Public space: a contested and changing area

16 December 2016

Urban geographer Associate Professor Kurt Iveson provides insights into the policy hotspot of public space in this final podcast series for 2016, describing a new policing project and analysing the impact of Pokémon GO on the city.

What is public space in modern society and why is it important? Associate Professor of Urban Geography at the University of Sydney, Kurt Iveson, explains how he has had to re-invent his role, touches on IT-enabled experiences in city environments and shows how conversations about contested spaces can have unexpected, and welcome, results.

Host: Dr Chris Neff
Guest: A/Prof Kurt Iveson
Producers: Vivienne Reiner & Annika Dean
Editor: Caitlin Gibson

Associate Professor Kurt Iveson
Kurt is an Associate Professor in the University's School of Geosciences. His current research is focused on the governance of the outdoor media landscape and on the spatial politics of urban informatics systems.


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Chris Neff: Most of us live in cities or regional areas, but what is urban? What does it matter and how is the way that we talk about our place in the city so different today than it has been in the past?

With me today on Open for Discussion is Kurt Iveson, an Associate Professor of Urban Geography at The University of Sydney. Kurt is the author of Publics in the City, and Planning and Diversity in the City.

Kurt, welcome to Open for Discussion.

Kurt Iveson: Thank you for having me Chris.

Chris Neff: I've got two questions to start off with. I mean the first is how did you get involved in this? And then the second is what are public spaces? So when we think about it, what are we talking about here.

Kurt Iveson: Yeah, yeah ok. So I got involved in this actually out of a … I did my undergraduate degree here at The University of Sydney. But anyway, I left, I did my honours and went off and did youth work for a few years.

So I worked at Marrickville Youth Resource Centre down the road here and also did some advocacy for a peak body group called the Youth Action and Policy Association and heaps of the work that I ended up doing there ended up being about young people and their access to public space. All sorts of controversies particularly about indigenous and ethnic minority young people and the way that they get policed in public space. All sorts of controversies going on about people's access to privatised public spaces like shopping malls and we did so much work on that when I kind of knew that I wanted to come back and do some academic research that was the topic, that really sort of had me you know, passionate and fired up and yeah.

Chris Neff: So then is public space, is it government owned space or town or locality?

Kurt Iveson: Well this is the thing isn't it. It's one of those concepts that we kind of can't live without and yet none of us can actually adequately define it. So as you say, one way of talking about public space is talking about ownership. Which is to talk about who owns the space and whether it's a public authority or whether it's something owned by a private individual; but the other way we can talk about public space is about kind of sociability if you want to put it that way rather than ownership. So is it a space where we are likely to encounter strangers, people you know that are not our kind of intimate associates.

Chris Neff: Mmm hmm.

Kurt Iveson: So you know in different ways we could say that you know a shopping mall is not a public space, right, because it's privately owned but on the other hand of course it is a public space. That ambiguity I think is actually what makes it such an interesting thing to research but also just an interesting thing to live with, right, because we are constantly having to navigate in our everyday lives. You know we can adjust our little behaviours or whatever our expectations depending on whether we are in a train carriage which is a public space or a shopping mall or Hyde Park or some big open space like that.

Chris Neff: Well and that sort of leads me to my next question which usually comes at the end about sharks and the beach and so I do surveys on beaches...

Kurt Iveson: Mmm hmm.

Chris Neff: ... and when we go to beaches we're sort of with strangers and we lay on the beach but it's part of the national identity, but what do you think about beaches and the way that we ... beaches create national identity for Australians.

Kurt Iveson: Yeah look there as you say, beaches run really deep in this country as public spaces and they're so interesting particularly for an Australian urban geographer like myself. Like so much of our urban populations are actually coastal populations so beaches have historically been really important public spaces for recreation and gathering and all sorts of other stuff, exercise etc, but they are also so fraught and interesting partly because you know, unlike so many other public spaces, there's this stuff about bodies and you know one's body being exposed to others, really in quite sort of intimate ways that you wouldn't do so in other public spaces but also that interaction between the public realm and private property right? Which is that on the one hand we have this thing about beaches being open to everybody and the great open democratic space, but you know I used to live in Bronte and not 20 metres from the great democratic public space are houses that sell for seven, eight, nine million dollars right? So you get that kind of conflict going on and then as you say there have been great conflicts and great moments of national significance that have taken place at the beach. The least of course being the Cronulla riots from back in 2005 where we see these questions about difference and diversity in public space really coming to a head at the beach precisely around those questions about what it means to be Australian and how we, how we handle ourselves at this iconic public space.

Chris Neff: Do you think that the beach is … is for Australia … that it's it or is there another public space that comes to mind in Australia, maybe the bush or is it structures, like The Opera House or is it, I mean because Uluru I wouldn't consider necessarily a public space. I think that belongs to indigenous people and so ...

Kurt Iveson: Mmmm.

Chris Neff: … so I don't think that's public space.

Kurt Iveson: Yeah yeah. Well you know so another thing that I think you're right about with our concept of public space that's very interesting from an urban perspective is the bush. Right so I grew up in Sydney actually in just north of Hornsby, so about an hour away from the CBD and as a kid you know my key public space was the nearby little bushland. And actually for many people growing up in Australian cities, thirty, forty years ago and more actually the bush wasn't just out there outside of the city, actually there were all these remnant pockets of kind of undeveloped little bits of bushland all through our cities but as we're seeing these populations grow, we're seeing development pressures etc; that kind of public space is also being challenged just as the beaches are in some ways. Less and less people are living in proximity to these little pockets of bushland and you know that's a loss that I don't think we figured out how to replace in some ways because those are places where you can be kind of unsupervised (laughs) and you know be able to figure a whole bunch of stuff outside of the prying eyes of anybody else who's trying to govern your behaviour and all that kind of thing.

Chris Neff: Right I mean that's true you know, that sort of ditching your family to go and play in the woods or ...

Kurt Iveson: Yeah.

Chris Neff: … setup a fort or do any of the sort of stuff you would usually do becomes a lot harder ...

Kurt Iveson: Yeah, yeah.

Chris Neff: … if there's an apartment building there. So then talk to me about Pokémon GO …

Kurt Iveson: Ohhh.

Chris Neff: … and your research on Pokémon GO because that's fascinating.

Kurt Iveson: Alright so … so much of the stuff that I'm interested in in the last decade has been totally – to use the term that I hate – disrupted by all this new mobile and digital media right? And so I was doing this research about augmented reality and smart phones and public spaces and how it's all changing – really struggling to try and make some of this connect with some of the kind of classic urban geography thinking and what people are interested in and then this thing comes along that the people are out there playing and it's like, right! This is yes! A little moment when I can make some of these points because you know increasingly the way that we navigate public space is done with these smart devices and their mapping capabilities at hand but that then brings a whole set of interesting political questions about, well, there's this layer of digital data that's like attached to our public spaces but like who codes that data? Who has access to that data and how does that data shape our behaviour and with Pokémon we get all these examples of it where we see, for example, the fact that there are more Poke stops in predominantly white neighbourhoods in the United States for example than in African American neighbourhoods.

Chris Neff: Oh really? Wow – that's fascinating.

Kurt Iveson: We've been doing work on this, showing how this digital data is unevenly distributed, how actually the experience of playing the game in public, you know ideally public space is open to everybody but actually if you're a young woman on your own playing this game, chances are you might have a different experience of it than if you were a group of teenage boys, for example, so it really reveals some of the ongoing issues that we've got about unequal access to public space, and again there have been people of colour, particularly in the United States, who've actually been … you know … pulled up by police because they're playing the game in a predominantly white neighbourhood or in a park, people wondering what they're doing there because they're not meant to be there right? They're out of place and also, you know, here in Sydney we've had these great issues that it raises still about who pays for public space; goes back to your first question.

So we've got this park down the road here in a suburb called Rhodes that was kind of inundated with Pokémon players because there were some really rare Pokémon that you could get down there ...

Chris Neff: Mmmm hmm.

Kurt Iveson: … and the poor council's like, well, we've got no grass left in our park, the residents can't park around here and Niantic and you know Google are making truckloads of money out of this game and yet, like, this is costing us money so can we see a little coin from this? Like who's gonna pay for it?

Chris Neff: Ohhhh.

Kurt Iveson: Right so there's a sense in which this game is also profiting from the public realm that it's not paying for so that's an interesting question as well.

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Chris Neff: You're listening to Open for Discussion, a University of Sydney podcast that discusses research from a personal and critical lens. I'm your host, Chris Neff, a lecturer in public policy with a particular interest in the role of emotions and shark bites in policy making. Today I'm having a fascinating discussion with urban geographer, Associate Professor Kurt Iveson.

Can I ask another question about parks because that's another ...

Kurt Iveson: Mmm hmm.

Chris Neff: … real Australian thing is having open space and having parks and because I know in Camperdown park for instance in Sydney, which is where I used to live, the graffiti is fantastic.

Kurt Iveson: Yep.

Chris Neff: Like there are some amazing artwork that's there ...

Kurt Iveson: Mmm hmmm.

Chris Neff: ... and so where does graffiti come into how we consider the behaviour of people ...

Kurt Iveson: Yeah.

Chris Neff: … or the behaviour of young people in public spaces?

Kurt Iveson: Yeah and look so much, I realised over a couple of decades of doing this, so much of the way I think about cities is actually through the lens of graffiti. I've had a longstanding interest in this and that is another classic case about the tensions around how we think about public space and who it's for and what it is. Is it a space for open expression?

Of course the kind of expression that graffiti is and that street art is has been very controversial over the years where lots of people and lots of people in authority particularly see it as, well on the one hand it's public space but on the other hand again the wall is private property and who are these people to come along and write on somebody else's private property? So it's bad from that perspective but there are also those who say that if we don't clean up this graffiti it sends a message that no no-one cares and it's going to make people feel scared to be in public space because they're going to think that their shoes are going to get jacked by some gangster out of an Ice T movie from the 1980s or something, so … but I think you're right that what we're seeing from research that I've been doing and others, Kim Dovey in Melbourne and Cameron McAuliffe from Western Sydney University is actually, there are lots of residents when graffiti writers have time and space to do their best work, because they're not being chased away maybe by a police or by authorities, sometimes the work that they produce can actually make people feel better about the public realm because it adds you know, it kind of activates it right? It makes it lively and interesting and it can be a form of care and sometimes people do respond to that and get really cranky when the authorities come and paint over their graffiti ‘cause they love it.

Chris Neff: So it seems like there's then three things that are going on. You've got the: what is the definition of public space, how is that space, whatever it is, policed ...

Kurt Iveson: Mmm hmm.

Chris Neff: … and then: what are you doing in that space? Like are you in your bathing suit when you shouldn't be ...

Kurt Iveson: Mmm hmm.

Chris Neff: ... in a space, like if I got into a G-string and went, and wasn't the prime minister of Australia ...

Kurt Iveson: (laughs)

Chris Neff: ... and went to a, you know, a park – that could be offensive.

Kurt Iveson: Mmm hmm.

Chris Neff: So it's what we do, it's what the place is and it's what, how it's policed.

Kurt Iveson: Yeah.

Chris Neff: Ah that's fascinating.

Kurt Iveson: Yeah, and as you say the interaction between those dimensions of it. Just like you say there is the physical access like who can be in it and who can't be in it but as you say the deeper stuff is about what you can do when you're there. Those two things obviously come together in all sorts of fascinating ways but yeah, as you say, it's just endlessly interesting. And then not only how do we make those decisions as a society but how do we enforce them and do we enforce them with a, you know, a carrot or a stick as it were and everything that sits in-between those two different approaches.

Chris Neff: So how do you think we should reconcile these two things of the way that they're policed? Like who's allowed into a public space? What are they allowed to do when they get there? You know like, how do you ...

Kurt Iveson: Yeah so one of the things, for me anyway, is to start with a sense of that set of questions being political questions, and when you accept that they're political questions then you accept that there will be disagreement across the society that you live in about how to answer them. And if you start from that basis then the response isn't to just assume that there's one way of doing things and we need a set of authorities and police to come in and make that happen but it's just to crack open some space for some conflict and contention around it and but when a challenge comes along or a threat comes along you know, to not just always be wanting to step in with the big stick and stop it but to be thinking politically about that question.

So to try and give you one example maybe from my current work right now; I'm doing some work with a group of community organisations in Blacktown in the Western Suburbs of Sydney and there have been some really terrible assaults and fights on the train station at Blacktown over the last year. Like teenage kids getting beaten up by other teenage kids, people scared to catch the train at different times of the day because they're worried about whether they are going to get assaulted.

Now one way of us responding to this is to say we need more cops and we need CCTV but they can be just as exclusionary themselves so for Islander kids or for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander kids ...

Chris Neff: Mmm hmm.

Kurt Iveson: … more police makes them not necessarily feel more welcome or more comfortable or more accessible. So these community organisations have kind of been getting together to try and figure out what they want to do to make the place better and their responses are really different. They're using a model that they've learnt about from Redfern here where maybe we could actually get the railway station to employ some Islander and Sudanese and Aboriginal elders to just be on the platforms as a kind of presence, that aren't there as police but are there as kind of elders with respect that can maybe help to you know, head off some of the conflicts.

There's a campaign out there that Islander kids have set up called Fists Down; totally grassroots campaign where they're just sort of saying we need to end the violence ourselves so, what if we got some graffiti writers to get this Fists Down message up around the platform instead of there just being paid advertising everywhere. That would remind people that actually this is a space for everyone and we shouldn't be fighting.

So you know, you sort of crack open a set of political questions in the community and then you get a different set of potential solutions coming out of that dialogue than you do if it's just like the kids that are having fights are bad and we've got to get them off the public space, we've got to get rid of them, you know.? So ...

Chris Neff: Totally.

Kurt Iveson: So, yeah.

Chris Neff: Well I remember when, when the rainbow flag was on Oxford St ...

Kurt Iveson: Mmm hmm.

Chris Neff: ... and it was painted by the city and they said we're going to do it for three days for Mardi Gras and then after that we're going to take it up and the cost was going to be more than the cost of leaving it and they said oh no, you know, it'll create a hazard and too many people will take selfies and it'll slow down traffic, and they dug it up in the dead of night. They just sort of went and dug it up and said it's gone and that's it ...

Kurt Iveson: Yeah.

Chris Neff: … and that is what led to the rainbow shock campaign where DIY...

Kurt Iveson: Mmm hmm.

Chris Neff: … you know rainbows all across Australia, all across the world. Sort of this reclaiming ...

Kurt Iveson: Yeah ...

Chris Neff: … of place and what do you think about that because it sort of sounds like, like that. Like when you break the mould of the way that you generally think of the space and the way that you generally think of the norms that go with that space, that ...

Kurt Iveson: Mmm hmm.

Chris Neff: … the sidewalk, that chalking a sidewalk is an act of rebellion. You know, putting a rainbow down is a, is an act of rebellion ...

Kurt Iveson: Yeah.

Chris Neff: … like that does something to a, for the communities involved, doesn't it?

Kurt Iveson: Yeah … and it's something that I've also been trying to look at over the last years because I think you're totally right. That one of the things that we've seen in the politics of public space in the last little while is this flowering of kind of do-it-yourself initiatives where people are just like, well yeah like rather than us putting together a delegation and going to talk to the mayor, like we could just put some plants on that street or we could start growing fruit and vegetables.

As you say, if we think this flag is important to us in public space, like we can go out and do that right? I, I really think that that DIY stuff is very, very interesting at the moment and there's some great things coming out of it.

There's deeper questions for me again about how we scale up some of these issues. They're very like, corner by corner we can change the city and I sort of think, I'm down with that programme, almost but I sometimes think you know there are sort of these bigger policy issues that we have to tackle but actually yeah, the street-by-street we can just take control of our public spaces thing has really had some important, you know, influence over the last few years all over the world so it's great to see it happening.

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Chris Neff: You're listening to Open for Discussion, a University of Sydney podcast. You can subscribe to this podcast on iTunes or Soundcloud and you can find me on Twitter @christopherneff.

Do you find that policy makers are understanding the research that you're doing and are receptive to some of the messages that, say you know, we need to think of this as more than just a transactional location or do they understand that it means different things if you're a person of colour? Like in the way that it's responded to and policed is different. Do they get that?

Kurt Iveson: Yeah, look I've had, I have to say a variable experience with trying to get that message out there. Like another thing that for me that is still a bit live at the moment and I don't know where it's all headed but I've done some work with the City of Sydney here on their street art and graffiti policies partly because on the one hand they're spending loads of money cleaning up graffiti every year but on the other hand they kind of wish they were a bit more like Melbourne; why don't we have more funky, cool street art? So me and a few others, colleagues, have sort of tried to do some work for them to tell them why and it's because they are over-regulating the public realm ...

Chris Neff: Mmm hmm.

Kurt Iveson: … and not even really at the moment letting – like if – never mind just letting people go crazy but like if you own a terrace house in Glebe and you've got a cool wall at the back of your property and you think you know, maybe it's being tagged and you would like to invite the kids that are tagging it back during the day and give them a sausage and say like maybe do a mural here ...

Chris Neff: Yeah finish it! That's a start.

Kurt Iveson: Finish it, do something good, then pretty much at the moment you have to go through the same planning approval process as if you wanted to add a story to your house right, it's kind of nuts. And so even to just actually get to a point where we can say well, how about we just let them come to that arrangement on their own and just see what happens and you know the planners are like but what happens if a neighbour doesn't like it and complains? It's like well that's up to those people to figure out as far as I'm concerned. That's not like, a kind of matter of life and death where we actually do have to have some regulatory intervention. Like there's heaps of stuff in the urban public realm that I hate, you know, I don't like the billboards that I see all around me all the time. I just have to I guess put up with it in a way.

Chris Neff: Do you think that public spaces – ‘cause we talk about the digital revolution ...

Kurt Iveson: Mmm.

Chris Neff: … there seems to also be a public space revolution. Whether it's the Occupy movement or whether it's the Arab Spring and taking over these public spaces. It seems like it's maybe the digital connection that people can do on Facebook and tagging or on twitter to tell people where they're going is manifesting and pushing people toward public spaces in a new way.

Kurt Iveson: Yeah, that's so … you've just bought up a really other important point about public space and it's so interesting that every few years now in the wake of all these digital transformations, kind of proclamations about the death of public space and what do we need it for anymore and then as you say Tiananmen Square happens, Zuccotti Park happens, the Puerta del Sol happens in Madrid and suddenly it's like oh hang on a minute, all these people are gathering in public spaces and having these protests and it seems to be quite important. And that has been really interesting again as a way in which the digital and the physical are kind of interacting here. As you say, we can think about maybe some of those digital tools enabling a kind of choreography of protests where people are going to organise in their movements or even organising their occupations right? Like, what do we want? Maybe we should sit down with one another over a few weeks and actually have those conversations, and again they're like it was just amazing to me that in this world that we're in that I could be sitting in my office in Sydney following that in real time as these conversations were happening and people were sending out calls for resources or sending out updates about who is been arrested trying to walk over the Brooklyn Bridge and I'm on the other side of the planet. So yeah, big stuff going on with that too. That sort of sense of representation but still the physical seems to matter. Really you know, crucial to the sort of politics of democracy.

Chris Neff: So then what mediates the times that a public space is public and the times that a public space is private because like if I think back, so on 9/11 for instance ...

Kurt Iveson: Mmm hmm.

Chris Neff: So I was there when the Pentagon was bombed and I was a block away from the White House and so they had shut down everything and they had nationalised everything and there was smoke everywhere and they said walk home, leave your car, you can't drive your car. You're leaving your car ...

Kurt Iveson: Yeah.

Chris Neff: … you're not driving anywhere, the bridge is closed, the streets are closed. So now you had 1.2 million people walking down the street ...

Kurt Iveson: Wow.

Chris Neff: … away from the smoke of The Pentagon. So now the street is not the street anymore. Now it's a public thoroughfare and so I think about like those times when that, when public space like, don't walk in the street and all these things that just, it just changes ...

Kurt Iveson: Yep. Yep.

Chris Neff: … it's just not relevant anymore.

Kurt Iveson: No that's right and I guess you know we've got some good, you know, classic sort of French urban theory from people like Henri Lefebvre or Michel de Certeau that talk about those moments of ...

Chris Neff: I was just about to bring them up.

Kurt Iveson: … oh yeah right, right. Of course you were, good. But just those moments of disruption and what they teach us about what we'd normally take for granted that suddenly, as you say, that moment of a disastrous event like the one that you were describing or just an irregular thing like the reconciliation march across the Harbour Bridge here. Suddenly to walk on that road can also be the thing that points out the possible and to sort of say that the thing that we take for granted is kind of always fragile and these orders that we have in public space about who belongs where and what's possible and what's not, they're constructed. They're not natural, they're not you know forever. And those moments of disruption can be really powerful in reminding us that and reminding us that these are contingent and fragile orders that it's kind of up to us to change and it actually, we have the capacity to change and if we can do it in a disastrous event like 9/11 or if we can do it for a state-sanctioned march then we could be doing it more and more if we wanted. We can; it's just what are the politics of making that happen?

Chris Neff: So there's a fluid nature to the way that we look at public spaces and the way that they are policed and our behaviour, because it changes over time and so this is a fascinating area of research, I just have to say Kurt.

Kurt Iveson: Oh man, so like the only downside I have to say is that I'm just never switched off from this, you know what I mean? And like you work here at the University of Sydney and I literally walk out my office door and it's all on. Everything that I'm talking about, to be able to, it's just such a privilege to be able to, even the students that I get to teach you know, we spend hours and hours walking around this city observing this stuff because it's just so much more fun to be actually out on the train talking about public transport as public space than for me to be rabbiting on in you know, the lecture theatre down the hall here. But yeah, you know the downside is that if I want a proper holiday I have to seriously go bush and just ...

Chris Neff: (laughs)

Kurt Iveson: … get out of it so that I can just power down for a moment and stop thinking about it ‘cause it's just always happening.

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Chris Neff: Well thank you very much for sharing some of this with us. It's been a really interesting conversation; thank you for joining us on Open for Discussion.

Kurt Iveson: It's been a real pleasure man, thank you.

Chris Neff: And thank you for joining us on Open for Discussion. This wraps up our conversations for 2016 but we're lining up fantastic discussions for 2017 and look forward to having you join us. Thank you again.

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