The proposed fate of Istanbul’s Gezi Park has much in common with the current re-development plans for Barangaroo in Sydney’s East Darling Harbour. Sydneysiders concerned about the Crown/Lend Lease takeover bid can draw inspiration from the Gezi Park occupiers and send a clear message of defiance to James Packer’s fawning peons in the Barry O’Farrell government.
All over the world, the privatisation of public space is growing. As Anna Minton, leading policy analyst and author of Ground Control, has pointed out in connection with the situation in Britain.
The consequence has been the creation of a new environment characterised by high-security, "defensible" architecture and strict rules and regulations governing behaviour.
Cycling, skateboarding and inline skating are often banned. So are busking and selling the Big Issue, filming, taking photographs and — critically — political protest.
This has been dire for democracy itself, according to Minton, because the “places we create reflect the social and economic realities of the time and provide a litmus test for the health of society and democracy. The fact that we are setting out to create undemocratic places is simply a reflection of the times we live in.”
Neoliberalism proclaims every asset in society should be handed over to the private sector for profit-making purposes. Global financial institutions, backed by the world’s most powerful corporate interests, have been involved in spruiking this “supply side” ideology since the 1970s — to the point that it is now the unquestioned orthodoxy.
Turkey is a case in point. Over the past decade, its IMF-backed government has engaged in a US$6 billion sell-off of public assets, enriching President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s cronies at the expense of the general population (who have lost rights over critical water supplies).
With discontent brewing, matters came to a head in May and June of this year, when protesters converged on the nine-acre Gezi Park in historic Taksim Square. They were outraged by the government’s plans to convert this tree-filled green space, one of the last remaining such sites in central Istanbul, into a built up area consisting of such useless additions as a Western-style shopping mall.
In this largely spontaneous bid to reclaim the commons, a popular movement uniting disparate political agendas in Turkey emerged. The atmosphere was electrifying, as observed by Sam Frizell in early June.
“People say they see the park as a utopia perpetuated by the spontaneous goodwill of fellow occupants, separate from the rule-bound world under the control of the police.
“‘I cannot believe this is happening in Turkey,’ says Kristen, a 31-year-old anthropology student. ‘It’s such a foreign thing for the Turkish political imagination to be in such a space … It’s like a grand festival of civil society organizations that don’t necessarily come together.’”
Solidarity demonstrations developed throughout Turkey. A few days later the police moved in again with riot shields, batons and tear gas. Five protesters died defending Gezi Park from Erdogan’s developer allies, and hundreds were injured.
Although the attention of the global media has moved elsewhere, Gezi remains an important issue in Turkish politics. Burak Kadercan wrote on opendemocracy.net: “Make no mistake, post-Gezi, the genie is out of the bottle … the process that was triggered in Gezi Park is far from over.”
Gezi also remains an important symbol of the battle to save public space from the forces of crony capitalism worldwide. This point was grasped early on by occupiers elsewhere, including the Occupy Wall St movement. Zuccotti Park, where Occupy in the US first emerged, is itself a privately-owned public space and was the site of several significant protests in support of Occupy Gezi.
Similar gestures of support occurred throughout North America, with public space advocates drawing linkages between what was occurring in Turkey and their own home towns.
In Maine, for example, Holly Selliger, an activist engaged in a struggle with the Portland Council to save a local park from developers, wrote on June 14: “From Congress Square Park in Portland to Taksim Gezi Park … the global fight to save global public space has begun ... The more that I work to support public space in Portland, the more that I realize that I am working in solidarity with people all around the world who are fighting the trend of privatization and the concept of ‘eminent domain.’”
These insights are equally applicable to the current emergency in Sydney, where a gambling and construction consortium is on the verge of winning a big victory against the public interest.
Consisting of nine hectares of ex-industrial land on a prime harbourside location, Barangaroo is a glittering prize that has come “to stand for all that it wrong with the way our city is governed and the intersection between politics and commerce in Sydney”, according to UTS academic Gerard Reinmuth.
The saga of murky wrangling has been going on for years now, reaching a low point in February when Crown and Lend Lease unveiled plans for a gigantic “high roller” casino and six-star hotel complex, with the enthusiastic backing of the O’Farrell government that had quietly enacted legislative changes in the preceding weeks to pave the way for this development.
If allowed to proceed by the nominally independent planning authorities, Packer’s casino tower will shortly come to dominate the Sydney skyline, rising next to the Harbour Bridge and the iconic Opera House, dwarfing them both in a symbolic assertion of what the city really stands for in the 21st century.
The architect Phillip Thalis, who played a key role in the original 2006 re-development plans for the site, told The Conversation in an interview that: “Barangaroo is an unfolding disaster for Sydney — a disaster that plummets further with each degenerative development. At Barangaroo there has been a perversion of public process and an outrageous privatisation of public land — abdicating the public interest … The public domain, the physical space of democratic society, is configured as something trivial, residual and miserable in its dimension and connection.
“Propositions for new civic or community uses are noticeably absent. Successive NSW Governments have recoiled from ideas about city-making in the public interest, dispensing with informed advisors, knobbling institutions, effectively privatising our waterfront, out-sourcing our urban projects.”
What might be added to this cogent analysis is that this is the same policy toxicity, the same nefarious corruption, the same robotic governmental surrender to neoliberal imperatives that motivated the residents of Istanbul to defend the ancient trees of Gezi Park from Erdogan’s bulldozers.
To save Barangaroo, one of the most strategic areas in the city, from the unaccountable private tyranny of corporate power, there is every possibility that the people of Sydney will have to take direct action.
Thankfully, there are precedents. During the union-led green bans of the 1970s, significant areas of publicly owned foreshore were saved from developers — to the lasting benefit of the city. Let us hope that some of that grassroots spirit can be recaptured today. Occupy Zuccotti, Occupy Gezi — Occupy Barangaroo?