Last December, the Kansas City, Missouri, City Council voted in an 8-5 decision to privatize sidewalks, as recently reported in NextCity. After a long process to develop a safety plan for the city’s Westport entertainment district, an area with dozens of bars and live music venues, the council decided to turn over the sidewalks to a neighborhood business consortium.
The business group, in turn, will contract out security of the two block entertainment district to a company that handles security for Major League Baseball, with the costs paid for by the Westport business owners. If the city ever wants to buy back the land, it will cost city taxpayers up to $132,784.
Jane Jacobs wrote in the The Death and Life of Great American Cities that for city streets, “there must be a clear demarcation between what is public space and what is private space. Public and private spaces cannot ooze into each other as they do typically in suburban settings or in projects.”
But what happens when public space itself becomes privatized? People have documented the rise of the curb as a commodity — which now provides a surface for different types of activity, like ride-sharing meeting spaces.
In 2016, America’s 25 biggest cities collected nearly $5 billion in car-related revenue. As unappealing and uninteresting as curbs may seem, they represent crucial infrastructure and space for public use. And beyond revenue, there are far-reaching consequences for democracy when public spaces become privatized.
One thing you may not think about when walking through cities is: Who is responsible for goods we typically consider “public”? Since the Reagan and Thatcher revolutions of the 1980s, there has been an increasing devolution of federal power to states and localities. One downstream effect of the assault on government was an increasing reliance on third-party governance — a network of private, nonprofit, and philanthropic organizations to do the public job typically associated with government. Don Kettl calls this the “interweaving of the Public Functions and Private Hands.”
And that devolution trend isn’t changing anytime soon. Especially as states and cities will receive decreased revenue as a result of the Trump administration tax bill, there will be even more reliance on this network of actors to deliver core services that emaciated local government budgets can’t fulfill anymore.
Like curbs, sidewalks have traditionally been a public space — built, maintained, and regulated by the government — making them available for use by any citizen, resident, or traveler who may pass through. At this point, sidewalks are usually taken for granted, something we use but don’t often consider.
Privatization of that space would look very different: In Kansas City this spring, people wanting to use the sidewalk in the Westport area will have to pass through metal detectors, show identification, and have their bags checked before entering the entertainment district area between 11 pm and 4 am. Unlike public police, who cannot screen for weapons in public spaces, the private security guards can.
The aim of privatizing was to address crime. The council passed the ordinance specifically in response to an increase in gun violence over the past year in the Westport district: Between January and October 2017, there were 65 gun-related offenses in that district alone; in comparison, 2016 saw only 16.
Two tensions: freedom to carry versus freedom to party
In the case of Kansas City — where the state legislature has voted to give Missourians the legal right to carry a concealed weapon with few restrictions — that freedom to carry, at least as defined in Missouri law, is in tension with the freedom to publicly gather whenever, wherever.
In 2017, Missouri began allowing people to carry a concealed weapon without a permit with Missouri Senate Bill 656. The NAACP has expressed concern about racial profiling in the privatized section of Westport. “We are afraid that when people are searched or get into the Westport area that, based upon looks or based upon suspicion that people will be further searched, there is the possibility they could be detained,” Rev. Rodney Williams explained.
There will be civil rights observers stationed at the security screenings. But private contractors may not receive the same civic training as public officials. And the very presence of screeners could create fear of ill treatment and thereby dampen who chooses to come out and spend their Saturday night in Westport, just as barriers to voting deter even those who have the required ID or proof of citizenship. This could potentially make public spaces less public and less equitable. And the policy creates a new precedent for surrendering public assets to private companies in the name of security or convenience.
It may also make Westport safer. Bouncers and metal detectors may make Westport feel — and, in fact, be — safer and less prone to gun violence. But if so, cities will have to think not just about the immediate problems at hand, but about the consequences of addressing them through privatizing public land. In Kansas City’s case, limiting the right to carry a concealed weapon might be more effective than limiting who can walk on a once-public sidewalk.
Hollie Russon Gilman is a fellow at New America’s political reform program. She is also a lecturer at Columbia SIPA, a senior fellow at the Beeck Center, and a former White House open government and innovation adviser. Gilman is the author of a book on participatory budgeting and a forthcoming book on the current democracy crisis in America.