The struggles over empty space

Why are there empty spaces in our cities? Does it matter? I’ve been thinking a lot about vacancy lately. Firstly this was because my family received a ‘Notice to Vacate’ late last year.

Though ours was a case of non-traumatic displacement it happened around the time I wrote a paper for the Remaking Cities conference at RMIT University on the concept of vacancy.

The paper comes from my research on Indigenous resurgence in the far away city of Santiago de Chile, but I believe it can be relevant for Australian cities as well.

The idea of vacancy is key to the story of the Mapuche, an important Indigenous group in Chile. When the army forcefully moved into Mapuche territory during the 1860s, Chilean law recognised only those lands on which the Mapuche could prove ‘at least one year of effective and uninterrupted use’. This meant huts and adjacent vegetable gardens were recognised, but all other lands were considered empty. Since that initial ‘land grab’, many Mapuche have moved to cities in search of employment.

Yet living in the city makes them feel like ‘non-locals’ or ‘strangers’ even though these are their ancestors’ lands. Some of these migrants then felt the need to find meeting places to practice their culture. What they found were vacant spaces.

The community organisers I talked to all mentioned these were never literally empty spaces but in fact full of rubbish. These were state-owned lands that had sat empty for years, accumulating rubbish. What they were empty of were meaningful community activities.

Mapuche community organisations offered to clean the land up and provide community services for free in exchange for the free use of the land. It was a shared understanding around the idea of vacancy that allowed them to peacefully negotiate with the local state institutions that owned these spaces. And this allowed the community organisations to fill these previously vacant spaces with meaningful community activities.

Now back to Australia. As Bronwyn Fredericks (2013) tells us, in Australian cities Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are made to feel like ‘non-locals’ or ‘strangers’ on what is in fact Aboriginal land.

Here in Australia spaces are also valued through cultural lenses. Spaces are seen as empty or full depending on what social groups value in them, whether that be economic productivity or Indigenous community life or whether that be community activities or rubbish and weeds.

Those valuations then impact back on how spaces are further filled or emptied of actual people and things. The idea of terra nullius justified the emptying of Mapuche from their lands and the filling of those lands with European settlers. The idea of vacancy allows Mapuche community organisations to gain access to plots of land they can then fill with meaningful activities.

Here in Australia vacant land is also the object of struggles over meaning and occupation. For example, are vacant residential lands to be taxed into more productive use such as with the recently created Vacant Residential Property Tax here in Victoria? Should vacant government lands be filled with portable units and temporary leases to house the homeless such as has recently been approved by the Victorian Planning Minister for Maribyrnong? Or should vacant houses be taken over by those who most need them as the Homeless Persons Union of Victoria did a couple of years ago?

Empty spaces turn out not to be that empty after all. They are in fact sites filled with passionate struggles between groups with very different visions on how to improve the city.

The full paper will be available in the proceedings of the Urban History Planning History Conference, hosted by RMIT in early 2018.