economic development

Privatizing Gone Wrong

When buildings are built, ownership of the surrounding landscape can become tricky, especially if there are sidewalks, parks, and/or other amenities that make the area attractive. Sidewalks are the most noticeable public spaces, there is a constant battle between who is entitled to the space versus who is responsible for the space. Sadly, when sidewalks become private, they tend to restrict the space for all who might be using them as thoroughfares, eliminating the opportunity for community engagement. Until sidewalks are recognized as infrastructure, there will consistently be tension surrounding their usage.

On one hand, being responsible for a space means cleaning it and fixing it when it breaks. One of the reasons that developers and businesses refute responsibility for sidewalks is because of the amount of money spent powerwashing and fixing cracks. When public urination is a problem, business owners find it more advantageous to wait for the smell to dissipate and for the street cleaners to pick up the garbage surrounding it. This behavior is problematic because so many larger businesses seek to evade taxes through incentive programs, meaning that areas which may have more traffic and usage cost the public more instead of requiring that businesses attend to their portions of the sidewalk. If a business wants to claim ownership over public space, they must then accept all the drawbacks to being in popular parts of a community.

On the other hand, if private businesses are in charge of public space, they are also entitled to determine how people access said space. Business parks may have beautiful benches and pools, but if they entice people who are not paying them for access, that can lead to excessive restrictions in the form of extensive signage, gates, and police intervention. If sidewalks are considered a way to navigate the city, there should be no restrictions on who has access because of the taxes collected either directly from constituents or indirectly through the business owners. Walking through a community is one of the advantages of a community being walkable, and limiting who can walk where makes the area uninviting, mostly to marginalized people.

Public space will continue to be a challenge as local governments work to restore equity across the country, and sidewalks will be one of the most difficult. If incentive packages must continue, part of the package should require the private entities to take care of the surrounding space, especially if that area includes a sidewalk. All who are part of a community should be required to participate, and no one should have the power of rights without the responsibility which follows.

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