Occupation should be a right rather than a form of protest.

A photograph of Paternoster Square from a project I organised exploring the regulation of public space in May 2009. This was undertaken with the support and guidance of the Manifesto Club

During the recent protests in Greece there was a moment in which the struggle against impending privatisation became concrete. In Thessaloniki, protesters hung a large banner from the city’s main landmark, the White Tower, which said “for sale” as a protest against the government’s massive denationalization schedule, which they perceived as selling away the country’s assets. Even if this goes ahead, it is predicted that for the next 10 years Greece will go through heavy recession followed by a very slow recovery. 

It highlights a huge irony at the core of other protests taking place currently particularly  Occupy London. For while there seems to be a statement of intent in the actions name: a bold claim to a section of the city, from the very beginning the ostensible occupation has been compromised by key land-ownership issues in the City of London. Initially the protestors had attempted to occupy Paternoster Square but a company acting for the owners Mitsubishi Estate, motto A Love for People, A Love for the City took out a High Court injunction to prevent members of the public from accessing the square. This is not some trivial detail either but the key to the strange nature of the protests.

Anna Minton has written convincingly about how public spaces have been privatised across Britain, as have others like Sarah Boyes. New shopping centres like Liverpool One or Cabot Place in Bristol are now policed like older areas in London such Broadgate Circus and, the major example, Canary Wharf. She also describes however, a more fundamental history about the City of London and how its public squares, like its major buildings are in the ownership of major estates, offices set up by major landowners to govern their lands usage. She also explains that a resistance to the stewardship of these estates led to protest and a situation where public usage was tolerated and management was passed over to the public authorities.

Excellent ball control by young Abrahams under close scrutiny from the security guards of Bishopsgate Square

Much has been made of the lack of focus of the Occupy London protests. Indeed the name for the action was initially #occupylsx, or Occupy London Stock Exchange. If indeed, the focus of the protest was the bank bail out, why were they directing their energies on the Stock Exchange? The camp itself seems more preoccupied with organising itself rather than making any clear statement of intent, or explaining a political programme. The discourse of public meeting is aimed primarily at achieving consensus rather than debating values. Debates and negotiations with St. Paul’s take up much of the camp’s vaguely defined leadership’s time. In short, the reason for the camps existence is to exist.

It is odd that no-one has really commented on the naming of the disparate Occupy movements across the world with the Occupy Wall Street event as the originator. It is not a protest with a specific aim but a decision to simply enter space and exist there for as long as possible. Writing in Domus, Chris Cobb records some of the achievements of the #OWS. “Demonstrators have established an orderly free food station made out of a long row of milk crates and plastic sheeting where anyone may come to eat. They’ve also created a technology center near the middle of the park where people sit together all day doing research, writing and tweeting,” he says.

If the authorities in London and New York had any confidence this act of simple occupation, would not be a threat. And yet they still seem to find this act of occupation only to exist a threat.  If this is to be the first act of the latter’s political protest though it should be clearer. Claim private space for the public. Start with that which we fear to lose. In London we are suffering from the fact that private areas were given a veneer of public use in the early 20th century instead of being fully co-opted as public spaces. Always an issue, the economic climate has made it more pronounced.

From a series of actions performed by the staff and friends of Blueprint magazine in London, May 2009

As we found at when I was at Blueprint magazine, there is a particularly galling situation in London where the very language of public space in the city has been cynically mis-used. The sunken amphitheatre outside City Hall is the worst case to my mind: a cynical usage of an architectural typology, this  faux Greek agora, beneath the public administration of the city is in fact owned by More London, a private company. Without the public these spaces would be dead and of no-use to their owners. These spaces should therefore be owned by the public. In the ongoing retreat of the state from building, it is more important than ever.

We are moving into an era when we have to rely on private capital to build projects like the Thames River Park, then certain provisions about public ownership need to be made clear. Planning law should be changed so that private developers hand over public space to authorities. Instead of using planning gain to build extra facilities far from new developments, lets have it used to make public space truly public. If the protestors were to claim rights to the very thing they were being denied their project would have more purpose. Occupation should be a basic right rather than a form of protest.

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About cosmopolitanscum

Journalist, writer, commentator, blogging about architecture, urbanism and design from a humanist perspective.
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