The Occupy Movement and the Battle for Public Space

I spent some time outside St Pauls Cathedral in London last week including listening to the Bishop of London and the (now ex) Dean of St Pauls talking to the people from OccupyLSX. I was there again today at the moving remembrance service.

This was all happening in front of the steps of St Pauls while round the corner the encampment of small nylon tents flourished and included a toilet and tents for a kitchen, first aid, library and information centre all on the plaza next to the Cathedral. Artists have even started documenting this historic protest.

Meanwhile, next door, Paternoster Square is empty, barriered off and guarded at every entrance by a mixture of police and security guards with the only activity in the square being a couple of parked high vis striped police Land Rovers.

There seems to be some doubt about the ownership of the encampment land with the options being the Corporation of London, Common Land and the Church Commissioners with the latter apparently being the most likely.

This may not be the angle on the story that the participants are concentrating on but I am interested in the closure of Paternoster Square to the public and the impact of this on the businesses in the square and on its value as an investment.

I understand that Paternoster Square is owned by Paternoster Associates, a wholly owned subsidiary of Mitsubishi Estates whose, in the circumstances somewhat ironic strap line, is ‘A love for people, a love for the city’.

The square is managed by Broadgate Estates and indeed is one of their case studies for the agreement they have with the Corporation of London to manage the walkways to a ‘exceptionally high standard’.

The Corporation of London (which as OccupyLSX points out is democratically unusual by being elected mainly by companies rather than residents), has some interesting bylaws (dating from 1973) for its city walkways including:

No sitting on balustrades

No playing of musical instruments

No using of radio, record or cassette player or similar instrument (no bankers with ipods then?)

No mule, ass, goat or cattle

No setting up of any structure or erection (tents are presumably caught by this)

No tree climbing

No walking where prohibited by the Corporation

And one added in 1990: No riding on rollerskates or skateboards

So the idea of free use of public realm by citizens is pretty substantially constrained at the best of times insofar as these things are ever enforced.

Of course the use of public realm always has to balance the needs and wants of different users of the space. We can’t all use the same space at the same time and some people’s uses could interfere with other people’s uses.

Camping is obviously an activity of that type. Indeed Boris Johnson, Mayor of London, called for a new law to prevent protest camps ‘erupting like boils across the city’. Some of the authorities are clearly sensitised by the long running camp in Parliament Square and the long running legal battles to have it removed.

I won’t get into the debate about health and safety but it is pretty clear that the OccupyLSX camp is being carefully managed to ensure that the church can be used both for services and by visitors. Indeed the upmarket French bakers, Paul, remains open and seemed to be doing good business and I noticed OccupyLSX people buying drinks in the bar round the corner in a break from discussion caused by the church bells. This management is democratic in the extreme as it requires the consensus and active involvement of all the people in the camp.

The businesses that are suffering are the ones in Paternoster Square.

The question is, would the same good natured and well behaved protest have happened in Paternoster Square or would the proximity of the symbols of capitalism – the London Stock Exchange, various investment banks and Starbucks – have produced a different reaction?

There is of course recent history of activist protest against these kinds of organisation as was portrayed in the recent excellent Emily James film, Just Do It. The RBS occupation which blocked the entrance of one of their Bishopsgate buildings comes to mind. So there is clearly an argument from those businesses that prevention is better than cure in these circumstances.

Canary Wharf (and indeed Paternoster) are reported to have taken out precautionary injunctions against encampments by people or people unknown and there is currently a Facebook threat to test this on 30th November. The OccupyLSX reaction to this is broadly ‘what are you afraid of’ and there is a view that actions like this cast the property industry in a bad light and add fuel to the anti capitalist fire.

The reality though, is that an important piece of apparently public realm (Paternoster Square) in the heart of London is closed to public access in a way which is certainly more comprehensive than if it was a tented camp. The public aren’t severely inconvenienced by this (although a small number of retail businesses are) but it does seem a shame. I remember the square being used as the start and finish of an urban orienteering event a couple of years ago on a Saturday. At weekends at least the Square is not usually busy despite the heaving crowds at St Pauls next door and it is relatively easy for different uses to coexist and go about their individual business. Indeed that is what public space is all about and it is the richer from having a range of people in it and from being effectively self policed rather than having authority imposed upon it.

At Bermondsey Square in south east London, as far as I know without any explicit consent from the managers, a Zombie orienteering event/chase game, 2.8 Hours Later, with many hundreds of participants took place over three evenings last week. It added an immense amount of vibrancy to the area (nothing like blood covered zombies on every street corner to add Halloween vibrancy) but was not without its problems. The constant screams of zombie attacked participants were soon irritating some of my friends and neighbours and so a few of us rallied round to have a word with the organisers and some of the participants and hopefully limit the nuisance.

It is community self policing like this that should be the goal for all public realm policing. In an ideal world the police should only be required for criminal behaviour, not to police out dated local authority byelaws or common nuisance, but for this to happen we need widely accepted norms of behaviour.

That the occupation of public space by organisations like Occupy LSX and Climate Rush (eg through mass cycling) is seen as a protest is quite right because 99% of the time we all manage to coexist fine in the public realm and so when one group takes over a space it is seen as a protest.

It would be fascinating to know more about the thought processes of the Paternoster managers when faced with this potential occupation. I doubt that there was much opportunity for dialogue but again, ideally, and some would say naively, it would be good to think that those wishing to camp would be able to talk to the other stakeholders in the space and agree some behavioural principles for coexistence. The people involved would probably find they were very similar, at least in how they behave towards others in their lives and so a sensible accommodation based on mutual respect for the individual seems achievable.

Certainly the St Pauls authorities, in accepting the invitation of those in the camp to sit down with their representatives, seem much more likely to achieve a mutually acceptable outcome than through the legal action which they were also pursuing.

These issues are explored by Anna Minton in her book Ground Control. Anna has spoken at Occupy LSX and is speaking again at an event organised by FCB Studios the week after next which promises to be stimulating and topical.

And for me, underlying all of this, are the principles of corporate responsibility and responsible investment. Increasing executive pay and bankers’ bonuses following public bailout are significant risks to the public licence to do business and to business relationships. Many investors recognise this and invest in businesses that can be seen to be managing these risks effectively.

Mitsubishi Estates, in its CSR policy, talks of ‘meeting the expectations of people in society at large’. Broadgate Estates seeks to ‘To ensure environmental and social considerations are embedded into our corporate culture’. I wonder if they feel they are doing this successfully at Paternoster Square at the moment. These policies are easy to write down but much harder to live up to when faced with challenges like those at Paternoster and the industry culture in the property world. Optimising the balance between economic, environmental and social value can be difficult but is critical for an organisation or an investment to be a success in the long term. OccupyLSX will be a case study for some time to come I suspect.