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.

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…


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

Monday, November 5, 2018

Outdoor Advertising and Public Space

So, there was controversy here in Sydney a couple of weeks ago about the NSW Government's decision to force the Opera House to display an advertisement for a horse race.

I wrote an opinion piece for the Sydney Morning Herald about the broader issue of advertising and its impacts on public space.

Premier Gladys Berejiklian's intervention to insist the Sydney Opera House allow blatant Racing NSW advertising on its sails is objectionable for many reasons.
Most worryingly, it signals a new intensification of the ongoing privatisation of our public spaces through advertising. The surfaces of our city are being remade as advertising space before our very eyes. ...
You can read the rest of the piece here.

There was a great protest down at the Opera House on the night in question - you can read about that here.

I've had a bee in my bonnet about advertising in public space for a while now ... and published an article in Antipode a few years ago about the global outdoor advertising industry. You can find that here (email me if you're interested and have a hard time accessing it).

And there's also a piece about hacking outdoor advertising and the decommodification of public space in the new book I've been involved with writing, Sydney We Need to Talk!.


I'm excited (and proud!) to announce the publication of a new book that I've been involved in pulling together.

It's called Sydney -- We Need to Talk!

It has been written by a group of folks at the University of Sydney -- geographers, plannings, political scientists, visual artists, staff and students -- who have been meeting every week to talk about our work on the politics of urbanisation. We're all either thinking about Sydney and/or thinking from Sydney. There are essays on decommodification, dispossession, democratisation, degrees, domains, dimensions, domesticity and digitalisation (we started riffing with d-words, and couldn't stop).

Each essay is co-authored, and while each essay features work on Sydney, it also travels somewhere else. We bring Sydney into dialogue into other cities where we're working, including Jakarta, London, Barcelona, Hong Kong, New York and beyond.

The book was designed by artist Wendy Murray, who has also responded to each essay with a series of illustrations.

You can find out more about the book and its making, and download a free copy of the book, at the website we've set up here.

The list of contributors is: Brittany Betteridge, Pratichi Chatterjee, Leah Emmanuel, Amy Fairall, Bradley Garrett, Mini Graff, Kurt Iveson, Rupert Legg, Sophia Maalsen, Marilu Melo, Wendy Murray, Madeleine Pill, Dallas Rogers, Jathan Sadowski, Alistair Sisson, Amanda Tattersall, Sophie Webber