Fake public space coming to a Victoria near you

This post is about an agreement to exclude people from privately-owned public property. I would be remiss if I didn’t note that the property in question is on traditional Lekwungen territory. Regardless of the particulars outlined below, there has already been a displacement of the Lekwungen people from this space.

The corner of Douglas and Pandora is being redeveloped with office buildings and a plaza “for the enjoyment of the general public.” Before that proposal was unanimously approved by Victoria City Council in 2015, the city and the developer agreed that there should be limits on who can use the plaza, and how. Despite statements (large file size) that it will be a public square, the plan is to treat it as private property. 

Image source: Submission to Victoria City Council

Image source: Submission to Victoria City Council

Defensive architecture is typically a subtle but visible reminder that public spaces are not actually designed for everyone, but are meant to be used by certain people and in very specific ways. While there are physical examples all around us – for example, benches with armrests that keep people from lying down – sometimes these barriers can’t be seen.

Victoria and Jawl Enterprises agreed (p. 84-5) that the city and the public will have a right of way in the new square. The arrangement will allow “all members of the public who might so desire, at all times by day or night, the full, free and uninterrupted right, licence, liberty, privilege, permission and right of way … to enter, use, go, return, pass over and across that part of the Lands.”

If that was the whole agreement, it might have been public space. But the land title documents permit Jawl Enterprises (the “Transferor”) to “bar entry to or eject” five categories of individuals:

Those rules mean that Jawls and their associates can kick you out of their private square if, say, you take a sledgehammer to it. Fair enough. But those categories could also be used to limit access by Victorians who are perceived as poor or mentally ill. Anyone who “disrupt[s] … business operations” or is “disorderly” isn’t welcome. And despite ostensibly being a public space, you explicitly can’t sleep there. Or even loiter, for that matter. If people who are just hanging out can be asked to leave, why pretend it’s a public space?

Even if these restrictions aren’t used against you directly, others may be barred from the area to curate a Jawls- and city-approved “general public.” Similar arrangements are in place for the development’s rotunda and walkway (p. 93; 101).

Finally, while you can protest in a real public square, “creating a nuisance” will be grounds for dismissal from the corner of Douglas and Pandora. Privately-owned public squares were fenced off in London, England to prevent occupation by protesters, and whatever the developer deems a nuisance will be similarly unwelcome here. “Part of the problem … with privately owned public spaces,” says Bradley L. Garrett, writing for the Guardian, “is that the rights of the citizens using them are severely hemmed in.” He cites multiple examples of being told off for trying to film or take photographs in these types of spaces.

The language in Victoria’s agreement seems to have been borrowed from other municipalities. Vancouver was even more transparent in the limitations of their proposed fake public space, however: they agreed to specifically bar panhandling and protests from a privately-owned “public” walkway (p. 8-9). Best not to call out that shitty agreement in person: “foul language” is banned, too. Of course, you can’t be “offensive” in Jawls Square, either.

A corporation offering up a slice of its land for public use might sound like a nice idea, but the agreement reached with the city means the new square at Douglas and Pandora is not and will never be public space. Pretending otherwise is a misleading communications exercise. Even when the construction fences come down, the barriers will remain.

Fencing around the Douglas and Pandora development.

Fencing around the Douglas and Pandora development.

Stephen Harrison