Pop‐Up Property: Enacting Ownership from San Francisco to Sydney

Published date01 September 2018
Date01 September 2018
Pop-Up Property: Enacting Ownership from San
Francisco to Sydney
Amelia Thorpe
Through a detailed examination of PARK(ing) Day, a loosely organized inter-
national event to reclaim street space from cars, this article reveals the
intimate connection between property and its social and material context.
Private claims to public streets are not uncommon. In some cases, such
claims are swiftly rejected. In others, they receive recognition and respect.
Focusing on the particular set of proprietary claims within PARK(ing) Day,
this article examines the ways in which property on city streets is claimed
and contested. Drawing primarily on fieldwork in Sydney, Australia, the
analysis emphasizes the degree to which property depends on the networks
in which it is situated. PARK(ing) Day was based on a creative rereading of
the property producible by paying a parking meter, and this link with legal-
ity plays a key role in the event. Yet the property at issue is based on much
more than that simple transaction. A more emergent and socially constructed
conception of ownership is central in understanding both the making of
claims to city streets on PARK(ing) Day and the range of responses they
Private claims over public streets have long histories. Such
claims are often rejected, with officials and/or members of the
local community acting to enforce the public nature of the street.
The parking of camper vans in kerbside spaces by backpackers in
Sydney, Australia, for example, has drawn heated responses in
recent years. Residents living near beaches and inner city parks
have objected strongly, prompting media reports of a “plague”
and “grubby hippies setting up camp” (Daily Telegraph 2016).
Local residents and businesses lobbied municipal authorities to
prevent backpackers using streets in this way. While the use of
parking spaces to stay overnight is often not illegal, complaints
from locals have been successful in prompting the introduction of
new regulatory restrictions that do in fact prohibit it
(McKenny 2014).
Early drafts of this article were greatly improved, thanks to generous feedback from
Hanoch Dagan, Eric Feldman, Doug Harris, Stewart Macaulay, Desmond Manderson,
Bronwen Morgan, and the anonymous reviewers, as well as discussion at the Penn-
Stanford International Junior Faculty Forum in 2016 and the Property in the City work-
shop at the University of British Columbia in 2017.
Please direct all correspondence to Amelia Thorpe, Faculty of Law, UNSW Australia,
Sydney,NSW 2052; e-mail: a.thorpe@unsw.edu.au
Law & Society Review, Volume 52, Number 3 (2018)
©2018 Law and Society Association. All rights reserved.
Food trucks are another contentious example. In many cities
around the world, food vendors operating out of vehicles parked
on city streets have attracted hostile responses, largely from “brick
and mortar” restaurants (Lasserre 2013; Mukhija and Loukaitou-
Sideris 2014). In Sydney, concerns raised by restaurants and
others led to the inclusion of strict controls governing the intro-
duction of food trucks in 2012 (Zegura 2014). Yet, businesses and
neighboring residents continue to complain about noise, nuisance,
and unfair competition for established businesses (Di Lizia 2013).
In other cases, private uses of public streets attract far less oppo-
sition. As several scholars have noted, the digging out and claiming
of parking spaces for the duration of a snowy North American win-
ter by local residents is widely recognized as legitimate by others in
the community (Epstein 2002; Rose 1985; Silbey 2010). A range of
other private activities on public streets are similarly accepted in a
number of cities: the use by cafes and restaurants of on-street park-
ing spaces for outdoor seating and the use by homeowners and
businesses of such spaces for the storage of refuse containers and
other equipment during construction or for commercial and private
loading and unloadingover shorter periods. Many of these activities
are subject to permitting processes,and that legal status is important
to their acceptance by the wider community.
Yet, there is more at stake than permits and regulations. With
respect to the well-documented claiming of snow-cleared parking
spaces, the particular regulations in operation are often not deter-
minative of how officials or others respond. In many cities, the
placing of chairs and other objects to claim a parking space is ille-
gal (either specifically proscribed or as part of a more general pro-
hibition on the placement of private objects on public roads), yet
officials often tolerate the practice (Silbey 2010). Efforts to enforce
laws prohibiting the activity may even generate fervent resistance.
As many commentators have noted, the enforcement of the laws
regulating streets and public spaces is replete with variation
(Blomley 2011; Loukaitou-Sideris and Ehrenfeucht 2009; Valverde
2012). Official responses are influenced to a large degree by factors
other than legal rules, and this is by no means a new occurrence. In
her discussion of obstruction of the street, a body of law dating back
to the Middle Ages, Rachel Vorspan notes the very clear influence
of social and political agendas on the way in which laws regulating
public streets have been enforced (Vorspan 1997). In a more recent
discussion of sidewalk vendors in New York, Ryan Devlin explains:
on the street formal law does not act like a blueprint structuring
social action and spatial form; it exists mostly as a point of
departure for spatial negotiations and maneuvers. (Devlin
Thorpe 741
Variability is apparent in each of the examples described
above. Not all camper vans are rejected (a van parked in my own
street in inner Sydney went unchallenged for several months), not
all claims to snow-cleared spaces are accepted (within popular dis-
course on the practice, Susan Silbey and Richard Epstein find
multiple critiques [Epstein 2002; Silbey 2010]), and not all food
trucks are rejected (in Los Angeles, saveourtacotrucks.org details
a range of activities undertaken by supporters of food trucks to
campaign for less restrictive regulations). Patterns of acceptance
cannot be explained simply by reference to legislative provisions
or judicial determinations; that is, to formal law.
Within this variability and maneuverability, there are also con-
sistencies. In trying to understand these, property is important.
Property has long been associated with who and what belongs in a
place and who and what does not (Waldron 2009). Proprietary
claims are central to each of the activities outlined above, and the
ways in which these claims are expressed and received offer impor-
tant insights well beyond the particular disputes in question.
In line with the growing body of scholarship emphasizing the
relationality, complexity, and performativity of property (Blomley
2013; Cooper 2014; Davies 2007; Keenan 2014; Rose 1994), the
property at issue on city streets should be understood as contin-
gent and collectively constructed. My central claim in this article is
that proprietary claims on public streets are most likely to be suc-
cessful when they are grounded in relationships of social and mate-
rial connection to the site in question. I examine this general claim
in the context of a particular set of activities: the construction of
temporary parks around the world each year on PARK(ing) Day.
This focus on grounded empirical work is important. Prop-
erty scholars are increasingly emphasizing the importance of
everyday and lay understandings to the workings of property, yet
there is a lack of empirical work to guide the study of property
practices (Blomley 2016:225). This article helps to fill that gap.
PARK(ing) Day is an annual, global, open-source event in
which participants appropriate parking spaces and temporarily
transform them into spaces that are more sociable and sustain-
able. The event centers on the parking meter: participants pay for
the space, then use it for anything but the parking of cars. Exami-
nation of the claims and counterclaims involved in PARK(ing) Day
demonstrate the extent to which formal and informal understand-
ings of property are entangled and how different understandings
of property shape and are shaped by their social, spatial, and tem-
poral context. While the research is drawn from a larger project
encompassing fieldwork in Montreal, Canada, and San Francisco,
California, I focus here on Sydney, Australia.
742 Pop-Up Property

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