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  • Writer's pictureMarta McClelland

Landlordism or Who Owns the Public Realm in London?

The first word that comes to my mind to describe the squares and parks in London is artificiality. None of the places I have visited had so much emphasis on the fact that you are a guest than Royal Parks of London. Even walking down the street I could not help but notice the constant reiteration of that fact. The signs, which were not discrete in any way, tell you whose property it is and if or when it is open to public. For example, parks like Fitzroy Square Garden are private, open to public for a limited time. The sign on the gate reads:

During the summer months, the garden committee may open garden to the general public on certain weekdays. On days that the garden is open to the general public the hours of access will be from 12:15 to 14:45. Please vacate the garden at the end of this period. Outside these times the garden may be accessed by key-holding frontagers only”.

Figure 1 Signs in London public spaces, 2019

Also, there are different rules for visitors and frontagers. For example, unlike residents, visitors are not allowed to bring their pets. Compared to Piedmont park in the United States, which is owned by the city of Atlanta, most of the parks in London are owned by the Royal family or dukes. This fact made me question if these spaces can be considered as public.

In “Cities belong to us” Brigid Hains states that not all public spaces are truly public. She points out that there are not that many places where people feel safe, places where one can sit down without buying anything. This statement is especially relatable to the public spaces in Central London. She argues that it is not enough to call a place public. There are constant efforts required for it to stay public (Hains, 2013). According to David Harvey this phenomenon is caused by the extreme polarization in the distribution of wealth and power, which is also reflected on the shape of cities. This resulted in cities with “fortified” neighborhoods (Harvey, 2013). Gates, constant CCTV surveillance and brand stores became signs through which one can identify the type of neighborhood. This also deprives people from the ability to use the public spaces to socialize or use them for political action.

The land ownership in London is graphically represented in the 1909 map by W.B. Northrop. It shows a giant octopus extending its tentacles around the neighborhoods of Central London. Each of the areas is marked by the name of the owner. It is interesting that the properties owned by the Royal Family are not included in this map. The side notes on the map state that land ownership paralyzes the building trade, impoverishes the “peasantry”, the landlords are taking 20, 000,000 pounds a year and the “Land Octopus sucks the lifeblood of the people”. On the bottom, it states that the people must destroy it or be destroyed by it. Northrop who was a freelance journalist in early 1900s suggested that the land monopoly must be eliminated and to do that he proposed to impose 20% tax on privately owned land(Northrup, 1925, Cornell University, 2017).

Figure 2 W.B. Northrup, Landlordism.1925.

Despite the significant private land ownership in London, the importance of public spaces was historically emphasized. Rasmussen points out that before the Reformation, most of the land in London was owned by convents. In fact, the land currently occupied by Covent Garden was one of them. This meant that there were almost no open public spaces except the Moorfields and even here citizens had to constantly stand for their rights for the space against the leaseholders who constantly were fencing their leased properties, trying to keep out trespassers (Rasmussen, 1934). Later, after the King’s fall, Royal Parks were open to public and even when the kingdom was recovered the rights to use the open spaces by the public were maintained. Moorfields, Gray’s Inn, Lincoln’s Inn, St James’s Park and Hyde Park were among the open spaces accessible to public since the seventeenth century.

Figure 3 Gate to Queen Mary's Rose Gardens, The Regents Park, London, 2019

Figure 4 Queen Mary's Rose Gardens, The Regents Park, London, 2019

The notion of squares, however, had different beginnings. According to Steenbergen, the history of squares in London started when the landscape was integrated into the urban fabric (Steenbergen, 2011). The nobility tired of crowded and polluted city conditions moved closer to the parks and to the country, which created an opportunity for the development of new type of housing. This happened because there were no large areas for gardens in the city and also because aristocrats wanted to know who their neighbors were. First, this type of development was proposed by Inigo Jones for the Covent Garden.

Figure 5 Covent Garden Plan. Source:

on/history market building

Figure 6 Covent Garden Market, London, 2019 Originally a convent, the land where Covent Garden is now, was granted by the King to John Russell. Inigo Jones’ proposal was to build row houses with identical facades around the square. This type of housing soon became fashionable and encouraged similar developments (Rasmussen, 1934). Unlike Bath’s classical, stone facades, the buildings in London were built with brick and had less detail(Rasmussen, 1934). However, the introduction of vegetable market to the square by the Duke of Bedford drove residents away. In 1828, he petitioned for a government bill for Covent Garden Market improvement and commissioned Charles Fowler to design a permanent market. The square fell into disrepair and even became unsafe. Duke of Bedford maintained the ownership of the market, granted in the seventeenth century, up to 1918, when he sold it to a pill manufacturer Joseph Beecham. Later the pill manufacturing business and the market were united under the Beecham Estates and Pills Limited(Sheppard,1970).

Figure 7 Covent Garden, London, 2019

The significance of Covent Garden was its influence on future developments.

Leicester Square was one of them. Built in 1635, it was an irregular square surrounded by houses. Unlike the Covent Garden, Leicester Estates, originally owned by the Earl of Leicester, was subdivided into smaller parcels by the end of the 18th century because of the discontinuation of the family line. In the seventeenth and eighteenth century, it housed residents from wealthy families, ambassadors, artists and writers. In the 19th century, although most of it was owned by the Tulk family, the square fell into disrepair and continued to deteriorate through early 20th century. The Leicester Garden had the same fate. First it was maintained by the landlords, however, in 1808 Charles Tulk sold it to one of the tenants, Charles Elms, for £210. During Elm’s ownership, the garden was neglected to a degree that tenants stopped using it. After his death, the garden was sold to Edward Moxhay who cut the trees down and attempted to develop the land, with the justification that tenants are not using it and it is in disrepair. In 1874 Albert Grant purchased the garden from Tulks and restored it. The garden passed into the possession of the Greater London Council and is maintained by the Westminster City (Sheppard, 1966). Leicester square and the surrounding is one of the busiest areas of Central London. Leicester garden is currently a public entity; however, it does have gates and a set of rules of conduct. According to Westminster City Council, the square is currently being redesigned to “transform Leicester Square into an appropriately contemporary urban public space that can comfortably accommodate all its wide range of various events and visitors”(Westminster City Council, 2019).

Figure 8 View from Leicester Square Metro Station, London, 2019

The public realm in a city with publicly and privately owned spaces which are open and accessible to the public raises questions about the definition of a public space and perhaps necessity to redefine it. The timeslot, even if it is two hours a day, when the space is open to public allows people to use the private squares and gardens as a public place. It is open to anyone, people can engage with strangers, they can pause and maybe organize a political action. We also know that a public or political space can be privately owned. An example of such spaces were the English taverns and coffee houses of the 18th and 19th centuries, where public realm was formed independent from the government and the institution of family(Parolin, 2010). The cases of Fitzeroy garden, Covent Garden and Leicester square show that public realm can form independent of the ownership of the space. All three spaces were used the same way by public, when they were open to the public.


Hains, Brigid (2013) “Cities Belong to Us”

Harvey, David. 2013. Rebel cities: from the right to the city to the urban revolution, p15

Cornell University – PJ Mode Collection of Persuasive Cartography, Landlordism Causes

Unemployment, 2017,

Rasmussen, Steen Eiler 1934 p. 80.

Steenbergen, Clemens, et al (2011) “The Urban Transformation of Country Life,” p 114

Rasmussen, Steen Eiler (1934) “The London Squares,” in London, the Unique City, pp 165-2011

"Covent Garden Market," in Survey of London: Volume 36, Covent Garden, ed. F H W Sheppard (London: London County Council, 1970), 129-150. British History Online, accessed July 28, 2019,

"Leicester Square Area: Leicester Estate," in Survey of London: Volumes 33 and 34, St Anne Soho, ed.

F H W Sheppard (London: London County Council, 1966), 416-440. British History Online, accessed July 28, 2019,

Contributors of Westminster City Council, Parolin, Christina. 2010. Radical Spaces: Venues of Popular Politics in London, 1790-c. 1845. ANU Press, 9

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