Artwork: Fintan Magee

The Right to the City

In pursuit of a more just, sustainable and democratic Brisbane

by Dr Natalie Osborne

I’d like to begin this article by paying my respects to the Traditional Custodians of the lands I live and work on: the Yugarabul, Yuggera, Jagera, Turrbal, and Yugambeh/Kombumerri peoples. Any movement for a coherent urban politics and for a Right to the City in a settler-colonial context must always centre justice for First Peoples, as we are on sovereign land, never ceded.

Something is happening on the streets of Brisbane.

Chalked on the street in front of a controversial development are ‘whose city?’ and ‘free the city’.

In front of a hospital, a round-the-clock vigil is held for an injured asylum seeker child to defend her right to treatment, safety, and for her, her family’s, the rights of others like them to be part of the Brisbane community.

Gathered in a church hall, a vacant meeting room, the back of a café, a park, groups are meeting to write radical housing policies, to collaboratively design alternative master plans for sites, to build street furniture out of reclaimed materials, to discuss, propose and enact interventions in public space.

Verges are planted. Furniture is placed in parks. Discarded food is rounded up and shared. Bands are playing and poets are performing and academics are lecturing in public spaces. Snap blockades of problematic developments begin with picnics in the park. The Gabba Ward’s footpath and parks budget is being allocated through participatory budgeting.

People, often from the margins, are seeking to nurture a public life in Brisbane. They are seeking to establish what Harvey calls “coherent urban politics”, a politics with diverse conceptual and political underpinnings, reflecting the multiplicity of the urban from which it grows. Such an urban politics provides a way to both understand how political and economic processes producing urban space also produce the social conditions of a city’s inhabitants, and to imagine and mobilise the creation of a more just, more sustainable, more democratic, city.

Image Credit: Renee Chapman Photography

The Right to Brisbane

In Brisbane, a number of urban social movements, and a kind of radical urban politics is coalescing under the frame of ‘The Right to the City’ a concept first articulated by Henri Lefebvre in 1967, and taken up by urban sociologists and geographers in recent decades. The discourse of ‘The Right to the City’ is being invoked by Brisbanites as a way to explore critiques of current systems for producing and managing urban space, and to mobilise a way forward, making the Right to the City both “a cry and a demand”.

Image Credit: Renee Chapman Photography

Further, it also encapsulates the appropriation of the city — “to wrest the use of the city from privileged new masters and democratize its space”. This right is conferred by inhabitance — which is not a fixed or singular identity, but one that may reflect intersectionality and multiplicity.

A key driver of this new urban politics in Brisbane is an entrenched cynicism towards mainstream urban governance, which is seen as corruptible, profit-centric to the exclusion and harm of all other interests, and inhibiting our ability to attend to our responsibilities to the environment and to each other.

Other drivers include concerns over rising inequality; job insecurity and housing unaffordability; uneven access to essential services and infrastructure; rapid, poor quality development contributing to gentrification; the commodification of public space and urban cultures and subcultures; persistent inaction on climate change and other environmental issues; and the ongoing injustices perpetrated against marginalised groups — perhaps particularly Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples and asylum seekers and refugees. Decision-making processes about the city are seen as exclusive, undemocratic and unjust, and urban planning is understood primarily as the “handmaiden of neoliberalism”.

The coalescing of activists and activist discourse around the notion of The Right to the City in Brisbane has gained particular traction this past year. Community conferences have been held on this theme, most recently Cracks in the Concrete Ideas Fiesta.

Brisbane Free University dedicated their 2016 Winter Program to The Right to the City, exploring it from multiple perspectives. Radio Reversal on 4ZZZ has had a series on the Right to the City, and Brisbane-based bloggers writing at The Word From Struggle Street have published a number of articles exploring the topic. Protests against particular developments — especially the movement against the West Village Development on the former Absoe site in West End — are drawing on this discourse too.

Image Credit: Renee Chapman Photography

‘The Right to the City’ Brisbane movement is very new, and is still in the process of formulating a manifesto and identifying strategic priorities. Cracks in the Concrete: Ideas Fiesta for a Better Brisbane was the next step in building a new, diverse, but coherent and vibrant urban politics in Brisbane.

Cracks in the Concrete

Cracks in the Concrete: Ideas Fiesta for a Better Brisbane was organised in the hopes that it would bring together urban social movements, activists, and other interested individuals. Some of these existing movements are single issue — focused on particular developments, or particular interests.

The goal was not to subsume any of these existing campaigns or groups, but to use the ‘Right to the City’ concept to help articulate the commonalities that cross different groups, movements, and issues. Further, Cracks in the Concrete hoped to build relationships, find opportunities for tactical coalitions and alliances, share experiences, and engage in radical and collaborative discussions about what a better Brisbane might be, and how it might be brought into being.

Topics explored in workshops and plenaries included: the meaning of the ‘right to the city’; the city as the new factory, and the importance of radical strategies and forms of organising in that context; the need for us to think seriously about our responsibilities to the city and each other, not just ‘rights’; examples of better development strategies; the radical history of Brisbane; refugee, migrant, and night workers’ experiences of housing and the city; corruption in the planning system; and ‘mapping the concrete jungle.’ The interactive stalls fostered discussions on a fossil-free city, accessibility and disability in the city, meanings and experiences of home and housing, oral histories of Brisbane, and cycling in Brisbane. A stall on tactical urbanism also conducted a skills audit of participants. Throughout the day participants also pieced together a giant puzzle — design by local artist Anna Carlson aka Mama.see . The data gathered from the day is still being processed, and a follow-up meeting focused on specific strategising and prioritising — Streets of our Town — is planned for the evening of September 15th.

Image Credit: Renee Chapman Photography

Although it is very early days for ‘The Right to the City’ Brisbane, Cracks in the Concrete aimed to — and perhaps succeeded — in making hope possible. At the closing session, participants gathered together on the grass, in the sunshine typical of a Brisbane winter afternoon, beside the completed puzzle. After a short speech and poem by local musician and Brisbane City Councillor for the Gabba Ward Jonathan Sri, microphones were passed between participants, who shared their thoughts and ideas. An older man introduced himself as Brian O’Connor, a local since he was 15 years old, and stated:

“Let me tell you that this really impresses me, all you young people. You are the change. God bless you.”

Right to the City movements emerge from a collective cry — they are not, and cannot be imposed. They emerge from the grassroots, from the cracks in the concrete. As historian Jon Piccini argues, Brisbane is a city with a radical history, and the struggle over the Right to the City in Brisbane is a long one, though it has not always been articulated thus. Indeed, this struggle has been occurring since so-called Brisbane was invaded and colonised, and the traditional owners forcibly dispossessed. This new movement can be understood as part of that ongoing struggle for a Just City in Brisbane, but the city is not merely the setting for this struggle — it is also “the stakes”.

Right to the City movements are not only about resistance, protests, blockades and occupations in the traditional sense — though those strategies remain important — they are also a process of joyful, playful reimagining and creation. It is about experimentation and a hands-on approach to urban space, one that values conviviality, and creates room for music, art, poetry, dancing, laughter, and possibilities for encountering each other, informally.

It is also about the use of radical strategies to actively and collectively claim and exercise a Right to the City — a Right to Brisbane — through practices of everyday urban politics. In doing so, we simultaneously change the city, and ourselves.

I am one of the founding members of Right to the City — Brisbane, and I helped organise Cracks in the Concrete. I am also conducting participatory action research on this topic, with members of Right to the City — Brisbane and Gabba Ward organisers (Griffith HRE 2016/557).



Dr Natalie Osborne is a Lecturer in the School of Environment at Griffith University. Natalie’s work is primarily in the fields of critical human geography and environmental planning. She is focused on social and environmental justice in human settlements and the development of more just, resilient and sustainable futures.

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