The Privatization of Public Space: the New Enclosures

28 Pages Posted: 21 Aug 2014

Date Written: 2014


One of the striking responses to the Occupy Movement of 2011 was the use of legal injunctions to prevent protest from occurring in places from Canary Wharf and Paternoster Square, both hubs of London’s financial services industry, to New York's Chase-Manhattan Plaza.

But these cases are not outliers, but instead reflect the decades-long neoliberalization of public space, which has often been promoted by the state itself, ostensibly acting in the public interest. The rise of privately owned public spaces (POPS) is politically consequential since this institution circumscribes citizens’ freedom of assembly and expression in places that are understood to be public. But the privatization of public space is not merely limited to POPS. Indeed, it is argued here that such murky institutions are just one expression of a far more pervasive phenomenon of enclosure of public space. These new enclosures, I argue, are novel variations on a centuries-old theme by which access to common or public land has been curtailed by aristocratic elites.

The new enclosures have occurred along four important dimensions, each of which are detailed in this paper in order to provide an analytic framework for theorizing about the privatization of public space. The first dimension, "enclosure for profit," involves the transfer of publicly owned land or resources to private entities seeking to enhance the “exchange value” of the space or of the resources associated with it. This is what most people mean by the term privatization. The second kind of privatization involves the "enclosure of behavior." Whereas enclosure for profit is about the transformation of ownership rights, this second dimension of enclosure involves rules that police the boundaries of acceptable behavior within a space. While this would include the state-regulation of publicly owned spaces, of particular interest here is the enclosure, through the regulation of use, by private entities which control POPS, such as those that prevented public demonstrations by Occupy movement protesters. In the first two types, enclosure does not involve the physical fencing-in of the private to prevent entry of the public; indeed part of the appeal of privately-owned public spaces is that people’s quotidian interaction with them conveys the sense that they are indistinguishable from public spaces, except safer, better maintained, and free of poverty. However, as this paper will show, such a sanguine assumption soon evaporates when the public attempts to use such spaces for political purposes, rather than for work or consumption.

In the third mode -- "enclosure of communities" -- that involves the new fences of gated communities, there is no such pretense of being public places. In order to gain entry, one usually has to gain permission of private residents behind the physical fences. The fourth and final type of enclosure to be investigated here, which I call the "enclosure of the public realm," involves the rebranding of public property in a private guise. I use the renaming of Pattison station, a Philadelphia public subway stop, as AT&T station to illustrate this method of enclosure.

Each form of enclosure hampers the ability of urban citizens and residents to criticize and reshape the city and thereby circumscribe what Lefebvre and Harvey call our “right to the city.”

Keywords: Privatization, Privately Owned Public Spaces, Occupy, Neoliberalism

Suggested Citation

Weaver, Timothy, The Privatization of Public Space: the New Enclosures (2014). APSA 2014 Annual Meeting Paper, Available at SSRN:

Timothy Weaver (Contact Author)

University of Louisville ( email )

Louisville, KY 40292
United States

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