Academic journal article Law & Society Review

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

Academic journal article Law & Society Review

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

Article excerpt

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).

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 LoukaitouSideris 2014). In Sydney, concerns raised by restaurants and others led to the inclusion of strict controls governing the introduction 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 opposition. As several scholars have noted, the digging out and claiming of parking spaces for the duration of a snowy North American winter 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 parking 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 unloading over 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 determinative of how officials or others respond. In many cities, the placing of chairs and other objects to claim a parking space is illegal (either specifically proscribed or as part of a more general prohibition 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 2011:54)

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 discourse 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. …

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