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...

1. Who is involved? Are these various campaigns and umbrella groups really 'representative' of the totality of the city's population and interests, or even a majority?

The People's Plan makes its claim to represent the city on the basis of a survey of several thousand of its readers across the city. Here, the preferences and opinions of individuals are aggregated to discern a set of issues deemed to be of collective interest to the city as a whole.

Occupy Sydney has an explicit ambition to represent the '99%'. This claim to stand for the 99% is about interests, not the extent of involvement as such: 
We are the workers; we are the indebted; we are the immigrants and the indigenous; we are the homeless; we are the students; we are the unemployed; we are the under represented people of the world. We are the 99%! We are Occupy Sydney! 
No more than a thousand or so people would have been on hand to launch the movement at Martin Place last year.

Other claims to represent the city are based on organisational, rather than individual, involvement/interests. While the constitution of groups or campaigns through alliances of organisations takes a more collective form, there are similar questions to be asked about the number of organisations involved. Make My City Work seems to mostly include property and developer interests at present, reflecting the fact that The Property Council is a lobby group representing the development industry (a $674 billion/year industry in Australia). The email notifying people of the launch of Make My City Work listed Colliers International, the Green Building Council of Australia, the Planning Institute of Australia, the Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council, the National Growth Areas Alliance, and United Voice as partners who are "already on board" with their campaign. There's a section on the campaign website which invites people to "join the campaign" by signing up, and at present apparently a little over 2000 people have done so. 

Ten Thousand Friends of Greater Sydney's claim to power in numbers is inscribed in its very name.  But like Make My City work, it lists a number of organisations from across Government, the private sector and civil society as members, and invites individuals to sign on as 'friends'. From discussions I've had with people who are involved, I understand they have a particular focus on involving individuals who are part of the urban policy/planning scene in Sydney, across both public and private sectors, in order to progress their agenda.

The Sydney Alliance makes its claim to stand for the city on the basis of its partner organisations (currently standing at 45 unions, community organisations and faith-based groups). The Alliance focus on civil society means that corporations and government agencies aren't involved as partner organisations of the Alliance ... although there is scope for other forms of involvement as 'friends of the Alliance' who can contribute resources, expertise, contacts etc to the cause. The diversity of partner organisations in the Sydney Alliance is pretty impressive, but there are still some notable gaps -- for instance, while there are gay and lesbian and indigenous folks involved in the Alliance through a range of partner organisations, there are no partner organisations representing those particular interests signed on to the Alliance at present.

So, there are important and legitimate questions to be asked about the scope and diversity of participation in these different campaigns/groups that claim to represent the city. But participation is not just a simple matter of 'numbers' -- we need to ask questions about the quality participation as well as quantity of participants.

For instance, the surveying of individuals by the Tele for its People's Plan might be statistically representative, but only allows for a very passive and individualised form of participation. While there are probably fewer people involved in Occupy than were surveyed by the Telegraph, participation in Occupy was imagined and structured as more active involvement in a movement. This raised its own challenges. The location of the Occupy camp in Martin Place in the City Central Business District was great for targeting corporations and the 1%. But it wasn't so great for facilitating the participation of the 99%, most of whom are living in the 'burbs. This led to some on-going discussion about how the movement might better engage with people in the western suburbs after the initial camp was broken up by police (in a 4am raid of course...).

Likewise, the participation of partner organisations in Make My City Work and the Sydney Alliance takes quite different forms. In the former, organisations 'sign on' to support the campaign. In the latter, no campaign can happen without the active involvement of their members.

So, it's useful to ask 'who is involved?' in these efforts to stand for the city. But I don't think this is the only or even best question to ask. This question is premised on a quasi-numerical logic of representation, and it implies that there is such a thing as 'the totality of the city' that it already out there, with a set of objective interests, waiting to be represented. But I don't think there is. The city, as a community of interests or a political subject, is always in the making through a (contested) process of construction. So, rather than asking whether or not these campaigns truly represent the city as a whole by literally involving everyone, we should also be asking questions about how they construct the city as a political subject. Questions along these lines could include...

2. How are 'the people' of the city constituted as a unified political actor, how are their views and/or interests incorporated?

In the People's Plan, readers of the Tele have been invited to shape the campaign agenda through their input as survey respondents, and to lend support to the Plan through a petition. The newspaper has then engaged the experts on the people's behalf, and aims to thereby produce a kind of plan that responds to their interests. The Plan is for the people, but not by the people.

This makes for an interesting comparison with the Sydney Alliance organising model. The Alliance ran a 'listening campaign' through its partner organisations, and then held a 'discernment' assembly in which people were asked to decide on the priority issues for the Alliance. Similar issues found their way to the top of the pile as in the Tele's survey. But in the Alliance, this discernment process involved people in making of commitments to taking action, rather than simply indicating their preferences. And while the Alliance has subsequently engaged the help of experts in developing plans for action on these issues, this has also taken a different form. 'Rank and file' members of the Alliance have conducted these meetings with experts, written up the results, and collectively discussed their implications for the vision and action of the Alliance. Here, the role of the people vis-a-vis planning experts is quite different. It is also pretty labour intensive -- people who are actively involved in the Alliance participate in a 2-day Alliance Building Institute to learn about community organising, meet others in the Alliance etc. Over 1000 have participated in this training so far.

The Sydney Alliance model also makes for an interesting comparison to groups like Ten Thousand Friends of Greater Sydney and Occupy Sydney. In the Alliance, individuals participate as members of partner organisations, where both of the latter groups enroll participants as individuals without requiring any organisational affiliation. The Alliance insists on organisational affiliation because one of its key goals is to strengthen civil society by strengthening these organisations and building new leaders. While this structure does build in an important form of accountability into individual participation, it achieves this by placing some constraints on individual participation. It also makes the organisational architecture of the Alliance is pretty complex -- with its Leaders Councils, Action Councils, Research Action Teams, District Teams and the like.

Make My City Work by contrast, is fairly opaque on this question. It's not at all clear who produced the materials, what it means for an organisation and/or an individual to 'be on board' with the campaign, and what kind of participation they might have in the campaign into the future other than receiving updates from the Property Council etc. (For instance, I will probably 'sign on' to the campaign, just to keep receiving email updates about what is going on ... but I will be counted as a supporter, which is not really accurate.)

This points to a third question we could ask of these efforts....

3. What issues act as the 'glue that binds' people into a 'community of interest' that claims to speak for the city as a whole?

While the Tele's People's Plan seems to suggest that it's core concern is the need to get 'the people' involved in the planning of the city, on closer inspection this is not the case. The people of the city are positioned not as a political actor but as the victims of poor planning, which creates congestion, poorly performing public services, and the like. As is (too) often the case in debates about planning, 'politics' (reduced to the Parliament) is defined as the impediment to a vision for the city's future, rather than a process that might generate such a vision. The Tele argues that the production and realisation of a new vision for Sydney requires politicians to come together, in a bipartisan fashion, putting a commitment to workable solutions before political differences. The people of Sydney are asked to sign a petition which puts pressure on the politicians to do just that.

Make My City Work is focused on facilitating the on-going population and economic growth of Sydney. As noted above, the campaign seeks to "direct attention to cities and engage the community on growth". Glenn Byres, NSW Executive Director of the PCA, framed the challenge for Sydney as one of "dumb growth versus smart growth" in a piece he penned for the Tele's People's Plan series.

The Committee for Sydney has been established convened to progress a vision of Sydney as a competitive city: 
We want to build the awareness that Sydney has to compete to win new business and more tourism, so that we achieve stronger economic growth and secure our future viability. We're now competing against the major cities in our region and around the world more than our sister capital cities in Australia. Success is best achieved through true partnership: between all levels of government, the business community, and Sydneysiders.

Ten Thousand Friends of Greater Sydney emerged as a vehicle to promote a set of plans designed to make Sydney's public transport system more efficient and sustainable produced by the Warren Centre in the mid-2000s.

The Sydney Alliance says its purpose is to "bring together diverse community organisations, unions and religious organisations to advance the common good and achieve a fair, just and sustainable city. We do this by providing opportunities for people to have a say in decisions that affect them, their families and everyone working and living in Sydney."

The Occupy Sydney website says: "We are not just one political idea or one organisation. We are many ideas and many organisations coming together to call for a better world based on human need not corporate greed."

So, we have 'visionary planning', 'economic growth', 'sustainable transport',  'the common good' and 'human need not corporate greed' as the unifying visions of these campaigns/alliances. These quite different visions inevitably shape who is involved in the organisation or campaign, and the nature of their involvement -- although of course the visions of Sydney articulated by these organisations and campaigns are also shaped by the nature of the people who are involved.

It's probably fairly obvious where my own particular preferences lie here -- that is, for city-wide alliances that are concerned with democracy, justice and equality rather than growth, competitiveness and expert/efficient planning. But this doesn't mean that I can't see some value and significance in most of the groups/campaigns that I've mentioned above.

Indeed, while it's important to note these differences in vision/values, it's also interesting to observe the cross-over in these campaigns/organisations. It's not as though people and organisations have to choose only one of these city-wide groups in order to pursue their own goals.

For instance, the Youth Action and Policy Association is a partner organisation of the Sydney Alliance. It also was invited to submit an article for the People's Plan, and used that opportunity really effectively to put some of its issues on the public agenda (resulting in a request for a meeting by the NSW Attorney General). United Voice, a union representing cleaners and other workers across the city, is involved in both the Sydney Alliance and Make My City Work. In both cases, the efforts of The People's Plan and Make My City Work to stand for the city as a whole opened them up to participation from partners with whom neither the Tele or the Property Council have worked before.

Similarly, there are plenty of individuals who are involved in several of these groups. For instance, I know of people who have been actively involved in both the Sydney Alliance and Occupy Sydney. (Indeed, I've been quite frustrated with some in either group who have insisted that they are so different that you couldn't possibly be involved in both! But that's another story...). And I know several of us involved in the Sydney Alliance Transport Research Action Team have found some of the material produced by Ten Thousand Friends of Greater Sydney incredibly helpful in shaping our thinking about transport policy options.

And this is probably not a bad note to end on ... even though there are crucial differences and disagreements between these ways of standing for the interests of the city, I'm sure an ethnography of participation would reveal interesting intersections too. That's certainly not to say that they're all equally progressive or effective, and that we shouldn't be critical along the lines suggested above. It's just to say, precisely because there is no city out there waiting to be subjectified, the making of the city as a political subject is always going to involve choices that include as well as exclude...

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