On August 29, 2019 the UQ Greens, alongside QLD Greens MP Michael Berkman hosted the forum ‘Jobs, Justice & a Liveable World: A Green New Deal for Australia’. Looking at the leadership being provided around the world on the issue, this panel asked the question what might a Green New Deal look like in Australia? With permission from the organisers Green Agenda is publishing the transcripts of the talks at this forum.
In this piece Dr Natalie Osbourne talks about cities and urban planning in a Green New Deal. She argues that any Green New Deal must grapple with the issues of decolonisation and carcerality, or instead risk taking a piecemeal approach that simply papers over serious issues facing our community.
Hey folks. I’d like to pay my respects to the traditional owners of the land, the Turrbal and Jagera people and acknowledge elders past, present, and emerging. Sovereignty over this place was never ceded.
As Michael said, I’m a geographer, an urban planner, and in my talk tonight, I want to share a few thoughts I have about cities, and urban planning, and the Green New Deal. But already there’s a kind of tension in built here. Urban planning, as it is practised in so-called Australia, is fundamentally inconsistent with the principal of decolonization. There’s a bunch of ways that the Green New Deal might be taken up here and that’s one of the things we’ll be working through together. But I’m worried that some of the town planning kind of solutions that might get picked up and rolled on with could be adopted in ways that just paper over issues that works to kind of reinstall livability in cities for a while for some people, but ultimately reinforcing colonial capitalism. That’s a very real risk that I want to name. I’ll try and talk through that a little bit more.
Some of the key urban planning and city related claims in the Green New Deal working paper, lead by Tash Heenan and Anna Sturman, include plans like a home for all, effective transport systems, wide spread reduction in car dependence and planning urban futures that accommodate climate refugees and migrants. These ideas, as well as many ideas of the Green New Deal, aren’t new. The idea of a just transition isn’t new, which is the same of the ideas of of moving away from fossil fuels, of universal housing, of reducing car dependence, of various theories of ways that we can inhabit cities and live together that are more just, more democratic, more collaborative. These ideas aren’t new. Even linking something like ecological degradation with exposure to environmental harms, with race and class and indigeneity and gender. These aren’t new.
In fact, these are actually many of the things that we teach urban planning students. We talk about how we reduce car dependence in cities and we learn about the ways in which cities can produce particular kinds of spacial injustices and how those work along lines of race and class and gender.
So, there’s this kind of myth, I think, that circulates sometimes that we don’t already have the solutions to a bunch of urban planning problems. We kind of do.
There’s a lot that we still have to learn, a lot that we still have to work out, particularly in terms of repair and retrofit and rehabilitation, but ultimately we already have a shit tonne of tools and techniques that we could use that could pretty quickly make our lives and cities less carbon intensive and more equitable.
The thing is, we’re not implementing them. It’s not that we don’t know how to make our cities more just and sustainable, it’s that there’s some pretty serious vested interest in preventing us from doing that. This presents some risks when we look at the more piecemeal approaches to adopting parts of the Green New Deal without looking at the ways in which these things reinforce each other. The solution, I’m saying therefore, won’t come down to tinkering with the Planning Act.
The way we build and plan and run cities now, the ways we produce places, ultimately they’re just not for people. That’s not what they’re for. They’re not built to be good, equitable, and healthy places to live, they’re built for capital. Flat out. That is what cities are built for. They’re built to sustain settler colonialism and they’re built to produce real estate and to act as sites of consumption.
Samuel Stein, in his recent book Capital City, argues that we have a real estate state, which is a political formation in which real estate capital has inordinate influence over the shape of our cities, the parameters of our politics, and the lives that we lead.
Here in so-called Australia, capitalism underpinned by settler colonialism has, I think in many ways, constrained what we think is imaginable. It has constrained the kind of options that we think we have for how we live together in cities, how we organise space, how we share it, how we use it, how we produce it together.
But we don’t actually need to organise cities for capital. It’s just what we’ve been doing for a while now and we get told that this is the only way to do things. It’s really not. We need to stop and we need to stop pretty urgently if we’re going to address climate change in any kind of meaningful way.
The thing is, the real estate state, as it stands, this kind of engine for producing cities ultimately as financialized, commodified spaces won’t ever provide the claims of the Green New Deal, won’t ever provide housing for all, or democratic control over urban space. It will actively work against our attempts to implement those things. This means that ultimately this way of thinking about cities, or space, as commodified and enclosed, has to be dismantled and it has to be replaced. Because systems don’t dismantle themselves we need to think about the Green New Deal both as a social movement and a legislative agenda, because we can’t simply operate at the site of tinkering with planning acts, tinkering with neighbourhood planning instruments. It’s not going to get us there because that’s not going to undo the commodification of cities.
One of the other things I want to raise in the context of cities planning and the Green New Deal are the shadow spaces that our cities produce. It can be a little bit easy to forget about these spaces depending on our positionality. Cities have a really important role and are fundamental in the militarization of the border and of carcerality. In reading through different versions of the Green New Deal over the last few days, it’s clear that some versions of it are determinedly anti-imperial. There’s versions of the Green New Deal where people are talking about the importance of freedom of movement, particularly in terms of climate refugees. People are also talking really convincingly about the need to demilitarise borders and, in fact, demilitarise generally because militaries are enormous polluters and huge contributors to greenhouse gas emissions. Of course, if we weren’t funding the military, we’d be able to fund a lot of other things. It does receive varying amounts of attention in Green New Deal discourse and I think we need to be really attentive to it. Although I am totally on board with the jobs guarantee, if we don’t also think about what that means in terms of borders and in terms of our relationships with other people and other places and our responsibilities, it could wind up in Francis Markham’s definitely bleak vision there of a guaranteed job in the Navy turning back the boats of climate refugees.
So we need to think about the relationship of our cities to these borders and we need to think about how the kinds of consumption and the kinds of transformation and transition we might engage within cities can produce these kinds of other shadow places. Climate imperialism is already happening. There are already places experiencing the brunt of pollution, toxicity and ecological breakdown. We may also see, as Olufemi O. Taiwo argues, “the deepening or expansion of foreign domination through climate initiatives that exploit poor nations’ resources or otherwise compromises their sovereignty.”
Some of the ways we can see that are things like, land grabs for carbon offsetting. It’s a big thing, already happening, could definitely get worse as we try and move towards a Green New Deal, depending on the measures we put in place. We can also see issues in producing huge energy farms to power cities. Sure, that energy’s sustainable, but the communities living in the immediate area of some of those massive renewable energy farms remain unconnected to the grid. This is already happening. I think when we think domestically, some of that imperial domination might look like increased border control, and of course we already have a highly militarised border in Australia. We already keep people in camps and this is, I think, on our current track, likely to get worse.
I think the relationship between borders and cities become really visible whenever you read the comments section of an article, being in something like The Conversation, or the Brisbane Times, or The Courier Mail. The story might be about parking, or traffic congestion, or something like this. If you read the comments section though, I guarantee someone in there will say something like “we need to stop immigration”. “I couldn’t get a park on my street, we need to stop immigration.” This is not an accident. There’s been a lot of systems put up to blame the failures of planning and blame the failures of capitalist cities on population, particularly on migrants. It’s simply not the case. It’s just a little magic trick so we don’t focus on the real problem.
Obviously these rhetorics and practises are wrapped up with white supremacy and can lead to violence and we have seen too many examples of that over the last few months. Here, and in Aotearoa and in the USA, militarised borders are also part of how the settler colony sustains itself and asserts itself, and we need to be really vigilant, like really bloody vigilant, about the ways in which our concerns about the environment can also map onto ethno-nationalism and can also map onto fascism and eco-fascism. So the Green New Deal, I think, really needs to be anti-imperial and that means probably a commitment to un-bordering.
In a similar vein, and I’ll wrap up on this one, I think we also need to think about the relationship of the Green New Deal to carcerality. As I mentioned, it’s fairly common to see people talking about the Green New Deal and grappling with ideas of imperialism and anti-imperialism. Less common is to see people talk about abolition and prison abolition and the importance of unpacking the role of prisons in how they sustain our cities and our ways of life. I’ve got a quote up here from Lakota scholar Nick Estes who wrote a fantastic article called The Red Deal which, if you’re keen, you should sure go and read. And he wrote, “Prison abolition and an end to border imperialism are key aspects of the Red Deal for good reason.” That’s partly because there’s been a long relationship, and this has been well articulated by people, particularly people of colour in the abolition movement, between white supremacy, capitalism, capitalist cities, and prisons.
These things are all mapped out together in a neat little ball and we also need to think about this in terms of jobs. In terms of a local example here, obviously jobs in regional areas are a huge priority. We need to take this really seriously. But earlier this month, Mark Ryan, the Minister for Police and Corrective Services here in Queensland, was spruiking prison jobs for regional Queensland. He said, I’m quoting, “With 11 high security and six low security prisons located from Lotus Glen in the North to Numinbah in the South, as well as 13 work camps in and across regional Queensland, QCS is an economic powerhouse for regional Queensland.” How fucking bleak is that? Economic transition planning for regional communities in a post mining or post agriculture context cannot possibly be more prisons. We know prisons are again a tool of settler colonialism, we know they’re racist, we know aboriginal people are far more likely to be criminalised and incarcerated and be injured or killed in the process and all respect to the family Tanoia Day.
But prisons currently pass as an economic transition strategy in our current context and we need to be super vigilant about that. There’s a longer conversation to be had here, but prisons are also really closely linked to urbanisation, they are one of the shadow spaces of cities, because the practises of policing and enclosure and quantification that go along with gentrification tend to produce more and more carcerality. There’s a really strong link there.
So I guess my main take away point there is that when we think about the Green New Deal as it applies to cities, as it applies to housing for all, excellent public transport, collaborative design and decision making, renewable energy, resilient equitable urban infrastructure, we also need to think about the shadow spaces of these cities. The spaces we might not see that ultimately underpin urban life. Border, prisons, polluted places, sacrifice owns. We need to think about remaking how we make cities and rest them out of market’s invisible hand.