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Who would say they are “against” safety or security? The language and ideology of security have become widespread enough to be nearly unquestionable in contemporary life. And yet the public outcry when a particular security operation oversteps commonly-accepted norms illustrates how conflicted we remain about the costs of safety.

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For example, last year the tech startup Knightscope introduced its K9 model, a 400-pound autonomous security robot. Upon its launch, it received breathless coverage in the tech media; journalists wrote that looked like a “a mix between a Dalek from Doctor Who and Eve from Wall-E” and that its various cameras and sensors could “differentiate between a harmless passerby and potential criminal.”

Soon afterwards, a San Francisco branch of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals began experiencing incidents of vandalism and car break-ins at its headquarters in the gentrifying Mission District. It hired a K9 from Knightscope for a $6 per-hour fee. The robot autonomously patrolled its parking lot and the sidewalks adjacent to its building.

But after the device apparently harassed residents of nearby homeless camps, it was found knocked on its side, covered in barbecue sauce, and wrapped in a tarp. When the incident became widely known, it sparked a wave of empathy for the homeless residents, and the SPCA was compelled to remove the robot. Many pointed out the irony of an organization designed to protect animals employing such a dehumanizing method of security. But there were even more fundamental questions at stake. Who has the right to use the sidewalk and other public spaces? Is it acceptable (or legal) for private companies to expand their security purview into these spaces?

In the security world, the distinction between trivial and serious criminal acts has begun to blur, as the preemptive exclusion of certain individuals becomes security’s primary goal. Indeed, our neoliberal era has seen the widespread privatization of public space, which has led to increased private security operating everywhere. Many spaces where everyone used to enjoy unrestricted access and constitutional rights such as the freedom of speech have become, sometimes unexpectedly, restricted for commercial uses or for certain classes of people.

The Contradiction of Privately-Owned Public Spaces

The loss of common space with free public use has taken many forms. In some cases, actual ownership rights have been transferred to private individuals and corporations. In other cases, loss of common space has been the result of political action by private interest groups or local governments seeking to restrict behavior and access to public land.

To begin with the most concrete example, in recent decades business and policy trends have increasingly invited people into private spaces accessible to the public. One significant example is the shift of local commercial business from public “main streets” to shopping malls in the late twentieth century. While private shopping centers once were typically enclosed structures with clear boundaries, the most popular form today is the outdoor “lifestyle center.” In dense areas, it may not be obvious to visitors when they have passed from a public sidewalk or street to a private plaza, where their presence is no longer a right but a privilege.

In large urban areas, such privately-owned public spaces are proliferating on a micro-scale as a result of zoning regulations. In exchange for exceeding height or floor area ratios set by zoning rules, new buildings may provide publicly accessible “bonus areas” on their plot of land. In 2008, there were 530 such areas amounting to 85 acres in New York City alone. While this policy was intended to provide developers with more valuable upper floors while also increasing space at ground level for the public, planning and design scholar Jeremy Németh argues the private managers of these spaces have found many ways to restrict their accessibility and uses.

While some bonus areas are interior lobby gardens, most are external plazas either distinctly set apart from the street or imperceptibly bordering public sidewalks. According to Németh, private managers seek to filter people using the spaces by posting subjective rules (“no disorderly behavior;” “no loitering”) and hiring security guards to enforce said rules. Some spaces also encourage the presence of wealthier social classes by providing dining or retail shopping.

Alternately, developers have increasingly made their public bonus spaces as uninviting as possible, “fortressing” these areas through architectural design, fences, gates, dumpsters, and limited opening hours. Most cities have not been good at regulating this.

Németh also notes that creation and administration of public space has shifted towards the private sector in a more general way. Municipal governments have given up their ability to create public spaces where they will have the greatest public benefit. Additionally, most bonus spaces are built only during strong economies. These are symptoms of local government’s abdication of responsibility for countering the negative impacts or “externalities” of urban life—crowding, noise, and inequality.

Business Improvement Districts and the Hierarchy of Users

Another way the private sector has sought to gain control over public space is through the creation of business improvement districts (BIDs). Urban retail businesses organized BIDs starting in the 1970s, facing the pressures of suburban white flight and shopping malls. The idea is to improve the attractiveness of downtown shopping areas.

In effect, BIDs create a pseudo-government for a limited geographic area that levies fees on commercial occupants to fund street cleaning, repairs, and other services that diminished city revenues can no longer fund. In some cities, they have been successful in reversing urban decline, often inciting gentrification, and even creating an industry of BID management companies seeking to spread the institution around the globe.

Significantly, municipalities can also permit them to use of private security, surveillance, and private rules to maintain the “quality” of their area. Sociology and law scholars Matthew Sanscartier and James Gacek write that this has encouraged the adoption of a type of “socio-economic hygiene” in downtown BIDs that replicates high modernist ideologies leading to cultural or social genocide. The authors stress that they don’t mean BIDs are pursuing murderous genocidal policies. Rather, they wish to alert readers that associated policies of classification and exclusion have become a widespread and invisible part of everyday urban life.

BIDs have defined the purpose of their limited but undemocratic sovereignty not only to prevent crimes, but to provide their ideal user—a consumer— with a “clean and safe” environment. This subjective category allows BIDs to make judgement calls on what is “dirty and unsafe” over potentially large formerly public areas—the homeless, buskers, street vendors, “alternative” newspaper boxes, etc. The authors believe the public generally accedes to these rules and restrictions because of how far neoliberal ideology has fused the identity of citizen and consumer. Conversely, public passivity allows BID managers to transform non-consumers practically into non-citizens.

Urban Design as Security Framework

Even public spaces outside areas of private influence, such as central city plazas or parks, reflect the political and social ideologies of their era. Researcher R. Van Deusen, Jr. argues politicians and urban planners are waging a similar campaign in Clinton Square, the civic center of Syracuse, New York, claiming their goal is to make the city safe for business at the expense of other purposes.

According to Van Deusen, Jr., in the ninenteenth century, Clinton Square’s empty stone vistas showcased the industrial triumph of municipal buildings and of the Erie Canal, which passed through its middle. But in the utopian 1960s, optimistic urban planners sought to improve the human scale of the park by adding trees and building recessed smaller spaces to “encourage sociability.” However, the 1970s crisis of deindustrialization led Syracuse to shrink. The shady corners of Clinton Square became more commonly occupied by the homeless, rather than white collar workers on their lunch breaks.

Despite public protests, the city redesigned the square in 2001, ripping out most of the trees and leveling the recessed spaces. City managers defended the result, claiming that “nobody” had been using the square before and now it was available for street fairs and music festivals, which helped the city raise revenues it needed (because of its lower tax base).

This anecdote offers proof that neoliberal ideology is not restricted to the private sector alone. Governments are helping make market-based or consumer use of public space more legitimate, and, implicitly, all other uses less legitimate.

The right-wing drift of American politics in the past forty years has helped create an urban homelessness crisis. The political establishment has been all too happy to respond with policing alone, or better yet, to shift the burden of security on to the private sector. Countering this trend requires opponents to find new language to challenge the common consensus that all security is good and justified. Perhaps this is possible by highlighting its victims—both real people and families and free, non-commercial social activities.


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Urban Studies, Vol. 46, No. 11 (OCTOBER 2009), pp. 2463-2490
Sage Publications, Ltd.
Canadian Journal of Urban Research, Vol. 25, No. 2 (WINTER 2016), pp. 73-85
Institute of Urban Studies, University of Winnipeg
GeoJournal, Vol. 58, No. 2/3, Social Transformation, Citizenship, and the Right to the City (2002), pp. 149-158