As corporate prerogatives win the day in urban planning, access to public space shrinks alarmingly. By Giacomo Bianchino.

Defensive architecture takes public space

Central Barangaroo, artist’s impression.
Central Barangaroo, artist’s impression.

The form of the city is unique to modernity. Under the social pressures of urbanisation during the industrial revolution, the old feudal systems of kingly “apartment” from society were replaced by a compromise between public and private spaces. The modern metropolis is in constant negotiation between the human interests of its inhabitants and the growth of urban capital.

A hundred years ago, people thought such a compromise was possible. Frank Lloyd Wright envisioned the utopia of “Broadacre City”, built around the idea of a rolling-pastures-cum-worker-settlement scheme. Workers could live with their own elegant slice of suburbia and commute in Phantom Menace-esque windcars to the nearby workplace. All common land was accessible to those who wanted to use it, and the distinction between the business of trade and the business of life was to eventually fade away.

In 2015, the story has changed. This year, an article by Anna Minton outlined London’s seemingly unstoppable march down the precipitous slope towards outright privatisation. With the democratic interests of Londoners taking secondary importance to corporate prerogatives, the possibilities of public expression, demonstration and even leisure have been severely curtailed.

We’re used to depictions of London as an Orwellian haven for the anti-democratic. But the problem of shrinking accessibility to public space for urban populations is as insidious as it is universal. The idea of “privately owned public spaces” or POPS, as coined by Jerold S. Kayden, describes a phenomenon stretching from Manhattan to Durban. And Australia is no exception.

For Kayden, the problem is not one of whether the “public” realm of government owns a piece of land. What defines publicity is the absence of limitations on access to the space. Sydney has its share of government-owned private zones. Barangaroo is the first name that springs to mind. Almost a decade of public discussions around the use of the government-acquired land have culminated in a green light for James Packer’s wealth-parade. The southernmost segment of the kilometre-long stretch of land on Sydney’s harbour is to play host to a quaint casino and a “six-star” hotel. It was not without relish that Packer announced to a Daily Telegraph dinner delegation: “There has never been a hotel that cost $5 million a room in the history of the world.”

Barangaroo itself is committed to maintaining at least 50 per cent of its area as public space. Yet it is just one moment in a much more direct and brutal narrative of exclusion. A string of developments okayed by the NSW government since the 1980s have pursued Sydney’s status as a global attraction rather than a liveable space.

Philip Thalis, a member of the University of Newcastle’s architecture faculty’s Industry Advisory Group, condemned the infamous 1990s Darling Harbour development in a 2012 interview with The Conversation. His observation that the project made tourists of its own population seems to hold today. A concordat between government and business rarely concludes itself in favour of the citizenry. The focus is almost always on international appeal rather than civic or community use. The controversial Bays Precinct project in the inner west has circumvented public accountability a number of times by giving its plans all the bells and whistles of a “global city”. Most of this land will be owned by corporate entities. The 16,000 new homes to be provided by the project will lie without the means of those who really need it. Sydney’s harbourside is to be transformed into a boutique promenade of glossy towers and indifferent wealth.

This upbuilding of Sydney into a corporate love-in wasn’t necessarily an easy process. There was, once upon a time, huge tension between government and industry. The latter part of the 19th century saw political conversation in New South Wales turn to transforming the roguery of Sydney’s urban aesthetic into something more effective and beautiful. In the 1880s, the state government started reclaiming land for explicitly public use.

But this didn’t sit too easily with the local mercantile population. In 1901, the government did an about-turn, assuming resumption powers to turn slums into hubs of industry. The next 80 years was not so much a tug of war as a tiptoeing of parliament around the sensitivities of private interest. Government projects to create garden suburbs for the worker population were hijacked by commercial organisations. The Mount Druitt of SBS’s Struggle Street was among these failed experiments in urban reform.

The public interest found an ally in the labour movement after World War II. The worker-led “green bans” of the 1970s might be the most effective restriction of corporate development in Australian history. In fact, the 30 years between 1945 and 1975 marked an era of public authority in urban planning that had not been seen before in Australia.

Nor, unfortunately, has it been seen since. Hawke and Keating, the latter of whom more recently chaired the Barangaroo design contest, were able to bring government and business into a perpetual neoliberal handshake through the 1980s. Huge corporate development projects were given the green light by New Labor, and this was continued throughout successive decades. Barangaroo and The Bays Precinct are just the most recent chapters in a long narrative of government complicity with corporatisation. The lack of effective public consultation in these projects is enough to undermine any pretension of a genuinely inclusive approach to urban design.

So where is the public backlash? Thus far, many people have met the developments with outspoken support. The public forum threads on the webpages do demand community amenities, but more often call for craft beer emporiums and sculpture gardens. James Packer warned that Sydney was becoming too “complacent” in its urban imagination. He seems, unwittingly, to have struck right on the money. He certainly has a knack for that.

Gone is the era of worker organisation and publicly motivated green bans. We seem now to accept every encroachment of private interest onto shared spaces. The transformation of Sydney’s spatiality has gone as far as restricting access to the fulfilment of human need in the heart of the city. You don’t have to be the most astute observer to have noticed recently the change of ticket-barrier location at Central and Town Hall stations. It was a subtle shift, a move of only two or three metres. Yet it blocked access to public toilets for all those except ticket holders. The paying customer gets a clean bathroom; the urban poor get shunted back onto the streets.

You may be familiar with the idea of defensive architecture: strategies of urban planning that make leisure impossible and poverty unthinkable. Spikes on the ground outside shopping centres; park benches made outlandishly incommodious to the homeless; fenced walkways restricting pedestrian mobility. There’s a whole gallery of these hostile mechanisms across the city.

Alex Andreou, a journalist who has felt the ravages of homelessness firsthand, recently wrote about the double-edged sword of defensive architecture. When we design against the impecunious, “we also make it impossible for the elderly, for the infirm, for the pregnant woman who has had a dizzy spell”. Allowing limitations on public space in any form is to allow “potential harm” to our selves.

The whole problem of privatisation raises issues of accountability. Is the government in the wrong for capitulating to industry, or are we in the wrong for ignoring our own part in the process? For our part, it’s important to remember that the era of public organisation was not so long ago. Sydney’s urban aesthetic is the result of negotiations between government, business and people. The gradual removal of people from the equation has been the downfall of modern planning. The revival of the citizenry’s engagement with the urban process may well be its vindication.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 19, 2015 as "Public image limited".

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Giacomo Bianchino is a philosopher and commentator on politics and culture.

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