#TheRighttotheCity: The Battle for Bowen Hills, 1972-5

Recent discussions on the Brisbane left have brought the idea of the ‘Right to City‘ back to public prominence. A spirited conference was recently held to discuss the issue, and the reclaiming of public space outside the Lady Cilento Children’s Hospital to stop the deportation of baby Asha has led to some reflecting on spaces of encounter and politicisation. So, we have decided to put up a few posts over the next few weeks and months considering the successes and failings of previous Brisbane movements who fit within what we would now call the Right to the City


On Monday, 3rd of June 1973 twenty police with a sledgehammer descended on 13 Markwell Street, Bowen Hills. They were responding to a group of protestors, who had occupied the building a day earlier. Promised to the housing commission, it had been left idle by the State Government’s Main Roads Department (MRD) for months, who had resumed it as part of freeway construction. That the house was not needed for freeway construction in the short term meant little, the house still had to go. As activists put it at the time, “The Main Roads Department’s determination to see this house remain empty or demolished has no rational foundation.”

So, three activists decided to do what the government wouldn’t – occupy the house, make it habitable, and turn it over to one of the many families then being made homeless by Government freeway construction. The cops, who didn’t appreciate such moral arguments, “grabbed the three and forcibly threw them out the door”.

This was just one of many scuffles which marked the now-forgotten campaign to stop rampant freeway construction in Queensland during the 1970s. In 1965 Wilbur Smith and Associates, who had just finished advising the Los Angeles municipality on their road infrastructure needs, furnished a controversial report to Brisbane Lord Mayor Clem Jones and his allies in the conservative state government. In it, the city was instructed to close its tram networks (which were wound up in 1969) and to replace these forms of public transportation with a series of interlinking freeways across the inner city.

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Plans (mostly never implemented) arising from the Wilbur Smith report.

Local and State governments united to make these plans a reality. These areas, as shown in a protest leaflet from 1973, were densely populated by recent migrants and the elderly—peoples already socially isolated and easily picked off. If completed in full, these plans would have required the forced acquisition of some 10,000 homes, effectively displacing 10% of Brisbane’s population.

As part of these plans, the State Main Roads Department (MRD) sought to acquire some 600 homes around Bowen Hills. The plan was for this area to be a meeting point for the proposed Central and Northern freeways, with Markwell Street being transformed from a residential street to an overpass bridge.

The residents of Markwell Street, and other areas slated for demolition, were less than keen on these plans. Not only because they were to be disposed of their houses, but because the Government was only promising a pittance in compensation. Houses easily valued at $18,000 were being acquired by the government at less than half that price.

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Protest poster

So, in December of 1972, the Brisbane Freeway Protest and Compensation Committee was established by over one hundred residents and activists. “Town planning is a community affair which should be decided by the community”, was one of the meetings’ key demands. Equally important were demands for adequate compensation, which the group went some small way to achieving, by way of low-interest government loans to cover residents’ relocation.

A house at 15 Markwell Street was soon occupied by the group, and made into an activist drop in centre. It was to remain occupied for over 15 months, serving as a hub for discussion and organisation. Through a healthy relationship with the Queensland Trades Hall, the residents were able to convince several key unions, principally the communist-controlled Building Workers Industrial Union, to black ban the removal of properties slated for freeway development.

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Protest leaflet

Several other buildings were also occupied during this period, and the MRD tried to have the gas, plumbing and electricity cut to these properties, but the respective unions refused to do so. This significant level of support mirrors much better known ‘green bans’ in NSW by Jack Mundey’s Builders Labourer’s Federation, which demanded that workers should have a say not just in their pay and conditions, but the types of buildings – and as such the types of society – they were building.

The below video captures, better than I could, the demands and actions of the activists. In it, it clear how the group perused and attempted to connect two key sets of demands – those of the local residents to maintain their form of life, and those of the more politicised activists, concerned with broader issues of the environment and public transport.

It is important, however, not to paint an overly rosy picture of this campaign. Participant research at the time, based on questionaries to hundreds of residents of the Bowen Hills area, actually discovered a low level of community involvement overall. While hundreds of residents refused to relocate, only 17% joined the protest group. Already-politicised activists from the University of Queensland, the Communist Party of Australia, and environmental and religious organisations swelled the group’s numbers. The key reason for this lack of involvement by local residents was not a conscious political objection, the report found, but rather “resulted largely from pessimism over the effect collective objections would have and because they had little opportunity to attend meetings”.

There are a few key points to take from this research for those trying to build a movement for the ‘right to the city’ today. Firstly, it is not enough to establish a protest group and hope the residents come to you. Research showed that many of the residents of these area – often elderly and lacking in English language skills – tended to live their lives in an incredibly localised fashion, by today’s standards. Their workplaces, churches, and community clubs and services were all within a few streets of their houses. As such, the nearly 20% of respondents who indicated they might have attended, if not for the travel time to surrounding suburbs for meetings, could perhaps have been better involved with ‘living room’ style meetings and, as the BLF did in NSW, making publications in languages other than English.

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Book published by the BFPCC, containing material on the environmental impacts of freeways, the history of the areas being targeted, and stories from residents.

Secondly, divisions between politicised outsiders and members of the local community were apparent, and little was done to remedy this. Such contradictions even emerged in the groups first meeting, when a decision was to be made as to whether the word ‘compensation’ or ‘protest’ should appear first in the group’s name. As residents’ primary concern was compensation, and they were in a majority at this first meeting, ‘compensation’ originally appeared first in the group’s title. However, as the activist core who stayed involved held all executive positions, they quickly – and without consultation – moved the word ‘protest’ in front. It is worth here reflecting on the experience of the NSW Builders Labourers’ Federation, which demanded a large public meeting and the carrying of a majority motion before placing a ‘green ban’ on a site. “The union neither set itself up as an arbiter of taste nor attempted to impose bans that lacked local support”, as Meredith and Verity Burgmann put it in their Green Bans, Red Unions.  Obviously, already politicised individuals will become involved in these struggles, however this example shows it is vital to actually listen to the people being affected and have their voices front and centre.

Thirdly, and this is a much more challenging issue, how can activists convince already marginalised, socially-powerless people that “collective objections” could hold sway over conservative politicians and corrupt police? Of those who did involve themselves in the campaign, he vast majority only wanted better compensation, not even imagining being able to stop construction overall. One respondent reported that he felt so frustrated at his lack of power that he drove down to the MRD offices with bricks to put through the front windows, only to reconsider at the last minute. This lack of radical imagination – born of capitalism’s alienating reality – is a question to which there are no easy answers.

Despite the overall despondency, construction did stop, though not only owing to the diligent activism of locals and their supporters. The 1973 financial crisis and the anti-freeways policy of the Whitlam Labor government came together to make most of the freeway plans heralded in Wilbur Smith and Associates’ 1965 report unfeasible. The South-East Freeway and a much abridged version of the Centenary Motorway were all that ended up being constructed. As such, many of the residents who held out on MRD’s poor offers of compensation were able to stay in their homes, a small but important victory which demonstrates the potential of an inclusive, urban-focused politics.

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