The Commodification of Public Space

It may seem obvious that every person ought to have the right to live, freely and securely, in their own village, town or city. But in these increasingly hyper-capitalist times, this does not always seem to be the case.

The more economic privilege you possess, the more freedom you have to make full use of the area you live. The more disposable income you have, the more places open their doors to you. An unspoken yet undeniable class bias wards off access to certain areas: upmarket restaurants or department stores, for example, keenly surveil people they feel don’t belong and make them feel unwelcome. Add to this the issue of racial prejudice, and there are a number of areas commonplace in most towns and cities where a significant proportion of residents either aren’t allowed access or are actively made to feel they shouldn’t have it.

In my home of Edinburgh, there has recently been much furore surrounding private venue operator Underbelly and its commodification of the city’s public spaces. Underbelly is headquartered in London but operates most famously in the Scottish capital. The company was founded in 2000, originally too operate one venue at the Fringe, Edinburgh’s famous arts festival running each August, and has since expanded its reach across the whole of the city.

It also – and most controversially in recent weeks – runs Edinburgh’s Christmas markets and Hogmanay celebration on behalf of the City of Edinburgh Council. According to Underbelly’s website, Edinburgh’s 2017/18 Christmas festivities saw over 780,000 tickets issued to visitors from 47 different countries. Any resident can attest to the impossibility of reaching one side of Princes Street – the capital’s main shopping street – from the other without having to dodge crowds of tourists, or weave past newly erected Underbelly signs or bollards. It’s a challenging enough journey on foot – the thought of doing it by bus provokes fear in even the most hardened of locals.

It is, of course, a given that living in any major city comes with the hassle of having to deal with the traffic and inconvenience caused by tourist attractions, and that locals have to make some degree of compromise. But to what extent is this acceptable? Recent complaints about Underbelly lament that Edinburgh residents are being encouraged to stay away from their homes if they are within designated event areas in the city centre. Residents and businesses in central Edinburgh streets were told to apply for passes for the Hogmanay Street Party, wear a valid wristband and carry their passes with them in order to access their property, if it fell within the Street Party zone. Another bugbear for many was that Underbelly set a limit on the number of passes available to residents living within the area of the Street Party; each resident was entitled to six passes. If a resident was holding a “private function”, they would then have to apply for further access passes.

Both rules only applied during the Street Party itself, but the point still stands. A private events company should not be able to deny anyone access to their own home, or put an administrative burden on the number of people they can have over at any given time. In practice it’s hard to quantify how many were affected by this in Edinburgh, but the principle has sorely damaged the firm’s reputation across the city. Say the name Underbelly to many in Scotland’s capital, and you will not likely find a warm response.

Edinburgh’s economy is fuelled by the tourism industry. But unlike many other European tourist traps, it is not a big city. Enjoyment of the capital is limited to what little accessible space it has – something cut down by the number of private gardens. Such parks – only accessible to certain residents who have the keys – can be found in many places across the UK, but they are notably predominant in Edinburgh. Queen Street Gardens, just a few minutes’ walk from the main shopping streets, stretches over seven acres, and there are around thirty other private gardens in the New Town alone. Many of these gardens are run by committees of residents and strictly kept under lock and key. To access these green spaces necessitates buying one of Edinburgh’s expensive New Town properties, something frankly out of reach for most of the city’s inhabitants (the average New Town home costs £450,000, and rents for a one-bedroom flat are around £900 a month). What this means is that most of the few green open spaces the capital has are cut off for all but the wealthiest locals.

These things don’t seem important on their own – after all, disbanding private gardens and throwing open their gates to their public isn’t quite going to abolish the class system. And Underbelly restricting access to the few hundred people who live within Edinburgh’s Street Party zone for a night isn’t sorely depriving anyone of any basic human rights, or having a widespread impact on the population as a whole. But both represent the increasing commodification of public spaces. Perhaps idealistically, I do believe that there shouldn’t be literal and physical barriers to walking around your own city. Councils outsourcing to private companies to run events is understandable, given massive cuts in funding from Holyrood and Westminster to local authorities over the past decade. And private gardens are commonplace, and unlikely to go away any time soon.

But when does it go too far? How many public spaces should be inaccessible for the average citizen? To quote Ed Miliband: it’s just wrong.