Being present in public space

There’s a line from one of Douglas Adams’ Dirk Gently books about homeless people that sticks in my mind: all that anyone wants from them is their absence. But everyone has to be somewhere.

In cities throughout the world, there are struggles going on over who gets to be present in public spaces, and what public spaces will be used for. Some governments, and some sections of the population, are trying to tidy away those who don’t fit in with their ideas of public space: the homeless, the poor, teenagers, the mentally ill.

Bangalore is no exception: the construction of the Metro is reshaping the city, parks are being taken over for government buildings, trees are being cut down. In July last year, 350 of the street vendors at Bangalore’s City Corporation Offices (BBMP) were evicted from the area they’d been working in for decades. As this article in The Hindu points out, this happened out of the blue, and with very little transparency.

In Perth, the state government wants to remove homeless people from the central business district during the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in October. The attitude of the Police Minister, Rob Johnson, was made clear in Prior and Emerson’s article in The West:

“Asked in Parliament by Labor MP Bill Johnston about arrangements for displaced people, the minister said it was a stupid question.

“I will get a tent and a cushion,” Mr Johnson said. “Where do you live? We’ll send them around to your house if you are really concerned.””

It’s not surprising that this has happened. It’s happened before, it’ll happen again. The question is what we do about it. In Bangalore activists are doing their best to raise attention about the evictions, and to get some security for street vendors (read more in their press release).

I’m curious about what will happen in Perth. Opposition to CHOGM is already planned, but I wonder how many people will be insisting that Perth’s CBD is not only a space for shoppers or the be-suited hoardes. I hope that even those who don’t know or care about CHOGM will make some effort to preserve the openness of Perth’s public space.

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