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A crowd gathers in London to protest the use of public space
Research_

Pushing back against the privatisation of public space

Many shared city spaces are being sold off
The way public spaces are produced and managed can affect everything from how we act to who we meet. Local governments have a duty to maintain these spaces so communities have a safe meeting place that everyone can enjoy.
Dr Bradley Garrett

Social geographer and research fellow at the University of Sydney, Dr Bradley Garrett, started investigating public space while he was living in London. It was here he noticed a number of outdoor public spaces had been sold to private companies. These events left him outraged as a citizen, and intrigued as a researcher.   

“Once private companies were in control of our shared outdoor areas, they started enforcing rules that limited what the public could do there,” he said.   

“As a geographer, I found this fascinating because the political mechanisms behind how these spaces were managed was largely concealed from citizens, only exposed when someone was told they had violated corporate rules imposed on the land. 

“This goes against our collective understanding of the importance of public space in cities stretching all the way back to ancient Greece, where the Agora – which literally means ‘gathering place’ was the centre of public life. 

“On a more personal level, I was outraged when these corporations started removing homeless people from public spaces, labelling photographers as threatening, and preventing public protest.” 

Upon making these findings, Brad decided to do something about it. He believes that research is more than building knowledge, it's also about aspiring for change to make the world a better place.

I started calling local councils in London to ask them where I could get more information on how many public spaces had been sold to property developers, and where they were, and was almost completely stonewalled.
Dr Bradley Garrett

“So I wrote an article for Guardian Cities in 2015, calling for more research into, and action on the issue. Over the past three years, I have organised protests in these pseudo-public spaces and have written a handful of articles about land grabs, artistic interventions and changing legislation. My most recent article is about how the need to map subterranean spaces is becoming more urgent as more private development moves underground. 

“I also worked with Guardian Cities to produce a map of these spaces, including over 50 locations. It drew a response from Liberal Democrats leader Vince Cable, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and London Mayor Sadiq Khan, who vowed to push back against the privatisation of public space.  

“So you could say I’ve had a pretty incredible start to my University of Sydney Fellowship.” 

With a diverse background that spans four different disciplines studied across three countries, Bradley’s background is actually similar to many geographers.  

“I completed my undergraduate degrees in the United States. I studied anthropology and history before coming to Queensland to do my MA in Maritime Archaeology. I then went to the United Kingdom to do my PhD in Social and Cultural Geography,” he said.  

“Often when I meet geographers, I find that they came from other disciplines. Because of its porousness, geography offers opportunities to make connections across boundaries and offers a lot of latitude in terms of research, which is how I have ended up working on such a wide range of topics.”

“To be honest, I never really intended to do research on public space, but I felt compelled to because of circumstances.” 

Brad chose to focus his research on London because of the pivotal role the city has played in shaping other nations.  

“London was one of the first large cities to embrace a neoliberal economic model, under Margaret Thatcher, where regulations were relaxed for corporations. That has led to the privatisation of everything from infrastructure to social housing, and has become almost the de facto model for new urban development now.” 

“Despite Australia being home to a number of large developers behind the construction of pseudo-public spaces, the country has traditionally been strong on defending public ownership. However, we are seeing a wave of privatisation that goes against everything we have learned in other parts of the world.  

“New South Wales recently privatised the land titles registry, which could lead to problems in getting access to information about land ownership. In Sydney, public buses are now being privatised, a practice which has proved disastrous with trains in the UK. And developments like Barangaroo pose interesting questions for urban geographers about ownership and management of shared space.  

“For researchers studying how privatisation affects our rights to the city, these are local issues worth focussing on.”