John Menadue. The new squatters are taking over more public land.

Nov 7, 2015

On a wide front developers and other commercial interests are moving into our public parks, gardens and beaches. They are our new squatters and the community is feeling powerless in the face of this invasion.

In earlier blogs I outlined the historic encroachment of private interests on our ‘public commons’ – the land and facilities we share as citizens.

In Sydney, there are many glaring examples of how the new squatters are moving onto public land.

Darling Harbour has been ‘developed’ to within an inch of its life. Instead of a spacious recreation area we now have a congested and ugly commercial ghetto.

Without due process and with political influence writ large, the public commons at Barangaroo has been dramatically reduced in favour of commercial interests. The original plan was to keep about half of the site, including the whole 1.4 km waterfront, as inalienable public land. That has been junked in favour of James Packer’s six-star casino to bring in ‘high rollers’.

The original architect of Barangaroo, Philip Thalis, said ‘the vibrant public space envisaged seven years ago has shrunk to become basically an enclave of privilege and exclusion’.

But worse is in prospect. The Sydney Morning Herald has reported ‘the city’s newest park, Barangaroo Reserve has attracted 200,000 visitors since August. But kite flyers, soccer players, fishers and musicians will find it off limits from this weekend. Anyone wanting to hire exclusive use of Barangaroo foreshore, lawns, coves and walkways for public functions however are welcome-if they are prepared to pay.’ Slowly the takeover continues.

Another Sydney example of squatter encroachment on public land is the Sydney Botanic Gardens. For many years part of the gardens have been alienated for four months each year for opera and cinema. Wealthy patrons and wealthy sponsors have been the main beneficiaries. But this isn’t enough for the new squatters. The Botanic Gardens and the Domain Trust have released a master plan for the parks to be developed with cafes, an $80 million hotel and year-round concerts. This is desecration of the hallowed grounds bequeathed by Governors Phillip and Macquarie.

In congested Watsons Bay where I live, a developer from Darling Harbour has applied to develop wedding facilities and restaurants within the South Head National Park and spill his patrons onto a beautiful public beach.

Step by step our public commons is being eroded. When governments refuse to adequately fund our parks and gardens it is likely that commercial interests will seize the opportunity for a land grab. The economy is put ahead of society.

In the 18th and 19th Century, wealthy and privileged landowners in England passed Enclosure Acts forcing people off common land which they had used for centuries. About 20% of land in England was enclosed.

We followed suit in Australia in the 19th Century with ‘squatters’, mainly from the upper echelons of colonial society, occupying large tracks of crown land to graze livestock. Over time, this occupation of the pastoral ‘commons’ and the dispossession of indigenous people was enshrined in law and enforced by the police.

History tells us that we need to be very careful about those who want to take possession and erode our public ‘commons’. It happens slowly, almost imperceptibly, often without our knowledge or understanding of what is at stake.  And it is not just about getting shooters out of national parks or protecting waterfront land without public tender. Councils often carelessly allow commercial interests to encroach on public parks, botanic gardens and beaches.

Some council do oppose many crass and vulgar developments, but too often they don’t have the resources to combat a phalanx of celebrity architects, lawyers and public relations lobbyists. Some councils are obviously concerned that if they reject such developments, it will lead to expensive legal appeals to the Land and Environment Court.

We owe a great debt to foresighted citizens and governments in the past who established our public ‘commons’, national parks ,botanic gardens and beaches, for the enjoyment of all.

If governments and their agencies are unwilling or unable to protect our natural and built environment, I would hope that our unions would take up again what the BLF pioneered 40 years ago in Kelly’s Bush in Hunters Hill, Sydney. We need an association of professional and community groups, including unions to develop a charter to safeguard our public commons.

With the rapid increase in our urban populations, protecting and expanding our public commons is more important than ever. The new squatters must be turned back.


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