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Public spaces have far-reaching implications for law, property and justice

15 November 2022

Public spaces are essential to our physical and mental health, our happiness, connectivity, and sense of place, but their importance can be overlooked, according to Professor John Page, Executive Dean of Law at the University of Canterbury.


Professor John Page is Executive Dean of the Faculty of Law at the University of Canterbury and co-author of The Lawful Forest.

His research explores the diversity of property in the common law tradition, and how property intersects with public space, the materiality of place, and the propertied design of lived landscapes.

“Some public spaces are more ‘loved’ than others, but whether sublime or mundane, public and common spaces are critical to our everyday lives,” he says.

SDG 15 Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 15 - Life on Land

“We’ve been used to the idea of property as ‘private’, so we have failed to see public and community spaces as ‘property’ too. This has had implications for our relationships with land outside the usual private paradigm,” Professor Page says.

“Our relationship to space and place acts as an important catalyst in advancing public wealth, public health, and refuting the inaccuracy of property and private property being one and the same.” 

Professor Page explores this theme in his new book, The Lawful Forest: A Critical History of Property, Protest and Spatial Justice (Edinburgh University Press), co-authored with Associate Professor Cristy Clark of the University of Canberra.

The Lawful Forest points to an historical record going back centuries. The book draws on several case studies including the 13th century Forest Charter, Thomas More’s Utopia, the Diggers’ radical agrarianism, the Paris Commune’s battle for the right to the city, and Australian forest protestors of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

The authors argue that this very recent understanding of property as private only is inaccurate and fails to reflect the diversity of property types and relationships with property that surrounds us and are an everyday feature of our urban and rural landscapes.

“The ‘why’ is a complicated issue, but it stems back to the overlooked significance of ‘enclosure’, which in the 17th and 18th centuries referred to a process and period where commoners were evicted from common lands in England,” Professor Page says.

“This created a large class of landless and displaced people who moved to industrialising cities and powered colonialism. Today, enclosure persists in phenomena such as gentrification, or the ongoing exclusion of people through the privatisation of public spaces. This has important consequences for spatial justice.”

In The Lawful Forest, Professor Page and Associate Professor Clark argue the sustainable use of common and public land was practised and entrenched in ancient property laws, customs and practices.

“By seeing again the significance of these ‘other’ inclusive and co-existing relationships with land, we can use the historical record as a template to validate a more sustainable use of land and its resources,” he says.

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