Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Expect new censorship, if our privates enter the public domain
Life, mumbles the ageing Ed Koch figure in Shortbus from his dog-eared corner of the orgy, life demands porosity. Ebb and flow, give and take, exchange; it’s that or stagnate. As with life, so with cities.
Traditionally, the only permitted impedimenta to a city’s crucial flow were, to pursue the orgy theme, its pulsing public organs; its major parks and stations, its cathedrals, hospitals and highways. But now, as amnesia over the meaning of “public” becomes official, this is changing. Increasingly, the big lumpy bits of cities – the things you have to divert monstrously around – are the bastions of private privilege: malls, resorts, privatopias and, now, even the town centres themselves. Privates all.
Australia has its (small) share of gated communities. Maybe 100,000 people all up, depending on whether you include security buildings and enclosed back lanes, or just the paid-up snarlers such as Macquarie Links in Campbelltown and Pacific Lakes on the Central Coast. (For some reason they have these double-barrelled ’60s soap-opera names: Walton Way; Robertson Heights; Coronation Street; Peyton Place.) But a new species of exotic fauna is being unleashed. Private cities.
The harbingers are the New Rouse Hill near, well, the old one; and Springfield, near Ipswich in south-east Queensland. Springfield – which unlike Homer Simpson’s home town will not have its own Three Mile Island, or not yet – was launched last month by the State Minister for Transport and Main Roads, Paul Lucas, but is wholly owned by the Suncorp-backed Springfield Land Corporation. A $1.5 billion investment with a city centre twice the size of Sydney’s and a shopping centre (one of four) 30 per cent bigger again than Westfield Bondi Junction, Springfield will accommodate 85,000 residents, 30,000 workers, six schools, a TAFE, a university and a “health and wellness precinct”.
Rouse Hill, which has been planned for years but opens stage one in September, will also sport a town centre that is privately owned – this time by GPT. The purpose, says GPT, is “to ensure that 99 per cent of people using the space are kept safe and unaffected by people who shouldn’t be there”.
And that’s the nub. The beauty of cities, and much of their excitement, lies in the idea of public space: permeable, universal, inalienable. But they are exciting because they’re unpredictable and, to that extent, threatening. Humans, simultaneously attracted and affrighted, respond with walls. They’ve been building walls around themselves since they fell out of trees; mostly beyond basic shelter, designed to exclude other humans.
Ancient Rome locked even its own victorious generals outside the gates. The medieval “freedom of the city” made it a privilege to enter with sword drawn, drove cattle across London Bridge or be drunk and disorderly in public. Nineteenth-century cities, including Sydney, had pockets of unimaginable squalor. But none restricted the right of ordinary people to move around the city’s ordinary streets. That restriction is the essence of ghetto.
Neither Rouse Hill nor Springfield would see itself as ghetto material. Hardly. Rouse Hill’s self-image is a mega-mall with the good-heartedness to provide un-roofed streets, squares and walkways as well as the usual mind-numbing treasure caverns. But the difference between keeping the riff-raff out and keeping them in is really just technical. Any city whose public spaces are privately owned retains pretty much the same rights to turf the unwashed as any mega-mall.
It is a playground mentality, this, and not in a good way. The wall, a reified line, is architecture’s essential device. At its best, it dramatises and intensifies flow. But at worst – in the hands of fearful primates – the wall becomes an exclusionary device. It becomes the Berlin Wall or the Great Wall of China; Israel’s Jerusalem “security fence” or the 900-kilometre, $US500-million ($600-million) high-tech night-sensored triple barrier that the Saudis hope will prevent jihad blowback along their Iraq border; a wall, notes one commentator, to “make the Berlin Wall look like a picket fence”.
So it’s no surprise that the value of gated communities has risen markedly since September 11, 2001. The more fearful we feel – even if we’re actually safer – the louder our herd instinct yells. We become us by virtue of not being them; by virtue of excluding them. In Gore Vidal’s words: “It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail.”
At Rouse Hill, all that differentiates the town centre from any other private land is GPT’s Publicly Accessible Areas Management Plan, required by council and at present in draft. A Baulkham Hills Shire councillor, David Bentham, was so concerned he called in the Council for Civil Liberties. Following some changes, that body declared itself satisfied that GPT’s early segregational ardour has been damped. The Mayor, Tony Hay, is comfortable; the general manager, David Walker, says it is not council’s problem.
But that’s where he’s wrong. The management plan, which has no precedent in this country and little legal status, is an agreement between council and landholder, nothing more. And when the shove comes – when a homeless person needs a friendly doorway or a “McDonald’s sucks” march is planned – you can bet it won’t be property rights that lose out.
Ebb and flow is no match for dogs and stun guns.