Thursday, June 30, 2016

Dear Greater Sydney Commission, my idea for Sydney is ... democracy

Last weekend, my fam and I popped in to Canterbury Racecouse, where a food market has just started up on Sundays. Empanadas and stuff. Right on.

At the far end of the market sat a parked bus that announced itself as a 'Talk Bus'. People with black t-shirts and balloons covered in hashtags were trying (and mostly failing) to connect with passers-by. They wanted to know what we loved about living in Sydney, and our ideas for making it better.

Someone from the bus tried to give one of my kids a balloon. It kinda freaked her out and she grabbed her mum's leg. Exactly, girlfriend. They also tried to stop my Mum for a chat. Mum's nice, and she politely declined. But in a classic spruiker move, that politeness was twisted into an invitation to talk some more. Mum tried to escape by telling them she was old, and that if it was all about the future, maybe they should be asking younger people. The frustrated spruiker then had a crack at her -- "what, younger people like the ones you're here with? They just walked past without talking to me!". End of engagement. I wonder what box got ticked on the woman's clipboard...?

It turned out the Talk Bus people were from the newly-established Greater Sydney Commission.

Here's a tweet of a picture of a camera filming a moment of consultation in front of the Talk Bus, with a guy with one of the hashtag balloons in the background:

The Greater Sydney Commission in action, working with some people and their dog to "co-create a more prosperous and liveable Sydney"
Image source: GSC Twitter Feed

Apparently, the Talk Bus will be travelling around Sydney for the next few weeks. Planning Minister Rob Stokes says it's all about "hearing directly from the local community to help shape the future of Sydney".

My blood is starting to boil just from typing out those words ... honestly.
I don't know anyone who works at the Greater Sydney Commission. They might be lovely people, for all I know. But I do know some bullshit when I smell it.

With the recent establishment of the Greater Sydney Commission, a bunch of appointed Commissioners have acquired incredible powers to shape this city. They've been given those powers by a Tory NSW Government that claims Sydney's problems are caused by the lack of a metropolitan planning authority. Apparently we need such an authority to make 'strategic' decisions for the city as a whole. Reduce silos! Cut red/green tape! Blah blah blah.

But the things that are most wrong with my town are not going to be fixed by the creation of the Greater Sydney Commission. In fact, the way that the NSW Government has gone about establishing the Greater Sydney Commission is a perfect example of what's most fucked up with the way this city is governed.

When my mum extricated herself from the Talk Bus, she suggested maybe I should go talk to them and tell them what I thought. Best if I don't, I said. I'm not a fan of tokenistic consultation, and had no interest in contributing to their 'engagement' statistics. I was also a little annoyed that they had tried to get to me through my kid, and then made my Mum feel bad about not talking to them. And I had spotted the empanadas. 

But I probably should have stopped for a yarn, because I just ended up spending the rest of the afternoon being a little distracted, thinking of the kinds of things I coulda-shoulda-woulda said. You know the feeling, right?

Then I remembered I have a blog...


I don't have a problem with the idea of a planning for the city as a whole. In fact, I spend a lot of my time thinking about 'the city as a whole', and how it might be organised and represented and made more just, beyond local initiatives.

But as I've argued elsewhere on this blog, when people make claims to be representing 'the city as a whole', we have to ask some critical questions about the kinds of authority on which those claims are based.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Inclusionary Zoning and Affordable Housing in Sydney

A few weeks back, Sadiq Khan was elected Mayor of London. He has committed to a target of 50% affordable housing in new housing developments in London. That's a stark contrast to what's going on here in Sydney, where the affordable housing target is ... well, there isn't one.

Out of some frustration with that situation, I banged out an opinion piece that got a run in the Sydney Morning Herald, making the case for mandatory targets for affordable housing in new developments in Sydney - a policy known as inclusionary zoning. The article's copied in below, with links to further information about some of the points made along the way.

(The SMH ran the article with the title "Sydney needs to catch up to other global cities with affordable housing" ... which will be a nice anecdote for next year's lecture about the 'global city' concept as a hegemonic concept through which all sensible claims have to be articulated! But I guess I was playing that game in the article, so fair cop. Anyways, I digress...)

Inclusionary zoning is no longer especially 'radical' in many parts of the world. And, as Peter Marcuse pointed out in a recent blog post, if inclusionary zoning is used in the re-development of existing social housing or low income housing areas, it can actually reduce the proportion of affordable housing and contribute to gentrification. That's certainly a risk were it to be applied in some parts of Sydney -- the proposed redevelopment of Redfern-Waterloo, currently an area with substantial public housing, is a case in point. But setting a mandatory minimum target in a situation where such redevelopments are going ahead without any legislated requirements for housing affordability would be better than nothing!

Since the article was published, I've spoken at a very interesting forum on affordable housing hosted by Vinnies, and made an appearance on Channel 9 news for a story about NSW Labor's proposal for an affordable housing target (I don't think they've quite embraced a numerical target at this point). Here's hoping that through the hard work of lots of different actors in the city, the tide might slowly be turning on this issue...


We might poke fun at Malcolm Turnbull’s recent remark that wealthy parents should shell out to assist their adult kidsfind their way into the housing market. But his quip reflects the reality that is taking hold in Sydney today.

Housing has become unaffordable to all but the highest paid. Help from our parents is certainly the only way that my partner and I could afford the house we’re living in now – and we’re on higher wages than most. As Tim Williams from the Committee for Sydney recently argued, inheritance is becoming the main road to home ownership in Sydney.

The statistics on this situation keep on coming. Last year, one study reported in the Sydney Morning Herald showed that a nurse could not afford to purchase a home in 95% of Sydney’s suburbs. Another showed that in financial year 2014-15, there were 64 suburbs where not a single dwelling sold for less than $1 million.

Things get even worse for those on lower incomes. An Anglicare report showed less than 1% of available rentals wereaffordable for people on government income support payments.

There are so many reasons not to tolerate this situation – not least the injustice of intergenerational inequity and widening inequality, and the economic unsustainability of pricing key workers like nurses and teachers out of the city.

The reasons for the high cost of housing have roots in the changing economic structure of our city. Politicians of all stripes like to brag about Sydney being a ‘global city’. That’s all well and good. But as our city has made the transition to becoming ‘global’, the cost of housing relative to wages has skyrocketed. This is not a coincidence. Indeed, it is a global phenomenon in cities similar to ours.In global cities where employment is increasingly polarized between those in high-paid professions working for globally-oriented corporate services sector, and those in the lower paid consumer services sector, there has been tremendous upward pressure on house prices, especially in parts of the city close to major employment centres.

Left to their own devices, housing markets in these cities do not deliver affordability. Housing is not like the fictitious markets in high school economics textbooks, where increasing supply can cause prices to fall.

So, what are other ‘global cities’ doing about this problem? In many, Governments are setting enforceable targets for affordable housing in new housing developments. This policy is called inclusionary zoning. In London over the weekend, Labour’s Sadiq Khan was elected Mayor. Part of his platform was to require that a full 50% of all dwellings in new developments are affordable. This would represent an increase from the percentage achieved by his Conservative predecessor Boris Johnson. His administration set a three year target of 55,000 affordable homes, with an average 34% of new dwellings being affordable in the 2012-2015 period.

What is the mandatory minimum for affordable housing in new housing developments in Sydney?

We don’t have one. We don’t even have an aspirational target.

Inclusionary zoning is by now a mainstream idea in many major cities, and is supported across the political spectrum. In cities like London, the debate has moved on from whether it is a good idea – the argument is now about the proportion of housing that should be made affordable.

This widespread embrace of inclusionary zoning is reflected here in Sydney, where a diverse cross-section of society supports inclusionary zoning in new developments as an effective means to provide affordable housing. Civil society peak groups like the NSW Council of Social Service and coalitions like the Sydney Alliance are calling for inclusionary zoning. Academics who have been funded by Governments from across Australia to look into solutions for housing affordability are calling for inclusionary zoning. The Committee for Sydney, whose membership is made up of dozens of major national and international corporations located in Sydney – including several prominent developers like Lend Lease, Meriton and Mirvac – is calling for inclusionary zoning.

But for some reason, the NSW State Government won’t get with the program.

Earlier this year, Premier Baird announced a $1 billion fund designed to ‘encourage’ investment in affordable and social housing. It was reported that this might generate an extra 3000 affordable homes – that’s a start, but it’s certainly not enough to transform our situation.

We need much more from Government than polite ‘encouragement’. We need enforcement.

As we stare down the barrel at several major redevelopments across Sydney – like the Central to Eveleigh corridor, the Bays Precinct, the train stations along the soon-to-be transformed Bankstown line, Parramatta Road, the areas around the proposed Parramatta light rail, and many more besides – we must set substantial mandatory requirements for affordable housing.

Aspirational targets have been set for some of these developments, but we know from past experience that this won’t do. Enforceable requirements that apply across the city are the only way to ensure that all developers involved in the planning and construction of new housing – including the State Government’s own Urban Growth – can’t trade away affordable housing aspirations once developments get underway.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Nuit Debout

[Crickey, a year since the last post here! Time to get things going again...]

Protesters in the Place de la Republique, Paris. Image source: The Guardian

Twelve nights of protests and counting in Paris, under the Nuit Debout banner. There's a story in the Guardian here about the first week of protests. As with many other occupations that have taken place in the last five years or so, there's a really interesting process of care and social reproduction going on here - something that Setha Low and I have recently written a little about in a piece on public space and social justice.

Here's an interesting discussion of the movement on Al Jazeera, featuring one of my union comrades from the University of Sydney, Nick Riemer, who is in Paris right now....

Jacques Rancière and Étienne Balibar also offered statements of solidarity to the initial sit-ins, which you can find here.

Thursday, April 30, 2015


I'm in the US right now ... and the killing of Freddie Gray while in police custody, and the subsequent protests and riots taking place in Baltimore, have dominated the news. Today, protests took place in Philadelphia, and more are planned in further cities over the next few days.

A change has got to come.

These two videos spoke to me in different ways today...

Monday, March 23, 2015

"What is saved is not always safe...": Alison Alder and Mini Graff poster exhibition on public housing sell-off at Millers Point, Sydney

For those in Sydney ... get in while you can to check out Some Posters/Local Positions, an exhibition of posters by Alison Alder and Mini Graff at The Cross Arts Projects.

Mini Graff, 2015, Pipped at the post (Dominos)

The exhibition is a part of the gallery's program to celebrate the 40th anniversary of International Women's Year (1975). It features new work from both artists that responds to the NSW Government's shameful sell-off of public housing in Millers Point and the Rocks -- inner urban neighbourhoods where public housing was 'saved' by the green bans in the 1970s.

(This recent piece by Alex Greenwich provides a little background on the sell-off, and a critique of its intentions and its execution.)

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Cities of Equals? Rethinking Urban Politics with Jacques Rancière (... and my buddy Mark Davidson)

For quite a while, I've been wanting to write a post about Jacques Rancière's work on politics and its potential usefulness for those of us interested in the relationship between cities and citizenship. Most of that material has subsequently ended up in stuff I've written elsewhere, so rather than write a long post here, I figured I could at least say a few brief things about why I've found his work so interesting, and what I've tried to do with it...

I first encountered Rancière's work while reading Kristin Ross's awesome book May '68 and its Afterlives. There, she used some of Rancière's work on politics and police in two ways. First, her analysis of the politics of  '68 is heavily influenced by the notion that these events involved a radical form of 'displacement' in which people refused to be reduced to the 'proper' activities associated with their identification as 'students', 'workers', 'farmers, etc. Second, she draws on Rancière to analyse the ways in which revisionist accounts of the events tended to 'police' them by insisting that they were part of an emergent consensus about the need to modernise French society, rather than events which introduced dissensus about the nature of French society. Mustafa Dikeç's book Badlands of the Republic also used Rancière to demonstrate the ways in which people from the banlieue were denied a political voice in French society.

So, for a little background on Rancière, I can highly recommend this piece from the Critical Theory blog: Who the fuck is Jacques Rancière? Rancière's particular approach to politics developed out of frustration with the 'laughable' distance he perceived between the events of May 1968 in Paris and the structural Marxism associated with Althusser (with whom Rancière worked on Reading Capital). This frustration initially sent him into the archives, looking for the ways in which working people had confronted their circumstances in nineteenth century France.

Two key ideas that emerged out of this work were his particular approach to equality and democratic politics, and the associated notion of politics as challenging the 'partition of the perceptible'. To explain briefly (and probably badly!), a key claim now associated with Rancière is the notion that in democratic politics, equality is not so much something that one strives towards (as in, "the world is unequal, so we need equality!"), but something that we enact in a given situation (as in, "we are equals, and society isn't recognising our equality, so we are going to make another world that does!"). By tracing the meaning and consequences of equality in a situation, democratic politics involves a confrontation with the 'partition of the perceptible' that polices the social. The 'partition of the perceptible' describes the situation in which only some things seem to be 'sayable' or 'doable' in any given society. Of course, this concept is not something original to Rancière! But I do kinda like the particular way he discusses this, and the challenge it poses for politics. His emphasis on politics as a process in which people manage to make "another time with that time, another space within that space" sits nicely with the ways in which I understand the challenging of making counter-public spaces and spheres.

Anyways ... I'm excited to say that the fruits of some of this reading, thinking, talking and research are making it into print. Mark Davidson and I have written two papers together, both of which are now available. And I've done a few more on my own. So, in an act of shameless self-promotion (but hey, it's my blog I guess...!), here's some brief info about the papers and what they are trying to achieve.

1. "Recovering the politics of the city: from the 'post-political city' to a 'method of equality' for critical urban theory", Progress in Human Geography (with Mark Davidson).

This piece was written Mark and I were getting deeper into some of Rancière's work, and finding it really exciting because we felt that it helped us chart a path between 'politics is everywhere' and 'politics is nowhere'. In this particular paper, we warn against the idea of the 'post-political city' ... not by saying that 'hey, everything's political, and there's politics everywhere!', but rather by focusing on  situated enactments of equality through processes of political subjectification as the basis of democratic politics. Rancière suggests his approach can be defined as a 'method of equality', one that seeks to draw out the connections between enactments of equality that take place in different historical and geographical contexts.

2. "Occupations, Mediations, Subjectifications: Fabricating Politics", Space and Polity (with Mark Davidson).

This one is part of a collection of papers on Rancière. We were really excited to be asked to contribute, and it was a great opportunity to apply (and extend) some of the thinking we'd done for our other paper to engage with the inspiring political mobilisations that have been going on in several cities over the past few years. The article draws on Rancière to examine the relationship between urban space and politics in these events ... both to help us make sense of the events, but also to build on Rancière's work to trace out the geographical dimensions of politics.

3. "Policing the City", in Urban Politics: Critical Approaches, edited by Mark Davidson and Deborah Martin.

This chapter riffs on the relationship between politics and police (a central relationship in Rancière's work), but unlike the two pieces above, this one is focused on the 'police' end of the spectrum. Thinking through the practice of graffiti (I can't help myself!), the chapter draws on Rancière's approach to policing to demonstrate the broad range of actors involved in efforts to put graffiti in its 'proper' place, from urban authorities like police and urban designers to youth workers and graffiti artists themselves. Rancière, Rudy Giuliani, Banksy and Robbo all make appearances. This one was fun to write too ... and hopefully illustrates the usefulness of Rancière's work in helping us to think through the practice of policing beyond the actions of the uniformed police.

4. "Cities within the City: Do-It-Yourself Urbanism and the Right to the City", International Journal of Urban and Regional Research

This one came out of a presentation I gave ages ago at a conference on the right to the city organised by Lee Stickells and Zanny Begg. With all the excitement about the 'micro-spatial' interventions of DIY urbanists in hacking and reclaiming urban spaces, the paper sets out to ask about the kinds of 'right to the city' that are being enacted. Conceptually, the paper draws on both Rancière and Lefebvre to develop a framework for interrogating the politics of DIY practices. Empirically, I discuss both BUGAUP and the Public Ad Campaign as examples of DIY urbanism that enact a democratic right to the city premised on the equality of urban inhabitants. There's some hopeful speculation at the end about how various DIY practices might begin to add up to more than the sum of their parts, through a shared commitment to democratic urban politics.

5. "Building a City for 'The People': the politics of alliance building in the Sydney green ban movement", Antipode.

I've already mentioned on the blog that I have a piece included in a special issue of Antipode on Grammars of Urban Injustice. I kinda feel like I've had Rancière hovering over my shoulder while in the archives doing this project - as noted above, his 'method of equality' emerged from archival research. While the paper takes issue with some of Rancière's blind spots (especially on the question of political organisation), this paper is particularly influenced by his work in its content and its form. In particular, I was really keen to structure the paper around the voices of diverse green ban activists, who had their own analysis of the forms of politics they practiced.

As ever, if you'd like copies of any of these and can't get hold of them, drop me a line...

Antonis Vradis on protests in Brazil...

Protesters in Rio de Janeiro
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[So, it has been an age since I've posted here ... time to get back into it!]

Back in 2013, I wrote a short post on the mass protests that took place in Brazil, which involved a dramatic escalation of marches initially held to protest increases in public transport fares

Antonis Vradis has just written some interesting pieces on more recent protests taking place in Brazil calling for the resignation of President Dilma Rousseff ... this one for the Guardian, this one for Open Democracy. While the protests have generally been seen as a right-wing mobilisation against Rousseff's government, Antonis suggests things might not be so simple...

Antonis has been working on a project called The City at a Time of Crisis ... check out the project website here.