Featured Stories

The Backlash Against Apple’s ‘Town Squares’

We need public spaces more than ever. Apple wants to own them.

Paris Marx
Jul 26, 2018 · 6 min read
Photo by Mairo Cinquetti/NurPhoto via Get

In 2016, Apple Senior Vice President of Retail Angela Ahrendts — formerly CEO of high-end fashion house Burberry — announced a new concept for the tech company’s wildly successful retail stores. No longer would be they simply be shopping locations; Apple Stores were to become community gathering spaces, or “town squares.” Eventually, Apple would drop the “Store” moniker altogether in a nod to the new concept.

The plan has some upsides. As part of the reconceptualization, Ahrendts wants to expand the space for classes, improve the Genius Bar area, 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 with Apple’s plans for the exterior of its stores. The company wants more green space, and more places for people to hang out even if they aren’t shopping. Essentially, Apple intends to create privatized public spaces centered around its pseudo-religious glowing white apple. It hopes these public-private spaces will entice people to indulge their consumerist temptations — to take a bite out of the apple, as it were.

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

A Neoliberal Tradition of Privatized ‘Public’ Space

As government budgets were slashed through successive waves of tax cuts beginning the 1970s, governments lost the ability to create and maintain exceptional public spaces. Private interests swooped in to create pseudo-public spaces reoriented to suit the purposes of commercial enterprise.

As the new owners of these spaces invested in modernizing and updating them, they also brought new rules. One rule was the use of private security to remove those who did not serve these spaces’ newly commercialized purpose (read: poor and homeless people). Anyone engaging in undesirable activity, including protest, was no longer welcome.

Apple now wants to get into the same game, creating privatized “town squares” which will ultimately serve its commercial purposes rather than those of the surrounding community. Anyone who thinks Apple will tolerate homeless people besmirching its luxury image should think again.

Around the world, consumers are revolting against Apple’s plans. The backlash is strongest in countries where public squares and parks have not already been privatized to the degree they have in the U.S. In many of these countries, Apple presents a new and unfamiliar threat.

Backlash in Australia, Stockholm, and Beyond

Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
Original Melbourne store design (Left, Source: Fed Square) vs updated design (Right, Source: ABC News via Apple).

Federation Square is a large public gathering area in the heart of Melbourne. 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.

Enter: Apple.

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

Critics have compared the proposed store design to a “Pizza Hut pagoda,” saying it would look completely out of place among the deconstructivist architecture of the other buildings in the square. The public is also wondering how Apple’s store would change the nature of the square, particularly if the space was used for protests Apple disagrees with.

Responding to the backlash, Apple overhauled its proposed store design, but that hasn’t stopped the opposition. More than the design itself, they’re incensed at the company’s desire to build an obviously commercial store in an established public gathering space. Recently, the National Trust of Australia announced that it’s considering heritage protections for the square, which could block the project entirely.

A similar story is playing out in Stockholm, 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 with trees to hide its facade.

Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
Original Stockholm store design (Left, Source: 9to5Mac) vs updated design (Right, Source: City of Stockholm).

Even in the heart of capitalism, the proposal to turn Washington, D.C.’s 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 that it’s far more of a real-estate play than a plan to offer “experiences,” as existing stores that have adopted the new concept haven’t had much new on offer.

As Capps rightfully points out, the spaces Apple wants to inhabit are incredibly important to the history, culture, and lifestyle of their respective cities — which is exactly why the company targets them. Apple wants to associate its brand with beloved, culturally indelible spaces. It wants to use their positive auras to dull the sharp edges of its luxury capitalist image.

The stories of Apple’s huge cash pile, expensive products that compromise function for form, and lobbying efforts for major tax cuts are beginning to overtake previous narratives about the beauty of its minimalist products and the benefits of an Apple lifestyle. Without Steve Jobs to spin the positive narratives he was so gifted at creating, the company’s need to soften its image is becoming even more dire. (This is not to mention how these real estate deals are great investments when the company has no real financial limitations.)

As cities continue to grow, we need fantastic public spaces more than ever. We need spaces that are truly public, bringing communities together and offering an escape from the relentless onslaught of consumerism that defines capitalist urban life. It’s obvious why Apple wants to be part of these oases: our guards are down and there’s less competition for our attention. But Apple’s presence is the opposite of what we really need.

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

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch

Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore

Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store