Public property: Claiming ownership in the contemporary city

Date & time

12–2pm Monday 23 April 2018


Phillipa Weeks Staff Library

ANU College of Law, 5 Fellows Road, The Australian National University


Amelia Thorpe, PhD student


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Research Degrees
PhD oral presentation
Contemporary cities

Through a detailed examination of PARK(ing) Day, a loosely-organised international event to reclaim street space from cars, this paper highlights the degree to which law depends on its social, material and temporal context.

PARK(ing) Day was not the first event to appropriate parking spaces for more public uses, yet PARK(ing) Day has been uniquely successful in its international reach and its ongoing appeal. Drawing on fieldwork in Australia, the US and Canada, I argue that the trick that propelled PARK(ing) Day into international stardom (among city planners, at least) is the way the event engages with legality. Rather than a protest, a plea for change or a proposal for reform, PARK(ing) Day is presented as already legal.

PARK(ing) Day was based on a creative reading of the type of property produced – and producible – within the rules governing parking in San Francisco, California. Paying the parking meter was seen as a way, albeit temporarily, to access ownership in a city where the means to acquire legal title were beyond the reach of many residents. This act was described by its instigators as creating a “lease”, a property right which brought with it a right to engage in planning, participating in the development of a vision of what could be and, significantly, in the (fleeting) material creation of that vision.

Adding to the literature noting the powerful influence of property on decision-making about urban planning and development, I argue that the property at issue on city streets is more complex and nuanced than existing accounts suggest. Drawing on socio-legal studies and particularly legal pluralism, analysis of PARK(ing) Day highlights a more emergent and socially constructed conception of ownership. Participants do not make abstract claims about the city as a whole, but concrete demands about particular places, drawing power from deeply contingent local relationships.

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