of shrinking fi nancial resources, more and more developers and authorities are tending to think of public space as a cost centre. It is nevertheless paradoxical to put it private operators in charge of it at the precise moment when its strategic dimension is intensifying. Without even mentioning the symbolic signifi cance of public areas, it seems to us that authorities must necessarily retain ownership because they are the city’s most valuable asset. They could monetise its use, targeting operators who use it, and make a profi t from it. This runs counter to the idea that public space is freely accessible and free of charge, but here we are only talking about the specifi cally economic use of public space. At the same time, all these changes show that we cannot avoid engaging in serious debate about the legitimacy of public authority intervention. Everything we have become accustomed to in terms of local authority intervention has to be re-anchored, which means breaking down taboos on what public space is. The primary role of the local authority is to establish what remains communal, and thus to set the boundaries of the individualisation of collective services and determine the adjustments that need to be made.

R.L.G. Data collection and, more broadly, expertise on individual behaviour have evolved: Where do I consume? Where do I pick up my bike or my car? Where do I get on the Metro? What streets do I use? These are areas in which public authorities have lost the battle. They lack the necessary expertise, skills and resources to collect such information. Geo-referenced local information is now a major game being played between large corporate groups and a public eager for open data and open source applications. But local authorities are increasingly being excluded from this process. Indeed they are becoming its clients and are increasingly dependent on private digital actors. Today, as they seek new ways of developing cities, local authorities are losing control of the provision of new collective services. Access to certain public spaces, or at least to the services they offer, requires the mediation of the smartphone and the credit card: this raises questions of democracy. We are a long way from the traditional concept of public space, for example the Bois de Vincennes. In this Parisian park, a wide variety of modes of use are constantly being negotiated: from time to time, certain modes of use predominate – on Saturday mornings, cycling and jogging – but social interaction occurs as the place each occupies is negotiated, without necessarily requiring third party regulation. There’s also the risk of sorting zones according to their value and reinforcing processes of social polarisation and exclusion. Guaranteeing spaces where confl icts can be regulated without being arbitrated in advance by economic criteria remains the legitimate role of public authorities.

Interview by Paul Lecroart, Léo Fauconnet and Maximilian Gawlik

1. NACTO (National Association of City Transportation Offi cials) (2017), “Curb Appeal: Curbside Management Strategies for Improving Transit Reliability”. Available online: NACTO-Curb-Appeal-Curbside-Management.pdf
2. OECD (2018), “The Shared-Use City: Managing the Curb”; ECD/ITF. Available online: shared-use-city-managing-curb-0
3. Renaud Le Goix, « Occupy Wall Street », L’Histoire n°410, April 2015.
5. Dominique Cardon, À quoi rêvent les algorithmes ? Nos vies à l’heure du big data, Seuil, 2015.
6. Nicolas Colin, Henri Verdier, L’âge de la multitude, Entreprendre et gouverner après la révolution numérique, Armand Colin, 2015.
7. Zone d’aménagement concerté : comprehensive planning area.