Backlash to Apple’s Privatized “Town Squares” is Growing – Info Gadgets

Communities don’t want Apple to dominate public space

In 2016, Senior Vice President of Retail Angela Ahrendts, the former CEO of high-end fashion house Burberry, announced a new concept for Apple’s wildly successful retail stores. No longer would be they simply be shopping locations; the Apple Store was to become a community gathering space, or “ square,” and would even drop the “Store” moniker in recognition of its renewed concept.

Not all aspects of this plan are problematic. As part of the reconceptualization, Ahrendts wants to expand the space for classes to teach people how to get the most out of their Apple products, improve the area for the Genius Bar, and add meeting spaces for local businesses and entrepreneurs. These are all within the scope of what we might expect from a company trying to improve its customer relationship.

The issue is rather with Apple’s plans for the exterior of its stores. The company wants more green space and places for people to hang around even if they aren’t shopping; essentially creating privatized public spaces centered around its pseudo-religious glowing white apple, enticing people to indulge their consumerist temptations — to take a bite out of the apple, as it were.

The neoliberal tradition of privatized “public” space

Apple’s obsession with high-traffic locations and recognizable landmarks is nothing new. Its stores hold prime real estate all over the world, but its desire to extend its reach into the space surrounding its stores and recenter those public areas around its brand and products is prompting backlash.

As government budgets were slashed through successive waves of tax cuts since the 1970s, their ability to create and maintain exceptional public spaces was diminished. This led to the rise of pseudo-public space as private interests came to control gathering spaces and reoriented them to suit the purposes of commercial enterprise.

The privatization of public space is closely associated with gentrification and the displacement of undesirable (see: poor and homeless) people. As the new owners of these spaces invested in modernizing and updating them, they also brought in new rules on which the community had no input and private security to remove who did not serve their newly commercialized purpose. That meant that poor people and anyone engaging in undesirable activities, including protests, were no longer welcome.

Now it appears Apple wants to get into the same game, creating privatized “town squares” which will ultimately serve its commercial purposes, not necessarily those of the surrounding community. And anyone who thinks Apple will want homeless people besmirching its luxury image can think again — they will be unwelcome in Apple’s pseudo-public spaces.

This isn’t just a theoretical conversation. Apple’s plans to invade key public spaces in countries around the world are facing backlash from local people whose squares and parks have not been disregarded and given over the private entities to the same degree as in the United States. They do not want their spaces reoriented to serve Apple’s commercial impulses.

The backlash to Apple’s town square

Original Melbourne store design (left) vs updated design (right).

Federation Square is a large public gathering area in the heart of Melbourne, Australia’s central business district. A number of cultural institutions share the space, including an art gallery, a film museum, and a unique collection of Aboriginal cultural pieces as part of the Koorie Heritage Trust. Melburnians also gather there for cultural events, protests, and national celebrations. But now Apple wants a piece of the action.

Just before Christmas 2017, the Victorian state government announced Apple’s plans to build its flagship store in the heart of Fed Square after two years of secret negotiations. It would require the demolition of the Yarra Building, which holds the Aboriginal collection, prompting Melbourne-based author James Norman to write that “the symbolism of displacing an important Indigenous heritage organisation to make way for a US mega-corporation is simply breathtaking.” The anger was immediate, as residents and politicians decried the commercial incursion into the public square that was decided without any public consultation.

Critics compared the proposed store design to a “Pizza Hut pagoda,” completely out of place among the deconstructivist architecture of the other buildings in the square, and wondered how it would change the nature of the square, particularly if the space was used for protests that Apple disagreed with. Following the backlash, Apple overhauled its proposed store design, but that hasn’t stopped the opposition that is more focused on the company’s desire to locate in their public square than what the building would look like.

A similar story is playing out in Stockholm, Sweden, where a second round of public consultations recently began on a proposed Apple store at Kungsträdgården, one of the city’s most popular public parks. Residents are concerned the store would commercialize the public space and limit access from one side. The original store design would have dominated one end of the park to overlook the large fountain, and the backlash forced Apple to release a revised design which reduced the height of the building and surrounded it by trees to try to hide its facade.

Original Stockholm store design (left) vs updated design (right).

Even in the heart of the capitalist beast, the proposal to turn the Carnegie Library into an Apple store has faced criticism — though more muted than in Melbourne and Stockholm. CityLab writer Kriston Capps called the new store concept “a physical rebrand of the merciless capitalist exchange that defines a visit to a traditional Apple store” and observed it’s far more of a real-estate play than a plan to offer “experiences” — existing stores that have adopted the new concept haven’t had much new on offer.

As Capps rightfully points out, the spaces Apple is trying to inhabit are incredibly important in the history and daily life of their respective cities, which is exactly why Apple targets them. It wants to associate its brand with beloved spaces in order to capture some of the positive aura that comes with them in order to blunt the sharp edges of its luxury capitalist image.

The stories of Apple’s huge cash pile, more expensive products which compromise function for form, and lobbying efforts for major tax cuts are overtaking the previous narratives about the beauty of its minimalist products and the benefits of an Apple lifestyle that were instilled by the late Steve Jobs, making the need to soften its image more pressing. Not to mention how this type of real estate is a great investment when the company has no real financial limitations and doesn’t know what to do with its cash pile.

As cities continue to grow and their populations reside in even denser areas, there’s a greater need for fantastic public spaces which play host to events that bring the community together, while offering residents a space to escape the relentless onslaught of consumerism which defines capitalist urban spaces. It’s obvious why Apple wants into these oases: people’s guards are down and there’s less competition for their attention; but that’s the last thing that should be allowed to happen.

Public spaces must serve residents, not Apple’s bottom line — and the backlash proves that’s exactly what residents want. Their leaders would be wise to listen.

Article Prepared by Ollala Corp

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