March 08, 2005 | Graham

Urban environment shapes urban violence

One thread binds the riots in Redfern’s “The Block”, Palm Island and Macquarie Meadows. It’s not race, it’s public housing. In all the talk of tougher laws and social intervention, hardly anyone is dealing with the root cause.
If you bang a whole lot of financially deprived people together in an environment where no-one owns anything and where there is no cultural diversity sooner or later you will have riots.
It’s not as though urban gang violence is new. Sydney and Melbourne’s slums had their various pushes – read The Sentimental Bloke. Dad remembers gangs fighting around Woollongabba in Brisbane in the ’20s.
When it comes to welfare we have most of it right, apart from public housing which comes with a model straight from the era of soup kitchens and work gangs.
Still, there is some light. According to this article Frank Sartor intends to replace The Block with a mixed development with limited aboriginal housing. He should take his skills to Macquarie Fields as well.
That is not to say that demolition of all public housing estates is an option, or even specifically desireable, but they need to be remodelled and transformed.
In one way or another land tenure needs to be significantly changed (harder in Palm Island, which is a deed in grant, than the rest). In the other two it can be changed by selling some proportion of the houses to their existing occupants – you might be surprised how many takers there would be if the terms and conditions were right.
Other houses would need to be demolished and areas redeveloped or sold to outsiders. Of course the long-term solution is to ensure that there are no more housing estates. Housing should be provided to welfare recipients the same way food, electricity, transport and clothing is – via fornightly amounts deposited in their bank accounts so that they can make the decision how much to spend, and on what, rather than some sleek bureaucrat.
Rental subsidies actually provide more housing for more of the needy more efficiently and flexibly than housing estates, or even small public housing clusters. Most importantly they integrate people into communities where there is hope and where riots are much less frequent. Will the Queensland and New South Wales governments do the obvious?

Posted by Graham at 4:38 pm | Comments (3) |
Filed under: Australian Politics


  1. Soup kitchens and work gangs pre-dated public housing which was itself an innovation designed to ensure that another Depression didn’t plunge working people back onto the streets. To blame public housing for the Palm Island riot glosses over the history of the local aboriginal people’s plight and forgets the Doomadgee question. It is far more likely that there would have been more social instbility and deprivation in this nation if public housing had not been provided these last few decades. Another “common thread” in these incidents is the police. How can they be ignored in preference to some bricks and mortar in this analysis?

    Comment by Harry Spratt — March 9, 2005 @ 8:13 pm

  2. Either the government provides rent assistance like Graham suggests, or alternatively we keep public housing but don’t concentrate it in one suburb, instead have it spread out. Rather than 30% of a suburb, make it 5% over more suburbs.
    If your friends, family and neighbours all suffer the same disadvantages, then you are not likely to break out of the poverty trap. This is particularly true for drug addicts, they lose their old friends and start hanging out (the only appropriate word) with other drug addicts, there by losing all support networks for getting back on their feet.
    Besides all of this, what I don’t understand is why the police where facing off with the rioters in the first place. The cops aren’t protecting a building where the WTO is meeting, they don’t need to be in the street at all. If they make their arrests with riot police and then leave, it would be all hunky dory.

    Comment by Benno — March 9, 2005 @ 9:10 pm

  3. Harry, I think the question with respect to the police is why it is that they frequently behave badly everywhere (although I am not sure that they behaved badly in each of these three specific examples) but reactions like this don’t occur everywhere.

    Comment by Graham Young — March 10, 2005 @ 1:29 pm

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