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.
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