You may not notice it consciously, but as you walk down Boundary or Vulture St in West End it might feel like something is missing. And this is maybe it: this year the council has removed, at the request of local businesses, several public benches from the footpath. In fact, they’re becoming quite an endangered species. According to the West End Community Association, over the last decade 10 benches have been removed.
Hard to believe I know that public seats could be considered such a menace to society that they need to be eradicated. In fact these benches are extremely valuable for elderly and disabled members of our community. As well as those who are homeless, whether they use the benches to sleep on or just for somewhere to sit. Do you think the people in these already marginalised sectors of our society were consulted before the benches were removed?
But important as it is to speak up for those groups of people, we should also recognise this as part of a broader issue. That is the attack on public space in our society.
You can see this in the policing of the city, where council workers can use the dangerously vague language of “illegal assembly” to eject anybody they like from Queen St Mall. I’ve seen this justification used to remove a single person silently holding a sign.
In Southbank they don’t even need this much justification. The parklands there are registered under the name of the mysterious Southbank Corporation, which means that the private security who constantly patrol them can drive out anybody they like and say that these taxpayer funded parklands are “private property”.
In all kinds of ways our public space is under threat. Everywhere we go we are inundated with advertising, yet if anybody puts up a poster for an event not sponsored by a corporation that can afford to pay, Brisbane City Council actually uses the poster details to track down people and fine them hundreds of dollars per poster.
Public events are told they require public liability insurance, which not only makes the organising of events inaccessible for those who don’t have the money, it concentrates that money into the hands of private insurance companies, who you can guarantee will do anything to avoid paying out if there ever actually is a claim.
Out in the new suburban developments public space is even more endangered. Housing subdivisions stretch out endlessly, only interrupted by massive private shopping malls.
Public space is absolutely essential to building a sense of community and forging links with those around us, as well as a right we all have to be able to exist somewhere without being controlled by those who have the power to buy land.
So why is our public space so threatened? The answer is found by looking at who it was that requested the seats be removed, or by wandering down Boundary St. and noting the amount of footpath space the council has leased out privately. It’s not that this attack is a completely isolated phenomenon. The disappearance of public space goes hand in hand with the growth of commercial space.
This is the irrational dogma of capitalism and economic growth: if it makes money it’s good, if it doesn’t make money then it’s getting in the way of progress. It’s why our public services are being privatised. Why our universities are shedding humanities subjects but expanding the business departments. Why mining companies hold leases over virtually all of Australia. It’s why all of our lives are constantly being reduced to what we own and what we “do for a living”.
But back to our seats. If we care about public space, which we should, we need to resist the removal of our seats and all the other encroachments of commercial space. The great irony of it all is that people from all over Brisbane come to West End and spend money here because of the “vibe” and sense of community that has been built up over years of Boundary St. functioning as a public community space. Businesses are happy to exploit this but at the same time are the ones who will destroy it.
We need to take actions that demand our seats be replaced and our public space protected. I will be attempting to start a campaign to attempt to do just that over the next few weeks, including a couple of public sit-ins.
But as for the broader issue, we need to fight for public space by resisting the commercialisation of our lives. Go out and don’t spend money. Talk to people you don’t know. Take ownership of your streets and your community. Live your life publicly. The time to act is now, before we have to buy a ticket to leave our front door.