POPS in the city

POPS is an acronym for “privately-owned public space,” a concept that is fast replacing our traditional notion of public space.  The old public space we knew referred to town plazas, parks, squares, and promenades where citizens congregated in their free time.  Nowadays, the most common public spaces are the shopping malls that were built for only one purpose—to separate people from their money.  Access to such privatized public spaces is highly regulated, and poses crucial questions about spatial justice, identity, and the nature of proprietary rights over common space.

Over the weekend, I had a chance to attend a two-day informal forum in Singapore on the topic “Public space in urban Asia.”  Conceptualized and convened by the eccentric postmodern urbanist William Lim, the gathering brought together a broad assortment of architects, urban planners, land developers, and urban theorists and activists.  It was my first time to sit through a forum without feeling the urge to make a single intervention.  This wasn’t my turf.  I was more keen to grasp the concepts and values that were being thrown around than to locate the Philippine experience in this unfolding debate.

The basic issue, however, was a familiar one to me, although I wasn’t aware of the diverse contexts in which it could arise.  I had written about it a few times in previous columns, mainly to complain about the advertising billboards that hog the space just above the major thoroughfares of our cities.  I recall asking in those columns: Who owns the skyline above our streets?  Do outdoor advertisers have the right to block the public’s view of a patch of sky or a stretch of the horizon?

Singapore is probably way ahead of every city in the world in the exploration of such questions.  By chance, I found myself seated at the forum beside a property developer who wanted to educate himself about the other social values that compete with profit.  The bible for people like him is the Urban Redevelopment Authority’s master plan for Singapore’s land use.  It has all the answers to your questions, he told me, “including those we have not yet thought about.”  “If a building owner wants to put up a passageway linking his building to another, he has to buy ‘air rights.’  If he wants to dig an underground corridor connecting his shopping mall to another, he has to pay for ‘subterranean rights.’”   The space above and the space below the surface, he stressed, are public resources.  Their use is controlled by the government.

I can imagine these laws being passed, but not enforced, in our country, where property owners are wont to think they have absolute rights not just over their land but over the spaces below and above it. For all its restrictive provisions, Singaporean land use policy makes a lot of sense to me. We may fault the Singaporean government for being authoritarian, but it can never be said of its officials that they don’t do their homework. Indeed, they make it a point to think ahead of the population, even at the risk of conveying the impression that they don’t trust ordinary citizens to be able to think for themselves.

The recurring theme at the meeting I attended is that governments, not just in Singapore but in all the emerging economies, have allowed the unbridled privatization of public space—favoring, in the process, the corporate interests that drive globalized development.  While it is easy for any visitor to Singapore to get this impression, in view of the dominant presence of corporate capital in this global city-state’s high-performing economy, a closer look at everyday life in Singapore would show a more nuanced picture.

The city is dotted with well-maintained public parks, to which everyone has access. But, in addition to these, there are lovely promenades that have been constructed by real estate developers mainly for the use of the residents of the posh condominium complexes they build, but which are now open to the general public.  On this recent visit, I was pleasantly surprised to find a scenic promenade at the edge of Keppel Bay just behind the Caribbean condos.  On any morning or late afternoon, this stretch of privately owned public space fills up with joggers and strollers.  Except for a small advisory saying that the area is CCTV-monitored, nothing about the place suggests exclusivity.   There are no security guards patrolling the area or keeping an eye on vagrants.

Over the years, Singaporeans have begun to fear that their society is becoming a two-tiered community that accords special privileges to the rich and the highly-paid foreigners who live among them. The government has responded to this disquiet by dismantling every possible marker of exclusivity or elitism, and by giving concessions to locals.  It has recently offered Singaporean citizens free admission to all the country’s museums.  Subsidized public housing is available only to citizens and permanent residents.

Nothing perhaps more vividly conveys the explicit policy of open access to all public space, including that which is privately owned, than the absence of security guards at the entrances of Singapore’s shopping malls. It is the first thing a Filipino would notice as she enters the high-end malls on Orchard Road.  There’s no one to frisk you or poke a searching stick into your handbag.

The irony of it is that, without appearing to do so, the government makes it its business to watch everything, and to provide for problems before they actually arise. The result is an over-planned society with a low tolerance for surprises—a theme park for technocrats, but a stifling environment for dissident minds.