The encroaching privatisation of key urban spaces that have traditionally been part of the public domain could undermine the quality of life as well as charm and allure of some of the world's leading cities.

According to Harry Smith, Associate Professor and Director of Planning and Real Estate, Heriot-Watt University, municipal governments around the globe are increasingly ceding ownership or control of their flagship urban areas to private interests.

Smith believes that a significant factor behind this trend is the need for cash-strapped municipal authorities to resort to novel fund-raising measures in order to pay for the maintenance or preservation of open urban areas, as regional or national governments cut down on spending. This is a particularly the case in the Eurozone, where governments have long pursued austerity measures at the behest of Brussels as part of efforts to combat the lingering debt crisis.

London’s iconic Kings Cross district, which is host to one of Europe’s largest open spaces in an urban area, serves as an outstanding example. The 67-acre redeveloped inner-city district is now partially owned by private interests participating in the Kings Cross Central Limited Partnership.

While Kings Cross remains accessible to the general public, increasing control of urban areas by private interests does not bode well for the provision of amenities to visitors or residents. Local residents recently protested the opening of the “Go Ape” tree-based climbing attraction at London’s Battersea Park as a replacement for the old adventure playground. While the adventure playground was free to enter, “Go Ape” charges visitors an entry fee of as much as 33 pounds.

In more extreme cases the expanding control of urban areas by private interests can severely reduce the amount of public green space in a city – particularly in places where gated communities predominate. Istanbul serves as a sterling example of this dilemma, with only 1.5 per cent of the city’s area comprised of green spaces open to the public.

Smith believes that its imperative for municipal authorities to resist the trend of encroaching privatisation of urban districts, given the importance of public areas for the provision of amenities and green spaces that play critical role in maintaining quality of life for residents.

The Making Places Profitable project, launched by universities and public sector groups located across the North Sea region, is one noteworthy initiative that’s exploring innovative means for keeping a greater share of urban space accessible to the public.

A novel measure adopted by the German city of Hamburg for shoring up urban public space involved requiring that Unilever keep the ground floor of its new global headquarters open to the public in exchange planning permission.