Managing Politics and Consumption in Business Improvement Districts: The Geographies of Political Activism on Burlington, Vermont's Church Street Marketplace

Nathan L. Clough & Robert M. Vanderbeck

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Clough, N. L. & Vanderbeck, R. M. (1). Managing Politics and Consumption in Business Improvement Districts: The Geographies of Political Activism on Burlington, Vermont's Church Street Marketplace. Urban Studies, 43(12), 2261–2284.

Business improvement districts (BIDs), which are formed when spaces that are legally public are put under private or semi-private forms of administration, have become increasingly prominent features of many cities internationally. This paper provides an in-depth, empirically grounded analysis of the practices of political activism and issue advocacy in one widely admired BID (Church Street Marketplace, Burlington, Vermont) in light of recent theoretical concerns about the decline of ‘public’ space within the current neo-liberal context of privatisation. The paper examines the ways in which various kinds of political activity are constructed by Marketplace management as either assets or liabilities, and how different forms of activism are differentially regulated and policed in pursuit of maintaining the carefully themed environment of the BID. The research raises important questions about the extent to which downtown (and other) spaces that have been (re)organised as BIDs can fulfil the role of public space in democratic societies.

Main finding
The authors sought to fill a gap in the research that addresses the effect of BIDs on political activism and what limitations on democracy might exist. They found that the Marketplace attempted to set itself apart from more strictly private spaces of consumption through supporting certain democratic actions (those not using shock tactics), but also setting itself apart form other public spaces through quasi-private management, theming, and ensuring only specific forms of publicity - what is referred to as ‘congenial urbanism’. Political activism is also limited by prioritizing activities that promote capital accumulation - often conflating notions of public safety with the needs of merchants. In all, the authors argue that the Marketplace supports mass consumerism over political engagement and open democratic debate; however, it should be noted that the BID still pulls in an audience, that witnesses political activism, who might otherwise be at a private retail space.

Description of method used in the article
Mixed methods were used in this research including document analysis (city charter, Marketplace website, city historical documents, and press reports), participant observation (approx. 80 hours ranging from 1-2 hour increments to full day observations), and in-depth interviews with key actors affiliated with the Church Street Marketplace - a for block pedestrian mall. Documents form the Marketplace Commission (a quasi-governmental body appointed by the City Council) and Church Street Marketplace Commission District were also reviewed. Participant observations helped provide contacts for in-depth, semi-structured interviews. A total of 19 formal interviews, using purposive sampling, were conducted with key actors including activists, Marketplace administrators, members of the Commission, the city Mayor, a city councilor, and a member of the police department. These formal interviews were supplemented by a number of informal discussions with relevant actors. Formal interviews were recorded, along with detailed field notes, and analyzed qualitatively by identifying themes and systematically coding.

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Organising categories

Participant Observation
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