On the strange disappearance of semi-spaces in London

On a recent trip to London, I started thinking about the concept of Semi-spaces, i.e. Semi-public and semi-private spaces and how these are created. First a short definition of semi-spaces:

Semi Private space– Here defined as a space that is access controlled and accessible to residents and associated people only. An example here would be a communal staircase in a residential building with a controlled front door access. These spaces are not really private since they’re shared, but since they’re usually inaccessible to outsiders, they’re not really public either.

Semi Public space– This is normally defined as a private space accessible to the general public, e.g. a shop or a Public house. In this context however, I’ll define it as a space open to the public but has a certain private character to it. It can be a small local park, an open courtyard or something similar. It is accessible to anyone, but is understood to be used primarily by the surrounding residents.

You find semi-spaces in most major cities in Europe, Berlin, Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Barcelona, Paris and so on. New housing projects are usually equipped with a number of semi-spaces all across the range. At the same time, in the U.K, most of the energy goes into creating strict borderlines, fences, gates, access control points and so forth. The semi-private spaces exist out of necessity rather than as an actual space for inhabitants, and the semi-public spaces seems to have disappeared completely from the architectural scene.

London used to have some great semi-public spaces, Bedford Square, Berkeley Square and so on. Something happened however, possibly post-war modernism, and the concept went into decline. Most of the gardens and green squares have been turned into Semi-private spaces rather than Semi-Public ones. Just walk around in South Kensington, and you’ll see a number of examples of these spaces.

Somehow, London has arrived at the conclusion that either, Semi-public spaces don’t work, or that theses spaces will yield profit if converted into semi-private spaces instead. In South Kensington, the latter is probably true, while in East London, presumably the former is more accurate.

The notion that semi-public spaces don’t work is wide-spread, the main issues being of course security and maintenance. Security is obviously an issue, and the concept of designing away crime would suggest that the semi-public spaces just have to go. At the same time, in most European cities, these spaces work when the residents themselves use and identify with these spaces. In those cases, security is maintained through the presence and observation of local residents. Maintenance is always complicated in these instances, the best ones are maintained through self-organisation, the job is divided among the people who use the space. In other cases, organizations are formed to deal with the spaces. Neither of these issues should be insurmountable in London one would think.

Then, does the city actually want semi-public spaces, does the city need them, or are they as London has concluded, waste spaces to turn into other types of spaces? What purpose do they serve?

One could argue that these types of spaces serve a number of immaterial purposes. The semi-public spaces provide residents somewhere neutral to get together and get to know each other. They also provide a reason for contact between residents, or force rather.

Normally people who know their neighbors feel safer than people who have no idea about anybody living in the vicinity and who step out in completely unknown territory as soon as they exit their front door. Jane Jacobs’ local Greenwich village street-scapes functioned more or less as semi-public spaces and from her point of view, they would provide a number of functions.

There are on the other hand no end to the possible arguments between neighbors that can be generated. Whether they function or not is very much up to the individuals who live around the semi-public space. The semi-public spaces can go completely wrong and destroy an entire neighborhood if they end up neglected.

From an economical point of view, semi-public space only makes sense from a long term perspective. If the same organisation that builds the surrounding context will maintain it over the years it makes sense, but in speculative projects it makes no sense whatsoever.

I’m not entirely sure about the answers to the questions above, but I do however think it’s a worthwhile debate that does not really exist at the moment.

  1. Upandaway said:

    Definitely agree with you on this one. When living (and walking) in London I was frankly shocked by the widespread use of “private parks” in the middle of the city, as well as the absence public spaces in, what for me, seemed obvious places.

    I do however believe that it goes along with the sense of entitlement that private property gives in the UK. If you own something, that’s for your use alone. The Royal Garden is one example of this. Smack in the middle of it all is this exclusive, fenced and *huge* garden intended solely for the Queen and her dogs…!

    In most other european capitals such a place would have been open for the public.

  2. Jana said:

    This is such a fantastic post. I found this blog by pure accident, googling ‘semi-private spaces’, but now I think I will remain a frequent reader. Thank you!

  3. waua said:

    Thanks for your encouraging comment! I’ve been planning to write some more on the subject for ages but never get round to it.

  4. Mina said:

    awesome loved this post. i also googled semi-private spaces and came across this article. fantastic, you’ve deffo gained a fan.

  5. Pachc said:

    Thx for this fantastic evaluation as i was googling ‘semi-public space’ for my waterfront development project

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