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The continuum of spatial justice in Australia



There’s a revolution underway in Northcote over community access to the extensive, lush green grounds of the Northcote Golf Course. During Melbourne’s long period of lockdown, locals starting slipping through the fence to gain access to the beautiful grounds. In response, Darebin Council decided to temporarily open the golf course up to community access, in order to give locals more outdoor space in which to safely exercise. This week, as golfing resumes, locals are campaigning to maintain their access and ‘unlock’ the park for the enjoyment of everyone.

Main image: Bondi beach (Jared Lisack/Unsplash)

In response, a counter movement has been started to ‘Save Northcote Golf Course’. This (far smaller) group is calling for golf to remain ‘the primary function of NGC, with sensible solutions for community involvement’, arguing that ‘full public access across the course… would likely spell the end of golf at the site.’ Besides a desire to protect their priority right to play golf in these Council-owned parklands, these campaigners also claim that golf is the best way of protecting this green space, and that it would be likely to fall into disrepair if opened to the public.

Meanwhile, in Sydney, the Amalfi Beach Club are lobbying for Waverly Council to approve their proposal to cordon off a section of Bondi Beach for the exclusive use of private patrons. The Amalfi Beach Club claim their proposal will ‘help create jobs, support the local economy, diversify the use of the beach and provide a COVID-19 safe venue like no other for this summer’, but have received pushback from members of the community who argue that it is elitist and that ‘[t]he beach should stay open and accessible to all.’

It would be really easy to ‘both-sides’ these debates, but that would present a false equivalence. Surely, if we have learned anything from this year’s Lockdowns, we should have gained a far greater appreciation of the importance of community access to outdoor space — and, therefore, of spatial justice? Moreover, the tired ‘tragedy of the commons’ argument that underlies the claim that fencing off the golf course is necessary to ensure it is not neglected has been so thoroughly dismantled that it seems unnecessary to engage with any further. Instead, let’s delve a little further into the spatial justice argument.

Let’s start with the beach. Although the finer details of the law are a bit messy on this issue, beaches in Australia are Crown land and we do have a general expectation that they will all be accessible to the public. This makes it easy for us to see the Amalfi Beach Club’s proposal as elitist and a direct assault on our public rights of access.

The golf club is a slightly different issue. We have become accustomed to the idea of golf clubs locking up huge tracts of open space, even in densely developed urban areas. Until COVID, the injustice of this fact wasn’t really on people’s radar. But now it seems the genie is out of the bottle and what started as a guerrilla hole in the golf course’s fence has opened up a lively debate around spatial justice in Melbourne’s inner north.


'But we must also keep in mind that we are living on stolen land, and the very people from whom we have stolen this land are currently being criminalised for just existing in public space.'


What if we took this debate a little further? While the enclosure of public spaces is a great place from which to start talking about spatial justice, we should also consider the less obvious elements of this issue. There are a myriad of ways in which deliberate public policy choices have reduced the availability of public space, the ways in which it can be used and, most significantly, who is able to use it.

Just this week, QLD Opposition Leader, Deb Frecklington, proposed a curfew in Townsville and Cairns to keep young people off the street and ‘fix the juvenile crime problem’. Promoted as a measure to keep the community safe, this measure would empower police to remove young people from the street and place them in refuges for an undetermined period. There is ample research to demonstrate that criminalising young people will not make anyone safer. Instead, this measure will simply add to the already extensive range of laws that serve to exclude so many from safely existing in public space.

When it was pointed out that many young people have legitimate reasons for being out of their homes in the evening, Ms Frecklington argued that ‘common sense would prevail’ among police officers, who would have discretion around the enforcement of these laws. But such police discretion is a key part of the problem that so many people face in our public spaces. Police have a long history of using this discretion in a discriminatory manner to move on, fine and criminalise key groups in society — Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, people experiencing homelessness, and political protestors (and even academics who are calmly observing a political protest for research purposes).

The discriminatory enforcement of COVID-related public health orders has been widely documented, but this merely builds on a long history of over-policing of particular groups with our society, particularly Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, as well as the selective use ‘stop and search’ or ‘move on’ powers, and the disproportionate enforcement of laws that prohibit loitering, offensive language or public drunkenness.

Arguing for greater public access to green space in Australia can lead to some fairly radical debates around the legitimacy (and desirability) of enclosure and the importance of protecting and claiming the commons. It could even lead to a welcome debate around the legitimacy of private property itself. But we must also keep in mind that we are living on stolen land, and the very people from whom we have stolen this land are currently being criminalised for just existing in public space.

So, let’s all campaign to protect and increase public access to our parklands, beaches and public squares. But let’s also ensure that everyone has safe access to the public space that already exists.



Cristy ClarkDr Cristy Clark is a senior lecturer with the Faculty of Business, Government and Law at the University of Canberra. Her work focuses on the intersection of human rights, neoliberalism, activism and the environment, and particularly on the human right to water.

Main image: Bondi beach (Jared Lisack/Unsplash)

Topic tags: Cristy Clark, spatial justice, Northcote, Amalfi Beach Club, golf, COVID-19



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Existing comments

Thank you Cristy for another insightful comment. Might I add a quotation regarding golf. This is a quotation from Jay Griffiths. "Golf", according to Jay, author of Wild – An Elemental Journey: “epitomises the tame world. On a golf course nature is neutered. The grass is clean, a lawn laundry that wipes away the mud, the insect, the bramble, nettle and thistle, and Ezzy-wipe lawn where nothing of life, dirty and glorious remains. Golf turns outdoors into indoors, a prefab mat of stultified grass, processed, pesticided, herbicided, the pseudo-green of formica sterility. Here, the grass is not singing. The wind cannot blow through it. Dumb of expression, greenery made stupid, it hums a bland monotone in the key of mono-minded. No word is emptier than a golf tee. No roots, it has no known etymology, it is verbal nail polish. World-wide, golf is an arch of enclosure, a commons fenced and sub-dued for the wealthy, trampling serf and seedling. The enemy of wildness, it is a demonstration of the absolute domination of man over wild nature.”

Tom Kingston | 22 October 2020  

Tom Kingston, thank you so much for this quote!

Cristy Clark | 23 October 2020  

TK: Played a round at Anglesea ? - Just one a number of courses whose natural native beauty, including kangaroos, shatters JG's chimera.

John RD | 25 October 2020  

It's a mystery why a public authority needs to own a golf course, unless the surrounding area are housing projects and the aim is to enable disadvantaged children to learn a marketable skill which could empower them, one day, to drive a buggy onto their very own green.

roy chen yee | 26 October 2020  

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