Is it really right to use public parks for private commercial events?

Somewhere under there is Hyde Park: the British Summertime Festival. Image: Getty.

During the summer, London is abuzz with large-scale cultural and sporting events – many of which are held in public parks. This season, Formula E motor races will be held in Battersea Park, while music festivals will take over Victoria Park, Finsbury Park and Hyde Park.

Events like these are enjoyed every year by thousands of people, both locals and tourists alike. But they also shut down public spaces, and have a significant impact on park environments. There is growing resistance from local residents and campaign groups, who have instigated legal challenges against the use of public parks for commercial events.

These cases give us cause to think about who, and what, parks are for. They also help us to understand the wider challenges currently facing public spaces around the world.

Why is this happening?

City parks have always been used for events – but now they are being used for larger and more commercially-oriented events than ever before.

This is mainly due to reductions in government funding: a recent Heritage Lottery Fund report found that 86 per cent of UK park managers have had their budgets cut since 2010, with a third facing cuts of 20 per cent or more. Many parks need to supplement grant income with revenue from commercial activities.

Fenced off. Image: Andrew Smith/author provided.

Glen Searle identified how parks can raise money by staging smaller, private events such as weddings and corporate functions. But now, big event companies are seeking distinctive venues and new audiences. They are keen to use urban parks, and are willing to pay large sums to hire them. For instance, Formula E paid Wandsworth council £2.85m to use Battersea Park for their events in 2015 and 2016 – a figure which includes compensation for the fact that future editions have been cancelled, due to local opposition.

The financial incentive to use parks for commercial events is clear. Events like these are also seen as valuable tools for “entrepeneurial” cities – to generate investment and to promote the city as a whole.

But there are more subtle justifications for park events, too. Professionals who represent parks feel that new events can help to diversify park users and uses. They think that music festivals, sport events and film screenings can make Victorian parks seem more relevant to modern life. Park officials also feel that they now have the technology and expertise to effectively minimise negative impacts such as noise pollution and environmental damage.

Warning: temporary closure

As we saw recently in San Francisco – when residents forced authorities to back down on plans to rent out park space – there is growing opposition to the privatisation of public spaces. Londoners are also beginning to push back against major events, which temporarily privatise parks by restricting when the public can use them.

Closed for business. Image: Andrew Smith/author provided.

For instance, Battersea Park is closed to the public for four full days during the Formula E events, and there are partial closures scheduled on 15 more days while the event is set up and dismantled.

Disruption to normal park use is heightened by damage to turf and the timing of events. These tend to take place on summer weekends – the times when parks would be more heavily used by residents.

Hiring out parks to event companies has a symbolic impact too. It normalises the idea that public space can be “bought” and fenced off. Sanctioning commercial events sets a worrying precedent, which could be used to justify more permanent installations in the future.


A way forward?

The controversies, legal challenges and general disquiet surrounding the use of parks for major events suggest that a new approach is needed.

Park managers need to work with local organisations to consider what types of events are appropriate for parks – and what types of parks are appropriate for events. Clearer guidelines on what proportion of time and space events are allowed to take up will help to avoid the legal challenges and bitter conflicts seen in London this summer.

Better enforcement of existing laws could help to maintain the balance between public and private park use too. My ongoing research suggests that awareness of these regulations is low, even among events managers and park officials.

Of course, another way to avoid these conflicts is to provide more generous public funding for parks. This may seem idealistic in a time of financial austerity. But parks are much loved by the public; they enhance the urban environment, and the well-being of citizens. If their value was fully recognised and parks properly funded, local authorities would not be forced to use them for commercial events.The Conversation

Andrew Smith is reader in tourism and events at the University of Westminster.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.