Saturday, April 22, 2023

Bill McKibben's 'YIMBY' principles and the urban housing debate: a critical reply from a NIMBY/YIMBY refusenik

Claire Wayner on Twitter: "(1/n) @billmckibben's amazing piece with four  frameworks for navigating the NIMBY-YIMBY debate from a classic  "environmentalist" perspective." / Twitter

Given that the YIMBY/NIMBY thing is creeping (maybe even galloping!) into the discourse on urban planning and housing here in Australia, here’s a few thoughts on Bill McKibben’s new piece "Yes in our backyards" in Mother Jones, which seeks to offer some principles for when we should be saying “no” and when we should be saying “yes”…


McKibben sets up his argument by stating that while environmentalists have been good at saying ‘no’, the challenge of acting for a liveable climate will require us to get better at saying ‘yes’ to projects which will be required to reduce carbon emissions. For him, this must include new urban densification projects which contribute to decarbonisation. Undoubtedly, this articulation of 'yes in our backyard' by one of the world's most influential environmentalists will be picked up by the self-described YIMBY housing movement in cities in the US and beyond.

But if McKibben is worried about environmentalists hitching our wagon to 'not in my backyard' ('NIMBY') politics, I think we should be equally worried about hitching our wagon to a 'yes' in my backyard' ('YIMBY') politics. Rather than taking sides in the YIMBY/NIMBY debate as currently framed, we should be articulating and demanding an alternative way of deciding what needs construction and what needs conservation.

And while I think McKibben's piece and the principles he articulates could have made a contribution to that effort, it's likely to be mobilised in ways that reinforce the YIMBY/NIMBY debates in ways that contradict the very principles he's seeking to articulate.


McKibben starts with a simple premise: if a project makes climate change worse, we should still say no. But along with that, he offers four other principles for deciding when to say yes: "these factors, I think, should incline us toward supporting—perhaps grudgingly, and against our first impulse—new developments that address present crises and past injustice.”


They are:


1)    We don’t live only in our backyard; we also share one. So, “protecting one’s backyard from any change has to be balanced against the cost it will impose on the larger whole”.


2)    We don’t live only in our own moment—we’re accountable for past behavior. This applies especially to wealthy countries like US, who are responsible to more than their fare share of emissions in the past.


3)    Idealism involves realism. So, even when new developments that cut carbon might have pernicious side effects (eg EVs reduce carbon but maintain car dependence and increase lithium mining), we have to figure out what an “acceptable level of realism looks like—not giving up the fight for systemic change, but also not letting lovely goals overwhelm the gritty needs.”


4)    Emergencies demand urgency. He worries that “the general tactic used by the opponents of projects—delay it until it goes away—is in effect a form of climate denial.”

I’m already seeing McKibben’s article enthusiastically embraced and circulated by self-described YIMBYs in the local housing debate here in Australia, and I'm sure that's happening elsewhere too. 

So, what does McKibben have to say about housing development, specifically?


While the focus is mostly on renewable energy projects like wind and solar farms, urban housing developments are among those used as examples of projects to which we should say ‘yes’. “Denser housing along transit corridors” is pitched as one of “the cheapest ways to cut carbon”, so “if we don’t build lots and lots and lots of projects like this, then we won’t be able to keep the temperature from climbing dramatically.”  


No doubt that will be the quote that gets cited in YIMBY discourse. But if we dig a little deeper into what he’s saying, things get a bit more complicated. 


In his next mention of housing, McKibben adds “affordable” to “denser”: he says we should be saying ‘yes’ to “new affordable housing that will make cities denser and more efficient while cutting the ruinous price of housing.”


However, as the article proceeds, he expresses some concern about the kind of opposition that says ‘no’ to density if it doesn’t involve affordability – in line with his third principle that idealism shouldn’t crowd out realism. He worries that good principles like affordability are sometimes being weaponised for bad purposes: “If someone who has never worked on affordable housing suddenly opposes a new development because it’s not 100 percent affordable, then that’s a tell.”


This leads him to join with those YIMBYs who argue that opposition to new housing projects is too often about protecting the assets of people who already own a home at the expense of those who do not: “If you figure out how to slow down a new housing project for four or five years, then the value of your home may go up, but someone else gets to live that four or five years under a bridge.”


He tempers this cynicism later, saying that the instinct to protect things doesn’t always come from a bad place: “that instinct can come from a good place. We’ve learned to love the world around us, and to value thriving urban neighborhoods; that’s been a core hope of environmentalists from the start, be they Aldo Leopold or Jane Jacobs.” But such values are reduced to aesthetic preferences, and he wants us to embrace a 'new aesthetic' that might appreciate a beauty in solar farms and housing for their contribution to making a liveable world. 


In concluding his piece, McKibben recognises that these principles do not “infallibly spit out a default answer; every plan and project will be a little different”. For 'people of good faith' (which is the audience to which he explicitly appeals), this suggests that 'yes' should be a strong inclination, but not a dogmatic or uncritical position.

Indeed, those folks who enthusiastically embrace the principles McKibben is articulating here will need to carefully consider new housing projects on their merits, thinking through the application of principles rather than simply saying ‘yes’. Some of McKibben’s arguments and principles would still suggest that there are times when we might want to say ‘no’ to certain kinds of housing redevelopments, while saying ‘yes’ to others.


First, McKibben’s primary principle remains that we should say ‘no’ to projects that will make climate change worse. And the jury is still out on whether all forms of density actually do reduce emissions – some research suggests that other factors like wealth are equally as significant as density. And ‘density’ can be achieved in all manner of ways, with different climate impacts. So, it’s just not true that any and all densification will magically reduce emissions.


Second, there’s no question in my mind that there are people of bad faith among the ‘YIMBYs’ as well as the ‘NIMBYs’. The ‘YIMBY’ discourse is undoubtedly being amplified by people who are shilling for developers, who could not give a flying fuck about climate change or anything other than their profits, and who are weaponizing ‘sustainability’ and ‘affordability’ against anyone who dares to say ‘no’. To paraphrase McKibben with a twist, “if someone who has never worked on sustainability or affordability suddenly supports a new development on the grounds of sustainability or affordability, then that’s a tell.”


Third, McKibben himself notes that while historical responsibilities are vital, “history cuts both ways”: “Proposing new developments on, say, land that’s all that Native Americans have left of the continent they once possessed should warrant a much harder look; ditto for Black and Latino communities that have been systematically stuck with everything others don’t want.” Now apply this to our cities. There’s a growing research literature on ‘green gentrification’ showing that housing developments parading themselves as green sometimes actively displace and dispossess low-income communities and communities of colour from their neighbourhoods to make way for high-density, high-profit, high-cost housing. Opposing this is not just a matter of ‘idealism’. As environmental justice activists have been trying to say for decades, we’re just not going to build a world-changing movement for a liveable climate if the climate interventions for which we advocate are just more-of-the-same oppression for the many, and more-of-the-same benefits for the few. 


So, to be honest, I really wish McKibben had framed his intervention differently – it’s addressed to people who say ‘no’ as if they are always the problem. Sometimes they are the problem. But sometimes they ain’t. In some ways, this could have been (and maybe still is?) a useful piece that seeks to offer some principles for discerning good 'YIMBY' from bad 'YIMBY', good 'NIMBY' from bad 'NIMBY'. 

But by framing his piece as lending support to the YIMBYs over the NIMBYs, I fear McKibben won’t be read that way. Unfortunately, he’s taking a side in a debate that desperately, so desperately, needs to be reframed.


So here’s my pitch to McKibben and to his ‘people of good faith’ who have embraced the YIMBY position, and who like the principles that McKibben has articulated. 


I’m sure many self-described YIMBYs are indeed people of good faith who really do care about sustainability and affordability, who see new housing projects as a vehicle for addressing both of those concerns, and who worry that opposition to such projects is more about ‘locals’ protecting their turf and their amenity. What might such people take out of McKibben’s piece? 


On the general point that our pursuit of environmental and climate justice will involve building new stuff, let’s agree! In the Australian context, the idea that environmentalism involves construction as well as conversation is perhaps not so novel. After all, the Builders Labourers Federation representing construction workers were among our first environmentalists in the 1970s. While the BLF’s green bans were indeed a way to say ‘no’ to what they named ‘so-called developments’, the union also combined with residents to develop ‘people’s plans’ which were an assertive ‘yes’ to the construction of quality low-income housing in redevelopment areas.


But let’s also agree that both ‘no’ and ‘yes’ can come from ‘good’ and ‘bad’ places. In the case of housing, important principles of ‘sustainability’ and ‘affordability’ are certainly weaponised in bad faith by proponents, not just opponents, of new housing developments. New developments that espouse those principles too often have dubious climate benefits, and generate unjust displacements and dispossessions. (Indeed, among the examples of ‘red tape’ that the developers and some of their YIMBY friends frequently oppose here in Australia are regulations about sustainable materials and design, and mandated housing affordability targets!)


And so maybe we can also agree that if we do care about principles like addressing climate change, addressing historical injustices, and even being ‘realistic’ as well as ‘idealistic’ about how to build a powerful urban climate justice movement, our job is not simply to say ‘yes’ uncritically to every new housing development that promises density. 


If we can agree on those things, here’s my final question for people of good faith: given the need to have principles for discerning between when we should say ‘yes’ and when we should say ‘no’, is a political rhetoric of polarisation between ‘NIMBY’ and ‘YIMBY’ actually going to make the cities we want, and the cities we need? Personally, I really don’t think so!


When low income people and people of colour fighting against the incursion of luxury ‘green’ density into their neighbourhoods are lumped together with wealthy white home owners fighting against public housing in their neighbourhoods as ‘NIMBYs’, do you really want to be ‘YIMBY’? Surely we should be seeking to disrupt the YIMBY/NIMBY distinction because it doesn’t capture the principles that are most important to us, rather than wielding it as a weapon?



Wednesday, April 6, 2022

Public transport as public space: fostering everyday equality among strangers

Every now and again, I give a little 10 minute 'class' for "Self-Improvement Wednesday" with Richard Glover on ABC Radio 702. I've been trying to use these classes to encourage listeners to think about some of the habits and infrastructures that we often take for granted in city life. In the past I've done episodes on the physical geography of the internet, on the role of advertising in public space, and on the urban mobility politics of vertical transportation.

The most recent episode was about public transport as public space. Here's the script we worked from - which draws a fair bit from the Everyday Equalities book I worked on with Ruth Fincher, Helga Leitner and Valerie Preston that came out in 2019.

Public transport as public space: fostering everyday equality among strangers

Crowd standing next to the first electric train in Wynyard Station, Sydney, 1932. Source: National Library of Australia

Discussions about public transport tend to focus on its ability (or inability!) to get us efficiently from A to B. But what about the journey itself? Train carriages, station platforms and other transport like buses and ferries are also some of the most-used public spaces in our cities – many thousands of us share these intimate spaces with strangers every day. What everyday rules and habits have we developed to make that work? What happens when they break down? And how can we create the kinds of positive atmospheres that will make public transport truly accessible for all?


Sydney’s railway network: spreading us out and packing us in 

Sydney’s urban geography has been shaped by its railways, in more ways than one. 

The story we usually tell about our train network is that it allowed the people to find more personal space in suburban homes away from the more densely packed inner city. Advocating for the electrification and extension of the suburban railway network, Bradfield told a conference of town planners in 1917 that it would allow workers “to reside further afield and enjoy fresh air and sunlight”. 

But as well as letting us spread out, those trains also packed people together in their carriages. In Sydney and other cities where train networks were growing, this was a new – and somewhat confronting – social experience. One of the great early sociologists of the industrial city, Georg Simmel, wrote in 1908:
Before the development of buses, trains and streetcars in the nineteenth century, people were quite unable to look at each other for minutes or hours at a time … without talking to each other. 

Equality or incivility?

Reacting to this new experience, observers at the time veered between optimism and pessimism about what it would mean for urban populations. 

In France in the 1850s, economist and politician Constantin Pecqueur waxed lyrical about the new solidarity and equality that might emerge through train travel:
By causing all classes of society to travel together and thus juxtaposing them into a kind of living mosaic of all the fortunes, positions, characters, manners, customs, and modes of dress that each and every nation has to offer, the railroads quite prodigiously advance the reign of truly fraternal social relations and do more for the sentiments of equality that the most exalted sermons of the tribunes of democracy. 
But others were much more pessimistic.

It wasn’t just that train services in many countries tended to stratify passengers by class into different compartments and carriages. The monotony of the daily commute, the press of the crowd in the morning and afternoon peak, made some worry that people were being treated as mere goods to be efficiently moved through space by this new mechanical form of mass transportation.

Here in Sydney, writing in 1923 around the time of the first train electrification, an editorial writer for The Sun worried that overcrowded trains had:
boxed us up into a straggling mass and killed our natural Instinct to be polite. We have to scramble and fight for the means of getting home and the man who steps aside and says: 'After you,' is the man who walks and finds his late arrival hard to explain. 
By the 1930s, things were getting so crowded during peak hours that train carriages were refitted to remove seats and make more room for ‘strap-hangers’ to squeeze into the standing areas of vestibules and aisles.

Both perspectives, I think speak to the different possibilities of train travel.

Learning to share the space of the train: the unwritten rules of ‘civil inattention’ and physical accommodation

Certainly, the strategies we’ve developed to cope with the intimacy of sharing a carriage with strangers might not initially look too promising as practices of ‘fraternity’ and ‘equality’. 

Trains, along with other public transport spaces, are places where we’ve learnt to practice the art of ‘civil inattention’. In the early days of train travel, reading a newspaper or book was the classic ‘involvement shield’. Now, we have our smart phones to keep us amused during our commute and to keep us socially, if not physically, distanced from our fellow passengers. 

Share the confined public space of the train carriage with strangers also involves learning a bunch of physical skills. There’s all the little things we do with our bodies to carve out our own personal space, to make space for others. We also learn to read the non-verbal cues of our fellow passengers seeking to get past us to alight the train, and to avoid lurching or falling when the train starts and stops. 

When all this works, the train carriage becomes a microcosm of the city’s multiculture: Pecqueur’s lovely idea of the train carriage as a “living mosaic” of urban diversity is apt. We rub shoulders with all manner of strangers in a kind of everyday equality.  That experience of equality is sustained by the notion that the train is for anyone, and that we all have a part to play in making it work – even if our relationships with fellow passengers are fleeting, and our actions and solidarities are unspoken.

When public space becomes hostile space

Of course, solidarity among strangers on the train can also break down. I’m sure listeners can name their pet peeves! There are minor infractions like people taking up too much space. And much more seriously, some passengers can become targets of aversive behaviour, harassment, intimidation and violence – sometimes on the basis of their gender, their sexuality, their visible faith, the language they are speaking, or the colour of their skin. 

Interestingly, the very devices that we use as ‘involvement shields’ are now frequently being used by bystanders to witness, disrupt and shame such behaviours. There’s been a growing trend of passengers capturing ‘racist rants’ on their smart phones and re-asserting the equality of the public space.

From hostility to festivity and solidarity?

Not all disruptions of our habitual ways of being together on the train are bad. 

French anthropologist Marc Auge described the train as a space of “collectivity without festival and solitude without isolation”. I love that description! But the collectivity on the train can occasionally be a little festive, and sometimes solitude makes way for connection.

Think of the festive atmosphere that can take hold of a train carriage during special events, like footy fans taking the train to a big game at Olympic park. Or think of people coming to one another’s aid, through small acts of kindness like assisting someone with a stroller or vacating a seat, or through spontaneous expressions of care and solidarity like the anti-racist #I’llRideWithYou social media hashtag that was reposted hundreds of thousands of times following the Martin Place hostage-taking in 2014. 

Tipping the balance towards equality and solidarity: too many sticks, not enough carrots?

What can the transport authorities themselves do, to tip the scales from hostility towards solidarity and equality – especially when they can’t be in every carriage, all the time?

Of course, operating and maintaining the public spaces of trains and buses plays a big role. A special shout out here to all the operators, guards and cleaners who have kept our system going during the difficult last two years of the pandemic.

So too does designing the space to be accessible for all – there are still dozens of stations across Sydney that are only accessible by stairs, without lifts.

Beyond that, there’s been considerable focus on naming and policing the ‘unwritten rules’ of being together. On Sydney trains, there’s plenty of signs and posters telling us what not to do. Don’t put your feet on the seats. Don’t be a ‘hogger’ or a ‘loud talker’ or a “tosser”. And there are surveillance cameras watching over us, and transit officers patrolling trains and stations. 

But if those are the sticks, what about some carrots?

Urban designer Jan Gehl says that a good public space is like a good party – once you get there, you don’t want to leave. I’m not sure that little analogy quite works for a train!

But it does point to the role that care, hospitality and activation might play in making these public spaces work.

A few things come to mind. I like the sign that the Human Rights Commission developed with one of the major bus companies for use in Melbourne a few years ago – it’s simple and positive message was “This bus is for everyone”. It’s welcoming, not censorious.

In other cities I’ve visited, train carriages have been adorned with commissioned poetry and artworks. In Chicago a few years ago, I did find myself hanging around on a train platform much longer than planned – a local blues band were set up at one end, and as well as the music being great, they were keeping an eye on the comings and goings at the station. In Sydney a couple of years ago, on Make Music Day, bands were set up on inter-city train carriages – the opposite of a quiet carriage!

Public Space, Public Transport, and the Public Good

In the scheme of things, when our infrastructure challenges are so great, perhaps investing in these kinds of initiatives seems trivial. 

But taking trains and other public transport seriously as public spaces can actually have the effect of making them more accessible to people who need them to get around.

You can have as many train lines as you like, but if they’re not spaces where everyone feels welcome, where strangers can establish and nurture positive strategies for being together in their difference as equals, then people won’t use them. 

For public transport to serve the public good, it needs to work as public space. And this is something that both operators and we passengers always need to work at.

Tuesday, November 30, 2021

The crisis of inequality and the crisis of equality

From the Equality poster series, with Wendy Murray, see

It was an honour to be asked to respond to Steve Dovers' Patrick Troy Memorial Lecture on the subject of urban inequality for the State of Australasian Cities conference this year. For the record, here's the long version of my response, minus the swearing (!!) ... which tried to talk through the relationship between research which investigates the persistence of inequality, and work which addresses what Rosanvallon has called the 'crisis of equality'.


The picture of growing wealth inequality that Steve has painted for us in his powerful talk is certainly grim! And more could have been said about other inequalities that intersect with wealth inequalities – not the least gendered inequalities (so stark in the impacts of COVID on lost income and employment, for instance), and racialized inequality (certainly a feature of the housing market and public space policing during COVID here in Sydney).

I want to use my time to say something about the relationship between this crisis of inequality and what we might call a crisis of equality, and suggest that our work has to attend to both of those related but distinct crises.

There’s a sense of frustration along with indignation in Steve’s talk. It’s ‘hard to say something new’ about inequality when it’s all been said already. There’s a sense that inequality seems to persist in the face of widespread knowledge about its extent of inequality, and in the face of oft-repeated proposals for reform that struggle to get traction despite mountains of evidence that supports them.

That frustration is a thing! Pierre Rosanvallon made a similar point a few years ago in a book called Society of Equals. That book tried to grapple with that fact that “inequalities have never before been so widely discussed while so little was being done to reduce them” (2)

Pointing out inequality, he says, loses its power in part because there is now a widespread acceptance of inequalities as natural or inevitable. It’s not so much that folks deny the inequality, they deny any injustice in that inequality

Inequality is explained as a result of just deserts and moral failure of the poor, or of the incapacity for autonomy of the colonised and the racialized and the differently abled, or of the inexorable logic of some process (globalisation, neoliberalisation, etc) over which we have no power, and which it’s just not realistic to challenge.

So for Rosanvallon, it’s not just that we’ve got a crisis of inequality, it’s that “we face a crisis of equality.” What’s at the heart of that crisis? “The word has somehow become detached from experience, so that it no longer clearly indicates battles that must be fought or goals that need to be achieved” (7-8).

Hence, our job is not only to catalogue inequalities, he argues “there is no more urgent task than that of restoring the idea of equality to its former glory” (8).

Importantly, the ‘restoring’ the idea equality is not just a ‘looking back’ to the meanings of equality that were established in history. No, “we must also go further and rethink the whole idea of equality itself”. How do we do that?

We have for inspiration and guidance the incredible work of feminist, queer, and anti-racist scholars who have been rethinking the very meaning of equality, paying particular attention to how equality has to change in the context of diversity as well as inequalities of wealth.

What’s attractive to me about the way folks like Iris Marion Young, Nancy Fraser, Paul Gilroy, Stuart Hall and others have approached this task is that they tackle the rethinking of equality (and by extension the crisis of equality) by reconnecting it to experience of everyday life and civil society movements – addressing that detachment from experience that Rosanvallon discerns.

What’s all this got to do with cities? As messed up and unequal as our cities are, there are people living and enacting new forms of equality in the course of their everyday lives and organising, if we care to look. And the reason to look is precisely to get out of our self-referential discussions about how bad things are. 

In our recent book Everyday Equalities, Ruth Fincher, Helga Leitner, Valerie Preston and I went looking for the forms of equality that are being enacted in urban everyday life. In our case, we were focused on enactments of equality that address racist inequality in super-diverse, settler colonial cities. We asked how people enacted forms of equality that were not sustained by homogeneity, but by what we call ‘being together in difference as equals’. 

We wrote about enactments of equality in stories of migrants making homes in suburbs of Melbourne, supermarket workers forging solidarities across their differences in Toronto, commuters and operators sharing train carriages and buses in Sydney contesting racist harassment and violence through spontaneous and structured interventions, and in anti-racist activism and cultures forged in Los Angeles worker centres.

There’s plenty of potential objections to this kind of work which seeks to implement this ‘method of equality’ as a response to the crisis of equality, and it raises as many questions as it answers.

First, and most obviously: how does all that everyday stuff address the big structural inequalities, of the kind that Steve laid out in his talk? Isn’t this all just hopelessly romantic and utopian in the face of on-going oppression? Well, of course, everyday enactments of equality have to be amplified, power won’t just melt away in their wake. So yes, there’s the challenge of building coalitions, institutions, programs on the back of those experiences, for sure!  

But I guess my worry is that if all we do is document the inequality, if we write off the stuff that people are doing in their everyday lifes to build solidarities and equalities even in the face of those inequalities, we’re not addressing the crisis of equality. These enactments and experiences of equality in everyday life are foundational for building the kind of movement that will have the power, as well as the ideas, to turn things around. At very least, some comradely collaboration across these two projects of documenting inequality and enactments of equality would be nice! 

A second objection or question, and a theme that I know a bunch of great people have worked hard to make a big part of our conference over the next few days [shout out to Libby Porter, Lara Daley, Michelle Thompson-Fawcett, Michele Lobo, Jamal Nabulsi who have organised the sessions on reckoning with settler colonial cities]: what does it mean to talk about equality and justice on stolen land? First Nations struggles for land rights, for self-determination, for treaties and sovereignty, for reparations certainly challenge received ideas of equality and justice. 

I've been reading Johanna Perheentup’s history of Redfern Aboriginal activism in 1970s, which she says “challenged common understandings about equal treatment as equal means by aiming for equal outcomes … as part of its project of Aboriginal self-determination” (172). That movement inaugurated a battle over the meaning of equality in Australian urban and social/economic policy. Some in that movement saw Aboriginal self-determination as a pathway to equality, part of its rethinking for our times and spaces. Others see self-determination and decolonisation as a challenge to the very centering of the signifier of equality in a politics of justice.

A third objection or question, and also one which plenty of folks are talking about at the conference, is a question about the relationship between the project of equality and ecological limits (shout out here to Wendy Steele, Donna Houston, Jean Hillier, Diana MacCallum, Jason Byrne whose book on quiet climate activisms is being launched at the conference). The challenge here is how we might put these together in practice, not just theory! Promisingly, proposals for Green New Deals or Real Deals like one I’m involved in via the Sydney Policy Lab recognise that the failure to centre equality alongside ecology in environmental politics is often what has held it back, stopped it finding the kind of broad support required for transformation. They push back on the idea that addressing climate change is too urgent to worry about inequality.

So yes, the method of equality generates a bunch of questions and objections, and isn’t a silver bullet or magic answer to the issues Steve identified. But I’m encouraging us all to take the reconstruction of equality as seriously as we take the collection of evidence about inequality. We do this by paying attention to equality’s enactments in everyday urban life, thinking about those enactments and what they are teaching us about equality. And our research relationships with the people who practice them might just form the basis for the kinds of coalitions that Steve urges us to make, which will make such a difference to translating everyday equality into transformative institutionalised interventions.

Thursday, April 16, 2020

We don’t know what we’ve got till it’s gone – we must reclaim public space lost to the coronavirus crisis

At a deserted Federation Square in Melbourne, the big screen broadcasts this message: ‘If you can see this, what are you doing? Go home.’ Cassie Zervos/Twitter
Kurt Iveson, University of Sydney

Authorities have imposed significant restrictions on the size, purpose and location of gatherings in public space to slow the transmission of COVID-19. The massive impacts of these escalating restrictions over the past two months show us just how significant public spaces are for the life of our cities. A longer-term concern is the risk that living with these measures might normalise restrictions on, and surveillance of, our access to public space and one another.

Right now, public health is the priority. But access to public spaces was already significantly and unjustly restricted for many people before the coronavirus pandemic. Current restrictions could both intensify existing inequalities in access and reinforce trends towards “locking down” public space.

Read more: Public spaces bind cities together. What happens when coronavirus forces us apart?

We must ensure these restrictions do not become permanent. And once the crisis is over, we also should act on existing inequitable restrictions.

Restrictions have inequitable impacts

Unless public health interventions are enacted with an awareness of their profoundly uneven consequences, we may well “flatten the curve” in ways that add to existing inequalities and injustices.

Research suggests restrictions on public space have greater impacts on people who have less access to private space. People without stable homes, and those with restricted access to domestic space, tend to live more of their lives in public. Public space restrictions have far greater consequences for these people.

We can see this relationship very clearly: the restrictions are paired with instructions to stay at home. This applies to everyone. But, while it’s inconvenient for some, it’s impossible for others.

It’s certainly the case for the homeless. It will also be true of others. For instance, students may be living in crowded conditions in shared, family or informal accommodation, with no access to quiet private space for study.

This is why researchers and activists are demanding restrictions on public space be accompanied by provisions to make such people’s lives less precarious. Suggested measures include a moratorium on evictions and safe and free accommodation for rough sleepers.

Read more: Homelessness and overcrowding expose us all to coronavirus. Here's what we can do to stop the spread

Research also shows us restrictions on public gatherings and public space were a feature of everyday urban life for many people well before physical distancing came in.

Young people of colour who gather in small groups in public spaces frequently report being stopped, searched and moved on by police and security guards. People on low incomes were already excluded from commercial public spaces like cafes and shopping malls. People asking for spare change or leafleting passers-by were barred from quasi-public spaces that are subject to special restrictions. People who cannot climb stairs were unable to use basic public infrastructure, like train stations, that lacks lift or ramp access. The list goes on.

These pre-existing restrictions were the product of exclusion and injustice. We should not have tolerated this before the crisis and it demands our renewed attention after the crisis.

We also know authorities responsible for regulating public space, including police, tend to enforce rules and restrictions selectively. In New South Wales and Victoria, police chiefs have been explicit that police will use their discretion in enforcing current restrictions.

The problem is this use of discretion can be informed by stereotype and prejudice. For communities who already felt unfairly targeted by police, statements about the use of discretion will be far from reassuring.

Read more: How city squares can be public places of protest or centres of state control

‘Temporary’ really must be temporary

We must guard against a common tendency for temporary measures to become more permanent. Some of the extraordinary powers given to police to break up gatherings and fine people who fail to observe restrictions have been time-limited. But having been used once for a particular problem, the risk is such powers might be enacted more often in future.

We have seen this happen with closures of public space for commercial events. Each closure is justified as being only temporary, but such closures have become increasingly common. The cumulative effect is a creeping commercialisation of public space.

One can also see how “temporary” experiments with digital surveillance to slow contagion could become permanent. Tech corporations are offering analyses of mobile phone and other data to profile public activity and to trace the movements and contacts of individuals who have contracted the coronavirus.

It’s the latest step in the datafication of urban everyday life. This process erodes privacy and grants more and more power to corporations and governments. It is easy to see how “contact tracing” could also be applied to protesters or stigmatised minorities.

Read more: Darwin's 'smart city' project is about surveillance and control

Normalisation of restrictions must be resisted

Coronavirus-related restrictions are obvious to us because they have been imposed so rapidly. However, we should reflect on how other restrictions have become normalised precisely because they happened gradually, making them less visible and contested.

For example, over the past decade we have seen a creeping “gating” of a public spaces like parks and school ovals. Free access to those spaces has been greatly reduced when they are not in use for organised education or sports.

Read more: Pushing casual sport to the margins threatens cities' social cohesion

Interestingly, as urban authorities try to provide large populations with access to public spaces in which they can maintain recommended physical distance, some existing restrictions are being rethought. Cities are closing streets to cars to give pedestrians more space rather than having to crowd onto footpaths. It will be interesting to see if such measures persist once physical-distancing restrictions are lifted.

Let’s hope our experience of the inconvenience and frustration of restricted access to public space will translate into a more widely shared determination not only to end these restrictions when the health crisis is over, but also to act on the unjust exclusions and restrictions that were already a feature of urban life.

As with so many other aspects of our society, it is not enough simply to go back to how things were before. We must ensure our public spaces are not unjustly restricted when the next crisis comes along.The Conversation

Kurt Iveson, Associate Professor of Urban Geography and Research Lead, Sydney Policy Lab, University of Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Monday, March 23, 2020

Physical distance, social solidarity

[Yesterday, a meeting of the Sydney Alliance Council passed a motion about the language the Alliance and partner organisations are going to use in the face of COVID-19 ... with so many stories of social isolation and disconnection emerging, there's a general aversion to the language of "social distancing". I was asked to write a short backgrounder for that discussion ... so figured I'd post here too.]

In order to minimise the transmission of COVID-19, public health authorities recommend that we keep a distance of 1.5m between ourselves and others, and avoid gatherings in confined spaces, where possible.

The term that is being used for such measures is “social distancing.” These measures are essential to slowing the transmission of the virus and ‘flattening the curve’. But this terminology is unfortunate.

Until relatively recently, “social distancing” was a term used mostly by social scientists to describe the practices that we use to maintain social disconnection from others in a crowded urban context of physical proximity. “Social distancing”, in this sense of the term, describes the kind of thing that happens when we share a crowded space such as a train carriage or a bus with strangers. Our bodies are in close physical proximity, but we maintain a kind of emotional and relational ‘distance’ from the people sitting around us.

The term “social distancing” has also been used by social scientists to describe the ways that some people are forcefully disconnected from proximate others – through discrimination, stigma, and other forms of misrecognition. For example, we might talk about the ways that homeless people on the street are “socially distanced”, as countless people pass by them on the street without recognition or connection. Those who are the victims of this kind of social distancing are often treated as though their stigma is ‘contagious’.

But somehow, the meaning of “social distancing” has been turned on its head. The term “social distancing” is being used to describe what ought to be termed “physical distancing”.

Used in its original sense, the last thing we need in a pandemic is more “social distancing”. We do need physical distancing. But we need social solidarity and connection. Without that social solidarity and connection, people are atomised and left to fend for themselves. And we know exactly who will suffer the most if that is allowed to occur.

This language matters. The constant invocations to isolate and create social distance send a message about the social, not just the physical. We can already see a form of “social distancing” in action in our supermarkets – and it’s not good! People are socially distancing themselves from other shoppers in the aisle and in their community, and from the staff trying to stock the shelves and operate the checkouts.

We must ensure that in a time when physical distance is required, social distance is not increased. Neither the indifference of the crowded train carriage nor our aversion towards the stigmatised are good models for the kind of care, compassion and collective solidarity we need to deal with this pandemic in a manner that leaves no-one behind.

We will need to improvise new ways to stay socially connected, lest physical distance make even more people vulnerable to social distancing, with all its harmful consequences for their access to the resources and relationships that sustain a decent life.

We have powerful tools at our disposal to maintain social solidarity while keeping physical distance. There will inevitably be a focus on the way that social media is being deployed to enable mutual aid across our city. But this is not just about technology. It’s also about the institutions of civil society – institutions which are the critical social infrastructure upon which everyday relationships of support and care are built.

If we’re to avoid creating a city which emerges from this crisis even more socially distanced than it began, we need to think about what kind ‘stimulus package’ we will need for civil society, not just the economy. Many civil society institutions were already stretched even before most of us knew what a coronavirus was, thanks to their efforts in addressing the extraordinary circumstances created by the bushfires, and thanks to decades of government cuts.

So, as much as we must celebrate the hopeful stories of individual acts of kindness, we must also demand that the vital structural role of civil society be acknowledged and supported – politically, and materially.

As my union has been saying, solidarity is the best medicine.

NTEU Campaign

Thursday, September 19, 2019

For a just transition in universities: on fighting climate change and casualisation at the same time...

The Global Strike for Climate today in Sydney, and in towns and cities across Australia, was massive! They've been such a source of inspiration and determination in hard times.

It was fantastic to see so many university staff and students participating. I was honoured to speak for the National Tertiary Education Union as we assembled at the University of Sydney this morning.

For what it's worth, here's the speech I gave ... arguing for a just transition everywhere, including in higher education where I work.


It’s great to be here with so many university staff and students united in our determination to get this rotten Morrison government to take the climate crisis seriously!

I want to talk a bit about why we’re here today, what we’re fighting for, and what it means for university staff and students to be in this fight together.

One of the three demands of today’s strike is for a fair and just transition to a new economy.

That demand is the bridge between the goals of the climate movement and the goals of the union movement.

The demand for a just transition is the reason that wharfies from the Maritime Union of Australia have walked off the job at Port Botany today to join the strike!

It’s the reason that manufacturing workers at Fenner Dunlop in Victoria are also taking industrial action and joining their local climate strike!

And it’s one of the reasons that the NTEU has thrown its weight behind the school strike movement, and why thousands of university staff are joining students and walking off their campuses all over the country to participate.

Now, when you think of a ‘just transition’, maybe you think of the need to create good, secure jobs for people whose jobs will disappear in fossil fuel industries like coal, oil and gas. That’s going to be absolutely vital.

But the idea of a just transition is way bigger than that. The whole economy needs a transition if we’re going to stop runaway climate change … so what kind of transition will it be?

What will the transition look like in higher education, one of our biggest industries and employers?

Yes, it’s got to involve universities shifting to 100% renewable energy! And it has definitely got to involve divestment from all fossil fuel investments!

But it won’t be a just transition if we go renewable while we continue to casualise teaching and administration. We’ve got to cut job insecurity and cut wage theft as well as cutting emissions!

And it won’t be a just transition if we divest from fossil fuels while we divest responsibility for university operations like cleaning and security to dodgy contractors who pay minimum wage and treat their workers like crap. We’ve got to have ethical employment practices as well as ethical investments!

Both of those things – the casualisation and outsourcing of work - are getting worse right here at Sydney Uni, and at other universities around the country.

There will be people who tell you that we’ve got to worry first about decarbonisation, then about decasualisation. They’ll tell you that divestment is more important than what happens to the cleaning staff.

They’re wrong. They’re wrong because they’re holding on to the very fantasy that has got us into this mess – that’s the fantasy that we can continue with business as usual while we save the planet.

Business as usual is wrecking working lives and wrecking the planet at the same time. At universities. And across the economy.

That’s why the fight of the climate movement and the fight of the union movement is ultimately the same fight. It’s the fight for an economy that puts people and planet first, not last.

It’s the fight for a world in which no natural resources, no communities, no cultures, and no workers are treated as expendable.

And striking is one of the most powerful tools we have at our disposal in that combined fight: it’s so fitting that the action that is bringing our movements together, inspired by the school student organisers, is a strike.

So let’s strike for climate, let’s fight for a just transition. And let’s come back here on Monday after today’s strike to keep fighting for a fair and just transition at our own university!

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Unsolicited advice for our new Minister for Public Spaces...

[Originally published on The Conversation]

With the re-election of the Berejiklian government, NSW now has a Minister for Public Spaces – Rob Stokes. This new ministerial portfolio was first mooted in February, when the Premier announced that it would be tasked with identifying and protecting publicly-owned land for use as parks or public spaces.

As important as this task is, we need even more ambition in this portfolio. Public space is crucial to the social, economic, political, and environmental life of our towns and cities. We need to improve the quality of our public spaces, as well as increasing their quantity.

Here are ten priorities for government action to make our public spaces more plentiful and more accessible to all.

1. Privately-owned public spaces

From Barangaroo to Bonnyrigg, public spaces in new urban developments are often owned and controlled by private developers. The public has little say over the rules that govern these spaces and the way those rules are enforced. Restrictions are often excessive, and private security guards are known to over-step their powers.

The Minister for Public Space should map the extent of these privately-owned public spaces, and ensure that they are governed by the same, democratically-determined laws that cover publicly owned public spaces.

2. Strategic purchases of private land

As well as identifying publicly-owned land that could be used for parks or public spaces, the Minister for Public Space should identify privately-owned land that could be acquired for the same purpose. The gradual purchase of harbour foreshore property in Glebe has resulted in a wonderful and well-used foreshore walk. Similar opportunities to create public space networks should be identified and planned.

3. Unlock the gates

Too much publicly-owned public space is under-utilised because it is locked up. Across the city, there are ovals and public school playgrounds fenced off from the public for much of the year when they are not in use. We own these spaces – when they’re not in use for sport of school, we should be able to access them. As Minister for Education, Stokes recently trialled a program of opening some school playgrounds during school holidays. This should be done across the city, and Councils should be required to show cause if they want to restrict access to any public spaces they own.

4. Stop the temporary enclosures

A growing number of park authorities and local governments are doing deals with private companies to temporality fence off public spaces for commercial activities – sometimes for days, sometimes for weeks and even months. They do it because they’re short of funds and need the revenue. While programming events in public spaces can help attract crowds, we must halt the creeping logic of commercialisation which sees us charged money to access our own spaces. The Minister for Public Space should ensure that park authorities do not need to depend on commercial funding for survival.

5. Maintaining footpaths

The quality of footpaths makes a world of difference for people like parents with prams, little kids, people with mobility issues, and older people (for whom falls are a big health risk). Our footpaths need to be wide, their surfaces need to be even, and they need to incorporate places to rest.

The capacity of local governments to maintain footpaths is highly uneven. Public spaces in wealthy areas are gold-plated, while in other parts of the city footpaths are too often in poor condition or non-existent. The Minister for Public Space must think about the role that state government can in evening things out, assisting local governments where required.

6. Public toilets

As with footpaths, the provision of public toilets can make the difference between going out or staying at home for many people. The Minister for Public Space should use existing data to audit the provision and accessibility of public toilets in public spaces across the city, identify gaps, and fund improvements where required.

7. Less private advertising, more public expression

While advertising on the Opera House generated controversy, the creeping spread of commercial advertising in public space is also of concern. All this advertising is commercialising our public spaces, and crowding out other forms of public expression – from neighbourhood notices about community events and lost cats to murals and street art. The Minister for Public Space should work with local governments to limit the amount of advertising in public space, and extract more public good from any advertising revenues raised in public space.

8. No more sniffer dogs and strip searches

The policing of public spaces makes a huge difference to its accessibility. Exclusionary policing strategies – especially the use of drug sniffer dogs and rising use of strip searches – should be stopped. These tactics are not only put to work at festivals, but also around train stations and entertainment precincts. They are ineffective in leading to prosecutions, and are too often used to shame, intimidate and harass people without basis. The Minister for Public Space needs to challenge the Minister for Police about this form of policing.

9. Care not control

This is not say that safety is unimportant. We know that fear of harassment and assault stops some people using public space, not least women who experience this frequently.

However, we must not equate ‘feeling safe’ with ‘more police’ and ‘more surveillance cameras’ – indeed, sometimes these can have the perverse effect of making people feel less safe, by producing atmospheres of threat. We feel safer when there are others around caring for the space. So, the Minister for Public Space should investigate ways to encourage these forms of care. Simple measures like later opening hours for neighbourhood shops, or staff on railway platforms and train carriages, can make a big difference.

10. Plant more trees

We need more trees in our public spaces – not just in parks, but on residential and commercial streets too. This is especially important in parts of the city where summer temperatures are already extreme for weeks at a time. Not only do trees help to cool these spaces, they also encourage more biodiversity and combat carbon emissions. The Minister for Public Spaces should establish, and fund, a meaningful target for tree planting in public spaces.


This list of suggestions is far from exhaustive. But these reforms and others ought to be on the drawing board as the Minister for Public Space sets about his new work. Hopefully, this portfolio is to be more than a tokenistic attempt to create the appearance of action on public space, in the face of criticism about this government’s record on privatisation of public assets.