Thursday, April 26, 2012

Who stands for Sydney? On the construction of 'the city' as a subject...

In writing about the Founding Assembly of the Sydney Alliance a while back, I said that Alliance was an attempt to "create a new political subject in and of the city of Sydney". I'm really interested in the formation of groups who claim to stand for the interests of 'the city' ... and in the case of Sydney, the Sydney Alliance is not the only group currently claiming to stand for the interests of Sydney. In the last month, we have seen the launch of two separate campaigns in the name of Sydney. What do these claims to the city look like, and how should we judge them?

The Daily Telegraph's "People's Plan"

The Daily Telegraph, a daily newspaper in Sydney, has recently published a special series of articles on planning for Sydney under the banner of The People's Plan. The notion of 'people's plans' has an interesting history in Sydney, not least as a term that was used by green ban activists for their alternative plans in the 1970s. So, what does the Tele's People's Plan involve? First, the Tele surveyed their readers to identify a set of big issues they believed to be facing Sydney today. Having identified these issues with the input of their readers, the newspaper then assembled a 'cabinet' of experts in these various fields to write opinion pieces, which take the form of proposals for planning and policy. Editor Paul Whittaker asked these experts for "fresh thinking" and "practical and workable solutions".

In explaining the People's Plan concept, Whittaker referred back to the Sydney masterplan devised almost a century ago by engineer John Bradfield (most famous as designer of the Sydney Harbour Bridge). Bradfield's plan, says Whittaker, was bold and visionary, but never came to be implemented due to a combination of war, depression and the usual "political wrangling and bureaucratic inertia". Where are the visionaries today, he asks? Only a bold and coherent vision for the city will "give people of Sydney the truly global city that they deserve". (His short video launching the series can be found here). To date, the Tele has published articles by experts on a wide range of topics which include: health; safety; affordability; transport; youth; driving; tourism; education; environment; ageing; families; commerce and; western Sydney. These articles by experts are accompanied by another dozen or so articles written by people on the 'front lines' of some of these issues - such as commuters, carers, pensioners and homeless young people. Many of these contributions are fascinating reading, and I think the Tele's People's Plan has attempted to put a range of very important issues on the public agenda through this campaign.

Screen grab from the Daily Telegraph's "People's Plan" website

The Property Council of Australia's "Make My Sydney Work"

At around the same as the Tele launched its People's Plan, the Property Council of Australia launched a national campaign called Make My City Work.  It describes the campaign as a "call to action" designed to "direct attention to cities and engage the community on growth". Material has been produced for each major Australian city, including a Make My Sydney Work campaign devoted to "fixing Australia's global city". There's a set of materials under five campaign headings: housing; jobs; lifestyle; infrastructure, and; sustainability. At present, these materials are much briefer than those in the People's Plan. But Peter Verwer, CEO of the Property Council, launched the campaign with a lunchtime address to the National Press Club at which he spoke about the need for a 'New Deal' for cities in Australia.

Screen grab from the Property Council of Australia's Make My Sydney Work website

Alongside these two claims to stand for Sydney, and the Sydney Alliance, we also have the Committee for Sydney, Ten Thousand Friends of Greater Sydney, and most recently Occupy Sydney, to name a few.

Standing for the city: some critical questions...

How should we critically interrogate these different attempts to stand for the interests of the city of Sydney? We could ask several kinds of questions...

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The city as a playground: children, young people and the right to the city

A couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of giving a keynote address to help launch a seminar series on Children, Young People and the Built Environment called "Beyond Playgrounds and Skateparks", hosted by the NSW Commissioner for Children and Young People.

My talk was called "The city as a playground: children, young people, and the right to the city". The key message of the talk was that we need to move from thinking about the provision of playgrounds for kids in the city, to thinking about the whole city as their (and indeed everyone's!) playground. This is a matter of justice, of recognising children and young people's rights to the city as inhabitants with an equal stake in the urban environment.

You can watch the talk here. It's one of those fancy webcasts where you can watch the talk and see the powerpoints all at once. However, there are a few embarrassing minutes where you have to watch me stand quietly while I show a clip from an early episode of Sesame Street which you can't see. So, here's the clip I showed:

It's an awesome little segment from the very first episode in 1969, of a bunch of kids playing 'follow the leader' through backyards, drain pipes, and dormant building sites.* It's a great example of Herman Mattern's point, made a year earlier in 1968, that:
One should be able to play everywhere, easily, loosely, and not forced into a 'playground' or 'park'. The failure of an urban environment can be measured in direct proportion to the number of 'playgrounds'.
That quote appears in Colin Ward's awesome 1978 book The Child in the City, which has informed a lot of my thinking on this particular topic. In the late 1970s, he was already observing the curtailing of children's independent access to the city, a trend which seems to have deepened according to more recent research by folks like Gill Valentine.

This curtailment is a matter of justice, an infringement on children's rights to the city. It reflects (and reinforces) the fact that children and young people are excluded from many of the rights and responsibilities of the citizen more generally.

It's obviously kinda contentious to suggest that children and young people are equals who ought to have full citizenship and rights to the city. We spend a week in my Cities and Citizenship course thinking about these issues, and it never fails to be one of the most hotly-debated issues in the Unit. The most common justification for treating children and young people as an exception to the universality of citizenship is that they don't yet have the capacity for autonomy and self-governance. As such, they don't have the capacity to take part in the polity as political beings. In any case, the argument goes, they will grow up to be adults one day, so their exclusion isn't permanent.

But if we take Lefebvre's concept of the right to the city based on inhabitance seriously, it provokes us to ask whether the exclusion of children is the result of problems with our dominant conception of citizenship, rather than a problem with children's capacities. Of course, children have different capacities than adults. But it's also true that children have different capacities to each other, just like adults. Age may be taken-for-granted as a proxy for capacity, but that doesn't make this rather arbitrary proxy adequate or just. The challenge is to think about ways in which everyone's different capacities and interests can be recognised in the ways we plan the urban environment.

So, in the talk I discussed some of the capacities of children and young people that I think could serve as the basis for a reconceptualisation of children and young people's place in the city, as a physical, social and political space. I talked about children and young people's capacities for play, appropriation and evaluation, and gave a few examples of each in action.

In the end, I think the question of how to recognise children and young people's rights to the city raises some much bigger questions about planning, urban politics and rights to the city more generally. In concluding The Child and the City, Colin Ward noted that:
It is ironical, since the whole burden of my argument is that we should give more responsibilities to our city children, that city governments see their adult citizens as feckless juveniles, whose own aspirations and initiatives are not susceptible of incorporation into the official reality.
This is a similar point to the one being made by those who argue that cities are increasingly 'post-political' -- an issue that I am (still!!) working up a post on after a little discussion with Clive Barnett over at Pop Theory a while back.

Anyways ... big thanks to Linda Corkery and Kate Bishop for the invite to talk, it was great fun!


* I love Sesame Street! For those who share the love, you might also like an article I wrote Wax Poetics about the music on the show in honour of its 40th Anniversary a couple of years ago.)