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  • Writer's pictureAnastasija Kukić

A Lens into Sydney's Inner West Public Spaces - The Right to The City by David Harvey

The Right to The City by David Harvey

This essay will address what Harvey means when he speaks about surplus. It will identify two means of providing the people with surplus, rights to food and housing, which will be further scrutinised to develop a language and application in the built environment. Further it will improve ways of viewing rights to the city and how design is used to exclude and include specific classes. Through this lens, analysis of four spaces in Sydney’s Newtown area will be discussed. The spaces will include three parks and a social hub, Camperdown Memorial Rest Park, a well-known local park in Newtown, Camperdown Park, a park just outside the central district of Newtown, Camperdown, and Erskineville Oval a sporting field in Erskineville. The final will include the outside area of The Hub, Newtown, a social space with no set social activity. These spaces will hopefully shed light about how design and social and economic norms intersect and cause harm.

“The right to the city is far more than individual liberty to access urban resources. It is a right to change ourselves by changing the city” (Harvey, 2008, 4par) to fully understand this quote by Harvey that ‘our’ in ‘ourselves’ must be dissected. The ‘our’ he speaks of is the collective communal ‘our’ and the individual ‘our’. In contemporary culture the communal ‘our’ is often forgotten due to messages from society reinforcing the individual as the catalyst of significance rather than a holistic story of people around before, during and after the individual. This is shown in billionaire capitalists, such as Elon Musk and Jeff Bozos, being seen as self-made without inquiry into their class or history or family. This same reasoning is how capitalists (hide the process and exploitation that gave them their wealth) justified through urbanization of Harvey’s article.

According to Harvey, urbanisation is another tool of exploitation as a means of changing the urban fabric for individuals to become more dependent on the capitalist product (consumerism) and a method redirecting land and property to continuously look for new land to produce raw materials and absorb the inevitable waste in their pursuit of an ending exponential financial growth. However, Harvey does not go into depth about what is generating the vast surplus absorbed through consumerism. Paris 1853-70’s, America and Australia 1950’s - today shows how crucial urbanisation to the survival of capitalism is (Harvey, 2008, 8par). The way urbanization isolates the individual from most of their cities and necessities creates a dependency on a consumerist society. Contemporary society is fortified behind semi-detached houses, in a remote suburb. Typically, suburbs outside the inner-city require additional resources for commuting of people and goods. Our urban sprawl has caused a dislocation to amenities and raised surplus for capitalists as we are then made to work harder to make up for and lack of immediate access to resources. Through this lens it is identifiable that our right to the city is less about giving people the means of production and enjoying the surplus of their labour, rather it is about the redesign of the urban fabric radically being rebuilt to intertwined and reconnect with the means of production so that people can feel empowered by the labour they create. This essay will explore themes such as right to housing, right to food, right to water, and will lightly touch on the right to healthcare and a healthy environment.

Harvey hints but does not explain how these individual rights build on greater rights to the city. Food and labour are heavily tied as one without the other cannot occur. Within our urban landscapes, food production is pushed to the limits of cities in peri-urban and rural spaces. This design was developed as a means of adding the capitalist middleman to become a state-wide distributor. This means that rather than traditional labour and food having a more immediate relationship between farmer and consumer, now our labour is sold to the capitalist to exploit the farmer and consumer by holding the surplus for themselves and deciding the method of distribution. We see the inherent violence of this during crises such as The Great Depression and Covid-19 of food being wasted as the consumers cannot pay for it, due to their life activity no longer being available. The farmer suffers financially as capitalists deny the surplus of the farmer’s labour, instead holding the surplus for themselves and allowing food to rot. Urbanisation has enforced this system by creating a hard separation between the human realm (urban and metropolis) and the non-human realm (areas outside of western ideology human space often seen as terra nullius even if it is inhabited such as rural and indigenous space). This distance between the two realms has worsened the violence through control of distribution. This causes food insecurity as it removes the control over food source and distribution. To see a shift for food security, giving the people the rights and enjoying the surplus of their labour, the distribution of said labour must be decentralised and reintroduced into cities. For that to happen, the means of production would have to dramatically shift causing the urban fabric to become more susceptible toward urban agriculture on a larger scale, similar to Cuban (Altieri, Miguel & Companioni, Nelso & Cañizares, Kristina & Murphy, Catherine & Rosset, Peter & Bourque, Martin & Nicholls, Clara. (1999)). This is one method to transform the urban fabric and give the ability to transform their surroundings back to the people and would also create a better culture around food rights as it would be embedded into everyday life.

The requirements of food security, through urban agriculture, demands stability which in this case is security of housing. Housing as part of urbanisation itself is a struggle. Often, people must uproot to deal with job insecurity or housing inequality - from the inability to afford housing to tenants having to change housing with interim lease agreements. The right to housing would eliminate the housing inequality and would improve the right to food via urban agriculture. People would not be required to search for jobs to sustain their life activity rather the means of life and life activities would be more relevant and immediate to their surroundings. Housing provides the means for people to root themselves and develop healthier habits (VIRGINIA A. RAUH, PHILIP J. LANDRIGAN, AND LUZ CLAUDIO, 2008, 284-5pg). The security and stability would allow people to form and join communities actualising their need to self-determine, for themselves and within the community within their city in the wider sense of “ourselves”. This in turn would lead to social and environmental sustainability as the means of production will provide tangible and relevant products which could be easily distributed rather than wasted.

Harvey’s analysis lacks discussion around social rights as he only talks about the right to the city through economic means. Humans require to physically inhabit space, making their space reflect them, and in turn creating a liminal space that intersects with other people’s same needs. This curates positive social settings and with greater interaction within communities and with other communities this can implicate better social sustainability. Human’s requirement of the right to the city is part of human’s requirement of space, and should be extended upon Harvey’s view of the right to the city.

The way spaces are policed contribute to underlying issues of race and class inequality - issues that require discussion and ultimately to be addressed. Through these uses of space, unconscious hierarchies are built, differentiated by deserving and non-deserving based on the individual’s productivity. The assumption of productivity has led to exclusionary behaviours based on contemporary stereotypes of different race and economic classes. Whilst the requirement of self-assertion and group assertion in spaces allow for the determination, the assumptions of who uses spaces causes the largest disparity in accessibility. This tends to lead the arguments that the distribution of surplus of labour will be held by those who hold the power and who are the face of the space that is inhabited. This is very evident in how capitalists’ see space and how space has been manipulated into the categories of productive citizen and non-productive citizen. Currently, capitalists violently enforce this façade, through physical barriers (dividing property and claiming ownership of land), through the police force (enforcing police brutality on indigenous people, people of colour and lower class individuals) and through learnt systematic stigma that is enforced by everyone subconsciously (Emmeline Taylor, 129pg)( Leanne Weber, Ben Bowling, 2012,133). With social media it is easier than ever to notice how merely inhabiting a space is a political act for people of minority classes(NYPD NEWS Twitter, Social Media, 3 May 2020)(Achmat X Twitter, Social Media, 3 May 2020). In the built environment this is expressed through ways spaces are designed to exclude individuals, from paths and amenities being inaccessible by the disabled community, bathrooms and other facility designs that uphold the gender binary, outer suburbs of cities never been given the adequate resources to improve the quality of the built environment so that only small pockets in isolation are deemed habitable, designing spaces for a specific audience and when the undesirable audience shows up they are forcibly removed. Every formalised space has been policed due to prevailing cultural ideologies of the desirable and non-desirable person. Dismantling the social constructs about who can and cannot use space will ultimately allow for spaces to address who actually exists in “our” community. Considering this we identify that the right to the city can not only be an economic struggle but a social struggle too and that the economic struggle cannot be resolved without the variables of social struggle to be identified and resolved, as the economics of surplus would only create a power vacuum for another to hoard, without the consideration and equity needs for everyone in a community.

Through the lens’ of Harvey and my critique of his work, ‘The Right to The City’ I will establish tangible analysis of four main public hubs in the inner west, Newtown Area, Sydney. The four hubs are or were catalysts for social interaction and culture in the Newtown area. Three of the spaces are parks, Camperdown Park (Camperdown), Camperdown Memorial Rest Park (Newtown, this will be referenced by the colloquial name Campo to save confusion between it and Camperdown Park), and Erskineville Oval (Erskineville). The final space is the outside area of The Hub, Newtown.

Camperdown Memorial Rest Park (Campo)

Campo, prior to Covid-19 was a hub of lounging and rest. People congregated to the park to enjoy a variety of informal and formal events. From alternative scenes, such as fire twirling, goths, bush doof and lgbtqia+ scenes to more formalised scenes such as The Newtown Festival. However, due to a culture shift and heavier policing brought on after the years following lockdown laws, there has been a reduction of informal events and the loss of the alternative scene. Whilst the alternative and informal scene of Newtown was lost due to gentrification and heavier policing of public space, formal scenes that are highly lucrative, such as The Newtown Festival have flourished. The park excubes a casual atmosphere, although it now holds a space for the gentrifying class to capitalise on. The lack of amenities on site (bar a single water bubbler on the north western side), the predetermined user on site, excludes most people from the ability to self-determine on site, as increased consumption is require to legal maintain people on site, such as importing of porta-loos. If not the ability to create formal events, informal events are also hard to come by. Whilst some events still happen on site it is becoming increasing fewer as policing of the site makes such things deemed social unacceptable. Mid Covid-19, Campo has suffered because formal events are cancelled creating no surplus, informal events are even more heavily policed and the lack of amenities on site give few reason to use the site other than as a dog park, as the risk to use the space in a social setting far outweighs the benefits.

Camperdown Park

Prior to Covid-19, Camperdown Park had a vastly different atmosphere to Campo. Social life incredibly varied, from alternative groups (that previous used Campo), joggers, dog walkers, tennis players to basketball players used the space. Apart from the tennis courts there is a distinct lack of profit being made on site and a majority of event seem informal. During Covid-19 park prospers compared to Campo. The contributing factors of its success has a lot to do with the freedom gained on site through the lack of social and financial policing. The site sits about 1km away from the police station as opposed to Campo being only 100m. The absence of authority and consequence for being outside, allows the individual peace and control over themselves and space. Other benefactors of longevity and use on site is the range of resource distribution. Through the variety of courts, oval and paths giving the user large space and options to enact expression and self on a space. The amenities such as fully accessible toilets and wash areas allowing for reclamation of space and evolves the ideas of who can sue the space. The lighting is a major factor to the sites use, having all facilities be able to be used till late at night creates a sense of security within the space that empowers users to access the space in their time. Camperdown Park goes against Harvey’s economic value of surplus and recognises the inherent value of resources humans require to be human, to create, to self-express and to do it in their time. The right to the city is just as much about labour and rights to the surplus of production as it is the ability to physically manifest and create intrinsically and extrinsically without limitation.

Erskineville Oval

unlike the 2 parks prior, Erskineville Oval only see action on weekends now. Prior to Covid-19, the park hosted teams sport with trainings throughout the week and game son weekends making it a semi exclusive space during season. However, the atmosphere around the park has changed significantly since Covid-19, as it has become purely for informal public use. Although, activity on site peaks during weekends. The parks’ peculiar usage is affected by the schedule of amenities. The park is technically approachable 24 hours, the amenities are limited as lighting and toilets are allocated for only day times usage. This makes the site inaccessible post work hours and thus ends up being used only for during weekends. Whilst the space is not physically policed, like Campo, the restrictions of amenities make it difficult of all peoples to access and use the site, let alone garner interest in the site outside of day light hours as it creates an unsafe atmosphere. This site demonstrates that the deprivation of amenities becomes a catalyst in self-determination on site and polarise from Camperdown park.

The Hub

One aspect of analysis that has not been spoken about with regards to space policing and how resources and amenities are relocated and distributed in regards to class. The three parks prior, do not give a description of user type in space, as all three spaces pertain to the same community and urban region with a relative homogenous social and economic class. However, there is plenty of disparity in the Newtown region due to recent gentrification. Through the Hub we see the effects of gentrification, having been a communal space since 1913, being a theatre and then a cinema it held a lot of importance for culture. The theatre parallels the class inequality, being used by migrant groups till the 80’s to showcase foreign films. Then in till the late 90’s as an adult cinema representing its and Newtown’s alternative heritage. This is space is also home to the Newtown Neighbourhood Community Centre which is a space to aid people who are facing hardships. Whilst the community centre was opened, the hub becomes an intermixed space of congregation for the people in need and the wider Newtown community. The centre provided the people resources (that Harvey hints at in his article) that provide the means of helping assert determination into a space. The space is designed with similar intent to the piazzas of Europe, where no specific pressure or implication of productivity is required, it is a space of social life. Since Sydney as been in lockdown though, due to Covid-19, this space has become heavily policed. Previous users of the space have all vanished from site. The factors that have removed the users of site have been the physical removal of their resources off site and online or postponed till later dates, and the heavily policing that happens on site as ‘precautionary and safety measure’ by police. With the absence of resource, interest for site has dissipated, much like Campo and Erskineville Oval. Much like Campo, the police often patrol this area, and as Covid-19 has intensified so has police presence along King Street. This has been a measure to deter non-essential users of space. However the Australian police force is known to racial and socio-economically profile their victims, as seen first hand during documentation where two people with bikes stacked with miscellaneous objects all dishevelled, were promptly moved along by two police officers whilst other users of the space such as myself were not harassed. The allocation of space for non-profitable individuals is large concern when asserting right over your space as, as any space that is made for them or they have made for themselves will quickly be revoked and in violent was to protect a status quo.

Whilst the writings of Harvey does give a good look into the works of capitalist method of oppression, his work does not talk about how space can be sufficiently redistributed to the people. Specifically, in terms of social determination, and the perceived boundaries of space(who can and cannot use space). Through the four spaces, we recognise a pattern emerging, the relationship of resource plus and how and who it is distributed to. Through these means, social determination will allow for action and change, as they have given the rights to resources directly to the people to have the means for change. When spaces are also left unpoliced this allows people originally excluded or violently removed to be able to approach new spaces and access resources to self and group determine. A space cannot only rely on economic stimulants that are given back to the people, social determination is important, as economics will be manipulated from people who have and will assert themselves in a hierarchy of and for space.


- The Right to The City David Harvey, Article, 2008, NLR 53,

- The Greening of the ‘Barrios': Urban Agriculture for Food Security in Cuba. Agriculture and Human Values, Altieri, Miguel & Companioni, Nelso & Cañizares, Kristina & Murphy, Catherine & Rosset, Peter & Bourque, Martin & Nicholls, Clara. (1999).. 16. 131-140. 10.1023/A:1007545304561.

- Australians don’t loiter in public space – the legacy of colonial control by design, Aaron Magro, Article, 2017, The Conversation

-Surveillance and Society, Emmeline Taylor, Essay, 2017, Australian National University

- Healthy, safe housing linked to healthier, longer lives: Housing a social determinant of health, Lindsey Wahowiak, Article, 2016, APHA

- Social Infrastructure as A Means to Archive The Right to The City, Nadia M. Anderson, Article, 2011, Iowa State University

- Housing and Health, Intersection of Poverty and Environmental Exposures, Virginia A. Rauh, Philip J. Landrigan, and Luz Claudio, Article, 2008, Ann. N.Y. Acad. Sci. 1136: 276–288 (2008). C 2008 New York Academy of Sciences. doi: 10.1196/annals.1425.032

- NYPD NEWS Twitter, Social Media, 3 May 2020,

- Achmat X Twitter, Social Media, 3 May 2020,

- SEE IT: NYPD cop making arrest for social distancing violation punches and takes down bystander, Catherina Gioino, Thomas Tracy and Wes Parnell, Article, 3 May 2020, New York Daily News,

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