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.

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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.





Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Sydney - We Need to Talk. A love letter to Sydney...


There are still a few days left to catch Wendy Murray’s exhibition Sydney - We Need to Talk at Cross Art Projects in Sydney. The exhibition features some of the illustrations that Wendy made for the book of the same name (which you really should download, if you haven't already!).

I was honoured to be asked to speak at the launch of the exhibition. Taking inspiration from the title of Wendy’s exhibition (which started life as a poster that inspired our book), I wrote a letter to Sydney. Here it is…

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Dear Sydney,

We need to talk.

I’m not sure I know who you are any more.

I’ve spent most of my life with you. But in the past few years, it seems to me like you’re becoming harder and harder to live with. And it’s not just me who’s noticed. You’re more and more sterile, more hostile, more expensive. You’re meaner and hotter and more divided.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s still plenty of things that remind me why I loved you in the first place, and why I’ve stayed with you for so long. Your jacarandas in spring. A stroll and some shopping on Beamish street on a busy Saturday. Our local public school and its awesome school community. A sunny winter’s weekday at any of your beaches. The crispy hot broad-bean felafel at Cairo Takeaway. Tuesday night funk throw-downs at 505. The surprise appearance of fresh graffiti on your trains and posters on your walls. The energy and shared purpose of a big Sydney Alliance assembly.

But for all that great stuff, I’m not sure I love who you’re becoming.

Maybe you’re getting less loveable because of the company you’re keeping. You’ve spent a lot of time lately long hanging out with some dodgy characters.

Your buddies Barry, Mike and Gladys are cases in point.

Like Gladys. She said when she hooked up with you that making you less expensive was her #1 priority. But she’s been selling off your public housing, and refusing to introduce rules making it a requirement for her developer mates to provide cheap housing in the new towers and suburban estates that are making them rich. She won’t even introduce rules to stop tenants getting kicked out of their homes through no fault of their own.

Just last week she said that your public spaces were big priority and that she’ll appoint a new minister for public space. Meanwhile, her and her friends have privatised publicly-owned assets worth over $9 billion in the last ten years. They supported private advertising on the sails of the Opera House. They put sniffer dogs instead of doctors at our festivals (not to mention on train stations in the west). They put our ovals and schools behind spear-topped fences.

She said her pals in Canberra should be doing more to stop you burning up, by doing something about climate change. But she’s spending billions of dollars on a mega-freeway project that will choke you up with cars for years to come.

Not to mention the fact that she wants to spend $2 billion knocking down a couple of your stadiums to help out her mates.

And even when she tries to do the right thing by you, she seems to have a knack for fucking it up. Just ask the trees on Anzac Parade that had to die unnecessarily for the light rail, or the people in places like Ryde and Canterbury where there’s been over-development without infrastructure.

I could go on. If I’m honest, there are times I really want to leave you.

And I’m pretty sure my friend Wendy is thinking about ditching you too. But then, maybe despite herself, she seems to keep caring for you.

She’s seen what you’re turning into, and she’s trying to snap you out of it – to use her art to show you what you’re becoming, but also to remind you of your best side, to show you how much better you could be.

And when me and a bunch of my friends at Sydney Uni started getting together every week to talk about you, to try to make sense of what was going on with you, one of her posters on your walls inspired us to write you a big open letter.

So, we got together in little groups, and we wrote some stuff: about displacement, and dispossession, and decommodification, and democracy, and a bunch of other d-words!

And then she took our words, and spent hours in your streets, and patiently drew a series of beautiful images that both responded to, and challenged, the words we wrote.

And then, she lovingly packaged the words and the images in a beautiful book, with a cover hand-printed using an ancient press and with pages hand-stitched, all wrapped up in one of her beautiful posters. Maybe she was hoping that you might actually notice us and how much we care about you, because of the care we took in making the letter that we wrote for you.

So, I’m inspired by Wendy, and I’m not ready to break up yet. Instead, me and my friends are taking a leaf out of Wendy’s book. We’re going to spend some quality time with you, hanging out in your streets and talking to other people who love you and wish you could turn things around. We’re not going to go quiet and tolerate your bad side, but we’re not going to give up on you either.

Sydney, we want, we need, to talk.

Love, Kurt