I don’t live in the city. I grew up there but I moved when I could to a town not too far from a regional train station, but still far enough removed to not see any neighbours from my kitchen window. I revel in this, in the quiet. In our overcrowding world, it’s a luxury.
I commute to work, to the university, and I live the city in these trips, just like I did when I was younger. I live the congestion, the damp heat on crowded trams, the muffled skies, the brisk looking-through one another, the sometimes startling exchange. When I return home after hours of travel, I open the car door and step out into a blank night, dark, with those millions of pinpricked stars making milk stains in the sky. It’s always hotter or colder in the country. It’s never the same once you’re over the Great Divide.
When you live like this, up and down, rural and urban, dense and sparse, you learn about the boundaries people make between bodies. And what I mean here is the way we comport ourselves, the way we design cities, the way we distinguish between centre and periphery, privileged or precarious. These severings we enact; between you and me, on the train, in the property market. In the things we choose to recognise and those we unsee. In the partitions we erect between present and future generations; between fabricated memory and actual past.
Being a commuter reminds me of a line from one of Helen Garner’s more obscure stories. The one commissioned by The Age in the early 1980s, asking her to travel on regional trains and note down her reflections. After five dizzying journeys to places way beyond that slippery urban growth boundary, she writes, ‘So alienated from the world does one become on a train, as afternoon draws into evening, that one is not entirely sure through which window to look for the sunset.’
This disorientation can pull the cloth out from under your neatly arranged convictions. It can start you questioning things. We aren’t really a lucky country, not at all. Our urban nation produces cities, truly capital cities, which push and pull people around, dragging some under at the expense of endless growth.
You realise this when you step outside the configuration, when you commute long distances and witness the scenery change. Some of us are lucky to have safety nets; the rest cascade down like hapless acrobats. And all the work we did policing propinquity, governing distance between our body and theirs, it doesn’t matter in the end, not at all. The poor always lose.
Australian cities, like most contemporary cities, perpetuate inequalities at the whim of global capital. Urban space has become investment strategy, where property is increasingly regarded as a globally traded financial asset privileging exchange value over use value; where absurd amounts of finance are parked by absentee investors, determining skylines; where only those with secure market citizenship can belong, leaving others swept aside whilst the propertied walk past embarrassed by their squalor.
In his recent book, Capital City: Gentrification and the Real Estate State, Samuel Stein notes that the value of global real estate is thirty-six times the value of all the gold ever dredged out of the Earth and totals some sixty percent of the world’s assets. He writes, ‘Around the world, more and more money is being invested in real estate, the business of building, buying and renting land and property’. Alongside these seemingly generative processes shaping urban development, there is the shadow side of the city; the atrophying, the abandonment, the denial.
If we look at it like this, we see that Australian cities are fuelled in part by a surplus population; constantly preyed upon for stimulus. Their displacement stokes the flames of redevelopment, of gentrification, of asset protection; allowing all this urban growth to spread out and up in our suburban and vertical sprawls.
And just like the child in Ursula Le Guin’s story The Ones who Walk Away from Omelas, the fallacy of our cities’ liveability, of our progress and civility, is based on the destitution of some kept out of sight. For, if you recall, the happiness of Omelas’ inhabitants is entirely dependent on a child being stuck, cramped and agonised, in a fetid broom closet, whilst the rest carry on bewildered by ‘the beauty of their city’.
Urban sociologist Saskia Sassen writes about these ‘new logics of expulsion’ reshaping global cities in the twenty-first century. These are the processes of displacement and forced migration, of invisibilisations and ‘small banishments’. But we have to realise, cities are being just as radically reshaped by new logics of ingress. Bodies are pushed out, just as others are coaxed in. And much of this movement is accommodated by property speculation, and corporate buying, in the investor market.
Peter Mares, in his book No place like home: Repairing Australia’s housing crisis, describes this as part of the ‘hedge-city phenomenon’. Australian cities, he writes, have become ‘prime safe-haven investment sites for global capital that soak excess liquidity from emerging markets’. And in response to these growing transactions, built environments materialise more and more to mirror the needs of those granted admission via the skewed priorities of finance capitalism and its hunger for boundless growth.
Australia’s largest service sector export, international education, is a prevalent example of these emerging processes. Contributing some 28 billion dollars to the economy, the growth in this market has catalysed extreme morphological changes in urban areas. This ‘education export industry’ caters to 700,000 international students in Australia, with 40,000 of these residing in the City of Melbourne alone.
This rampant growth has unleashed a virile student housing market, germinating the studentification of inner areas. Signage displaying the words ‘urbanest’, ‘scape’ and ‘unilodge’ are repeated ad infinitum on the hoardings of construction sites in educational precincts. These vast tracts of redevelopment have rapid turnover as student-occupiers graduate and relocate within several years.
Another emerging phenomenon to consider is the investment in apartments that make more profit sitting empty than being rented out or sold, and so we have an increasing dwelling density but simultaneously a hollowing-out of urban fabric. That is, an increase in the materiality of the city, but not necessarily in a contribution to city life. And with this there is a growing sense of a different kind of city being built; something we might need new words to describe.
A recent Prosper Australia report estimates 16.2 percent of Melbourne’s homes are ‘speculative vacancies’. Nationally, 11.2 percent of dwellings were recorded as vacant on Census night in 2016. These changing material conditions in our cities are not immediately obvious to the eye; we don’t expect built form in cities plagued by housing crises to sit unoccupied. When we start thinking about it, and looking around, the skyscrapers take on a ghostly presence of the perverse spectacular overshadowing the streets; private profit voracious in its shameless ransacking of public amenity.
It’s not a housing crisis so much as a crisis of occupation.
I suppose, to bastardise Mark Twain’s phrase, which has become a favoured adage of the real estate industry, ‘Buy land, they ain’t making anymore of it, but even better buy property you don’t need’.
When you’re a commuter that takes regular leave from the city, you become like a distant relative relating how much another’s child has grown, because you notice and comment on what so many urban dwellers are too close to see. Their hyperopia blurs urban reality.
And what you see is Australian cities metastasising into overwhelming harbours for global capital, whilst the swelling ranks of unpropertied and precariously housed wait for a robust housing policy that might protect them from further fallout.
I don’t use these words carelessly. ‘Whelm’, etymology informs us, is from Middle English ‘whelmen’ which means ‘to turn over’, ‘to capsize’ or ‘to upset’, and could refer to a hollow vessel such as a boat, a dish or a heart.
When we consider our changing cities, which are becoming piggy banks for the well-heeled, literally containers for asset-backed securities, we can also think of them as being vessels which are being overwhelmed by capital. And in this process of being turned over, of being upset, things fall out. Histories and bodies and the old values we once demanded from urban space, they start to fall from the capsizing vessel that has become the hollowed-out city.
This year has seen a spectacle of countless political farce in Australia. If you followed the lead up to the federal election, you might very well have been saturated in disbelief, and a resigned fatalism, before you even got to voting day. Of all these absurdities, these appalling moments in Australian politics, these statements from the cruel and cowardly clowns who govern this nation, there is one that stands out from the rest.
In early July, in a crisp and clear radio interview, the newly appointed Assistant Minister for Community Housing, Homelessness and Community Services, Luke Howarth, declared it necessary to put ‘a positive spin’ on the housing crisis. He justified this by arguing that homelessness only ‘affects a very, very small percentage of the population’.
There is nothing more distasteful than hearing a politician attempting optimism over others’ immiseration.
Later in that same month, executive director of National Shelter, Adrian Pisarski spoke on the ABC’s Radio National’s Big Ideas program. At one point in the discussion, he stated, quietly and defiantly, ‘We are all diminished by any of us being homeless.’
The distinction between these two perspectives could not be more stark.
Australian cities are plagued by mounting, and multifarious, injustices. Homelessness is arguably the most visible, most overlooked, and most disturbing of them all. The 2016 Census revealed there are some 116,400 people experiencing homelessness in Australia, with 8,200 of these sleeping rough.
In StreetCounts conducted in both inner Melbourne and Sydney, it is estimated that there are around 400 rough sleepers inhabiting each of these cities every night. These are the bodies in sleeping bags, on flattened cardboard boxes, in alcoves, under bridges, that we pass on our way to work, to consume, to socialise. Their belongings strewn along the skirtings of buildings, their begging cups on the pavement, their faces turned away from.
These are the bodies we share the city with; the bodies we keep distance between.
A recent report by the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute found that homelessness is becoming an increasingly urban phenomenon. That is, more and more of Australia’s homeless population are concentrated in major cities as though, dialectically, they and capital seek harbour side by side. The former finding its place to belong and influence, the latter left to the mercy of inundated, and often poorly funded, support services.
I spoke with a homelessness advocate who has decades of experience in the sector. I wanted to know how Australian cities have changed since the recessionary years of the early 1990s when they were down on their luck and depopulating. I wanted to know how the bursting and thriving Melbourne of today, so smugly liveable and close to 5 million, accommodates the growing number of those experiencing homelessness in its inner core.
‘People are avoided,’ he said. ‘People cross the road when they see this cohort. They actually cross the road to avoid them. And I think that percolates all the way to when we’re designing cities, when we’re designing public space … We want people to be constantly in movement, and we want them to be constantly spending. And if they’re not doing either of those things, then we want them at home enjoying what they’ve spent their money on.’
Hearing him speak I realised our cities do more than unevenly distribute opportunity and misery; they perpetuate the partitions we instinctively put between bodies, almost as though they regulate our discrimination. And this discrimination, it makes us unsee the misery for what it is. It allows some to find a ‘positive spin’.
‘They still want to be seen. And that’s the bit they’re craving. They’re missing’, another advocate I interviewed explained. ‘It’s like that guy who says I’m seen as a homeless person and given money but I’m not seen as someone who needs housing and given a home’.
One of the more evocative accounts of the idea of ‘cities as distributors’ comes from that legendary book, first published in 1970, with its cover image by iconic Australian cartoonist Bruce Petty. It shows a hunched man, with a beer glass and a fag and a tennis racket in his hands, and skyscrapers on his back like an absurd urban echidna; the towers rising like quills.
The book is Hugh Stretton’s Ideas for Australian Cities, described by urban historian Graeme Davison as ‘a manifesto for a generation’. One paragraph stands out to me:
In dozens of ways, from pavements and sewerage through slums and segregations to cultural and city centres, very big cities are both physical and psychological devices for quietly shifting resources from poorer to richer, and for excusing or concealing – with a baffled but complacent air – the increasing deprivation of the poor.
A recent example of this ‘quiet shifting’ is the redevelopment of public housing estates in Melbourne’s prime amenity areas as part of the Victorian Government’s Public Housing Renewal Program. This will see the transfer of erstwhile public housing on the eleven sites to community housing providers. Public land assets will be awarded to private developers, with investment in new market housing replacing the older, publicly owned and managed infrastructure. A ‘complacent air’ certainly pervades the arrangement.
A few years after the publication of Ideas, Stretton was interviewed on the ABC’s radio series The Science of Cities, and asked what characterises a good Australian city. His response reminds us of a different time when inner cities housed the poor:
A good city should have options for everybody. Some of the most important options, often neglected by governments, are places where people without money can live near the centre.
Nowadays, the presence of the homeless, of the disenfranchised in the city, as one interviewee recounted to me, ‘reminds us that there are failures in the system’. He went on, ‘We don’t want people who are to spend to be reminded that maybe they need to keep some cash in reserve … The presence of people who are homeless reminds you that the system isn’t necessarily successful and that’s not a good vibe to have (in the city)’.
I wonder what Hugh Stretton’s ideas for Australian cities would be now, if he knew just how colonised by global capital they’d become; their morphologies inflating with every increase in property tax the growing market promises to aching state coffers. Inflating, whilst simultaneously sweeping out the surplus; staking claim to every place they can no longer belong.
This is a complacent, predatory urbanism marketed, and normalised, as ‘liveable’.
When I get off the train at Southern Cross station and walk through the small streets of the CBD, I make sure to pass the plaque at 462 Little Lonsdale Street. It was affixed in 2016 to mark the fiftieth anniversary of Australia’s worst building fire, which occurred at the William Booth Memorial Home, killing 30 men.
This was the site of the Salvation Army’s hostel for destitute men, founded in 1916, and replaced since by an office tower. As historian Geoff Plunkett recounts in his devastating book Let the Bums Burn, of the thirty men who perished, fifteen of the bodies were unclaimed by relatives and so were laid to rest as nobodies. ‘Few cared when they were alive’, Plunkett writes, ‘less so when they were dead’.
In 1966, on the night of the fire, the hostel housed some 140 men in cramped cyclone-wire coups for 75 cents a night. The black and white photographs of the interior show each man’s room measuring 7 feet 6 inches square. They recall the human caging omnipresent today; the mass abandonments inflicted for border protection and ongoing racial segregation.
A Melbourne Fire Brigade video commemorating the tragedy features retired superintendent Ian Dewhurst recalling the hostel layout: ‘it was just like a big birdcage really, with the cyclone wire throughout’. It’s not difficult to compare these homeless men tucked away in Melbourne’s CBD to the festering, dingy broom closets that so intrigued Le Guin.
Our cities’ successes are built on the backs of tragedies like this one, on the backs of nobodies; beginning with the violent, and enduring, Indigenous dispossessions. This is by no means a story of the past. We perpetuate this misery as cities grow and segregate and exclude. We perpetuate it with the next lot of nobodies; with the distance we keep between bodies, with the discrimination planned into cities.
At the end of the Movietone newsreel reporting on the incident from 1966, with images of men in dishevelled suits waiting to salvage their belongings from the burnt building, the newsreader laments, ‘In our affluent society perhaps even more thought should be given to the plight of those less fortunate than ourselves’.
I reflect, dismayed, if only the newsreader knew of the displacements that continue today, of the cleansing of the city that excoriates the poor from having places to safely belong, whilst at the same time securing more and more space for the spoils of real estate capital.
The corporate mismanagement of our cities reverberates violently since the William Booth fire, and it’s the same winners and the same losers emerging each time. We’d do well to conjure up radical new ideas for city life in Australian capital cities. We’d do well to act with haste.
Claire Collie is a landscape sociologist, mother and gardener. She tweets @clairevcollie