A Waste of Space: Bodies, Time and Urban Renewal

Maree Pardy


“This table breeds idleness!” read the text of a handwritten message placed prominently on the table I shared with 5 of my friends many years ago in secondary school. Ours was one of several tables positioned to the side of the main teaching area of the classroom where we would gather on arrival, decant our bags to tables, gossip with our ‘group’ and then begin our school day. It was also a space where we could sit or study quietly between classes and during free periods. The note about our idleness was left only on ‘our’ table. Recognising the handwriting of our classroom teacher, Sister Celestine, we greeted her note with restrained laughter and a sense of teenage pride. Her reprimand was stern, but she had also acknowledged our specialness. We were seen as we might have wanted to be seen, recalcitrant, not too hardworking, slightly roguish, and a bit improper.

That note, and its words, stayed with me for a long time. There was something wonderfully urgent about this call to reflexivity; and something pleasantly disturbing about the panicky tone of its message. It seemed a peculiar expression of both crisis and care. ‘Idleness’ was a word we rarely encountered. In fact, it seemed such an old fashioned utterance, belonging more to a past era of our nun and the vernacular of her time. What was it that moved this nun to construe our mischief and our youthful conviviality as idleness? We considered ourselves spirited and boisterous, certainly not inert, as the word seemed to imply. This was curious, but it was the word ‘breeds’ that captured me more. What precisely is the generative or reproductive power of the conjunction of our bodies and this table? The concern was clearly not just about our idleness, but also about the breeding power of this table.

Idleness here speaks to us of what happens when proper things are not happening. When the table and our bodies converge in this space of idleness we are in the terrain of waste: wasting time (that could be spent on studying), wasting potential (that could advance our life prospects), wasting space (that could be used productively). The breeding of idleness is a judgement about how we are occupying this time and space. The table is a wasted space, and in turn it produces us as a waste of space. It is regulated by a circular logic. We are wasting time, which is wasting space; this in turn produces us as the wasters of that space. The space of the table might be used more purposefully, but not while it is breeding us. The nun’s note to us might have read, “You are a waste of space because you are wasting time.” Time is thus spatialised.

The ‘table of idleness’ has returned to me in recent times as a partial metaphor for the paradigm of urban renewal. Contemporary urban renewal and regeneration programs in places like the UK, Europe, North America and Australia are inspired to use space more productively, and to design and develop urban space in ways that enable the production of vibrant, clean, safer places where cultural diversity might be experienced as cosmopolitan chic. Tethering modern urban design to property development and the trend to ‘lifestyle’ based local economies, urban renewal is a strategy sweeping most postindustrial economies.

Suburbs ripe for these renewal, regeneration or revitalisation projects are identified in part through the presence of dormant, derelict spaces, in other words, wasted spaces from bygone eras. Typically these suburbs show the signs of neglect associated with economic change. They have become dormant as large-scale deindustrialisation and the development of large shopping malls away from urban centres sees people exiting the suburbs to work and shop. Street life diminishes and local businesses struggle or close, leaving landscapes of decaying infrastructure and urban decline.

Urban renewal apprehends such idle spaces as wasted opportunities that can be designed and developed into a usefulness that provides lifestyles of comfort, vitality and urban safety. But these wasted spaces also produce shadow wastes. Much like our table of indolence and time wasting, these spaces are considered breeding grounds, not just for a sense of urban dullness and decay but, more worryingly, for generating urban sloth and danger. They become the breeding grounds for what is now commonly referred to as ‘antisocial behaviour’ or ‘urban incivility’. That is, those who ‘unproductively’ and ‘dangerously’ occupy particular urban public spaces.

In the inner western Melbourne suburb of Footscray, which is currently undergoing renewal, these bodies are identified as the unruly public drinkers and drug users, black African men who have created a street café culture, and people with mental health difficulties who occupy the streets and who at times display anomalous bodily comportment and atypical civil demeanours. Many of these people are poor and sometimes engage in unconventional modalities of conviviality. A contemporary urban version of the idle schoolgirls in many ways, they sit at tables, on footpaths, in stairwells, on seats, in parks and often linger around railways stations. They are the unproductive, idle, culturally defunct bodies of the present day. It is useful to hold these bodies in mind when considering the waste products, and waste producers, of present time

In the discourse of urban renewal, Footscray is depicted as a once thriving regional hub that has been ‘in decline’ since the 1980s. Decline here is code for the loss of industry and retail business alongside rising levels of poverty, cultural diversity, and public crime (predominantly drug related and property crime). A suburb in the grip of uneven gentrifying change, its dominant image of danger and diversity still sabotages its ‘lifestyle potential’. It remains a wasted space.

The nexus of urban renewal and wasted space reveals a double obligation of renewal programs. The need to remove the waste, to ‘clean up’ the debris and decay of a bygone industrial and suburban era and to ‘clean out’ its progeny, the bodies borne of, and now further wasting, this wasted space. In this sense idle space as waste entails a bio-politics that produces particular bodies as a ‘waste of space’. Urban Dictionary defines waste of space thus: 1. A person devoid of any redeeming characteristics; 2. Someone who consumes valuable resources without contributing anything to society. A bum. A drain on the economy. 3. A person or occasionally an object which nobody is fond of. In fact, most people hate this person/thing and find it completely useless. 4. Completely useless people. 5. Waste of room, usually on computer hard drives, that could be used for better things. It is therefore worth considering the conceptual and historical trajectory of the link between waste and idleness as a prelude to considering in more detail some of the anxieties associated with the disorderly urban effects of idle bodies in wasted spaces.

Waste as Improper Use

At its most elemental, waste is a judgment. Waste as profligate or excess consumption, or as leftover material, or as something that has deteriorated through neglect or lack of effort, is a moral reckoning. Judgments about waste signal a moral economy far more than they do a fiscal one. In his book On Garbage, John Scanlan notes that ‘waste’ in its old and middle English modes referred to a land or an environment that was unsuitable to human habitation. This reference was gradually replaced by the corresponding terms ‘wilderness’ or ‘desert’, thus marking the beginning of waste as reprimand. Bringing together modern and pre-modern language usage, Scanlan suggests that waste at its most general refers to an imbalance (22). Whether it is rubbish, junk, clutter or other extravagance excess, and squander, waste is too much, but also too little in the sense of ‘not making the best use of something’ (time, resources, opportunities). Pared right down waste refers to the proper use of something. Scanlan again: “‘waste’ carries force because of the way in which it symbolises an idea of improper use, and therefore operates within a more or less moral economy of the right, the good, the proper, their opposites and all values in between” (22 my emphasis). In the contemporary urban domain this might refer to the overuse of vast tracts of land exhausted or wrecked by industry, the abandonment or underutilisation of shops and commons, or the improper and uncivil use of the space that lingers.

Scanlan traces this idea of waste as improper use back to the relation between self and natural space that inheres in seventeenth century English political philosophy. Referring to the work of John Locke in particular, waste is conceived as the original condition of the chaos of nature. For Locke selfhood became linked to freedom from this chaos and entailed the virtue, indeed the necessity, of human labour and intervention to ward off the potential ruin that nature may inflict. Locke outlines a philosophical and ethical basis for claims to property over land and natural resources such that “claims to property ownership rest on an idea of the proper use of land which entails the appropriation (through the use of one’s labour) of its previously unused potential” (Scanlan 24). Hence, “Land that is left wholly to nature, that hath no improvement of pasturage, tillage, or planting, is called, as indeed it is, waste; and we shall see the benefit of it amount to little more than nothing.” (Locke quoted in Scanlan 24). This Lockean understanding of waste has come to be associated with his theories of property rights, but, as Scanlan points out, it was also driven by the idea that any benefits derived from property were “dependent on a duty to a higher power” (26).

Nature is construed as useless and chaotic (waste) in the absence of human intervention. Property and ‘land use’ were not just about use by humans, but use for humans in order to defend them against the unruliness of nature and the disorder and ruin it might issue. The danger of going to rack and ruin through the disorder of untamed waste is crucial to this understanding. To neglect nature through idleness or lack of intervention is to invite ruin. Idleness thus breeds waste. There is a link here between land and character, for doing nothing or not doing things properly corresponds with improper character. Scanlan advances that waste can best be understood here as an indeterminacy signaling the need for form and discipline. He notes that Montaigne in his essay On Idleness compares wasted land with the idle mind, which when undisciplined allows wildness of character and purpose. Reminiscent of schoolgirls at their table of idleness, the defunct bodies of urban life are seen to be without purpose or goal and to be wasteful of life itself. As a consequence they are deemed to be inviting havoc and all its destructive tendencies. This fear of the indeterminacy of waste, says Scanlan, portends the social and cultural links between “waste, imperfection, disorder and ruin” (25).

While concepts of properness and proper use have multiple histories, it is not difficult to see how these seventeenth century Enlightenment associations of proper use and rights to property underpinned the period of new imperialism of the nineteenth century. We might say then that waste features prominently in the imperialist imaginary. Codes of properness, as in the proper use of things, are time and place specific, hence interrogating the meanings of ‘proper use’ entails a prior enquiry into the framing of time. It is linear time, that is, time as progress which frames imperial and colonial history. Progress is movement away from scarcity, disorder and deficiency towards enlightened reason, discipline and mastery.

However, this notion of progress, which is central to ideologies of both Enlightenment and imperialism, is always dependent on a shadow other: backwardness. Anne McClintock emphasises a corresponding need to always travel backwards in time in order to apprehend the colonised spaces and people as existing in an eternally prior time, as obsolete historical subjects. According to McClintock, imperialist discourse relies on two principal tropes: panoptical time and anachronistic space. She explains that the eighteenth century historians and empiricists required “a visual paradigm […] to display evolutionary progress as a measurable spectacle.” Progress is fundamentally a visually driven process and narrative. Panoptical time is depicted as “the image of global history consumed—at a glance—in a single spectacle from the point of privileged invisibility” (37). Marginal groups are placed outside of history in the sense that they can be seen by the bourgeoisie, who itself remains unseen. In this spectacle of progress, history appears static and fixed, but this is countered through the invention of the trope of anachronistic space. This space denies the agency of the archaic subjects that exist outside and therefore threaten history as progress. McClintock explains: “the agency of women, the colonised and the industrial working class are disavowed and projected onto anachronistic space: prehistoric, atavistic and irrational, inherently out of place in the historical time of modernity” (40).

If imperial panoptical time produces inferior subjects who are “hemmed in” (Fanon 29) by anterior time and anachronistic space, contemporary urban renewal projects prompt questions about their time, the time of now. How might we conceptualise the time/space of now, and are these regulatory technologies of panoptical time and anachronistic space at work in the time/space of now? In what way is urban renewal a contemporary “measurable spectacle of progress” in an age of postindustrial neoliberalism?

Urban Space, Proper Use and Idle Bodies

In a recent article on sexual politics and torture, Judith Butler argues that the ways in which debates of this nature are framed “are already imbued with the problem of time, of progress in particular, and in certain notions of what it means to unfold a future of freedom in time” (1). Butler reminds us that hegemonic conceptions of progress endure, and continue to define themselves over and against a pre-modern temporality produced for self-legitimation. This narrative of progressive modernity continues to spatialise time. For her it is the framing of modernity as sexual freedom that apprehends others as outmoded and stuck in anachronistic space.

The time of now in the urban setting is the time of neoliberal modernity, a time that is also driven by spectacle. The vision of freedom through lifestyle consumption similarly identifies others who are outside this time and who threaten it. Neoliberalism as the ideology of a radically free market that institutes economic deregulation, tariff reduction, public financial support for business and its shareholders, and the reduced role of government in areas of welfare and social expenditure, the effects of which are discernable at the urban scale. For Neil Brenner and Nik Theodore, “actually existing neoliberalism” is witnessed in what they call the “creative destruction” that inheres in the urbanisation of neoliberalism. In this materialisation of neoliberal time, modernity and progress continue to be driven visually. Thus this neoliberal/urban nexus depends on further sub-units of time, nominated by Brenner and Theodore as moments of (visual) “destruction and creation.” A series of examples of such creative destruction are offered by Brenner and Theodore and include the destruction of rights through the creation policing and social exclusion agendas. They argue that the mechanism of “re-regulating urban civility” entails moments of destroying notions of the liberal city in which all inhabitants are entitled to social services and political rights, and moments of creating zero tolerance policing, new forms of social surveillance and new policies to prevent social exclusion. The destructive moment of “re-representing the city” recasts the postwar image of the working class through visions of urban disorder, dangerous classes of people and of economic decline, involves the creative moment of entrepreneurial discourses about the need for revitalisation, renewal and reinvestment in urban areas (372).

The ‘proper use’ of neoliberal urban space depends on the dynamic of destruction/creation through a new consumer-driven urban entrepreneurialism. Urban renewal as proper neoliberal usage is a re-ordering of space to make it fit for purpose. Proper use here follows the Lockean impulse of human intervention through planning, design and redevelopment, is now apprehended not as service to God, but capitulation to the dictates of the neoliberal agendas implemented by the combined forces of the state and capital. The moral economy of waste is at work in the moral economy of urban renewal, As Sharon Zukin elaborates: “the look and feel of cities reflect decisions about what and who should be visible and what should not, concepts of order and disorder, and on uses of aesthetic power” (7). At the crux of waste, and of urban renewal, is an anxiety about visibility, therefore the persistently visible presence of waste as idleness, has become an acute focus of contemporary urban governance and police ‘law and order’ campaigns. Modernity and progress must materialise as an urban aesthetic that is purposeful and vibrant, not idle and wasteful.

The indeterminacy of waste thus becomes determined by its attribution as ‘garbage’ to be disposed of, banished, evicted, cast out. Waste converted to garbage is made into an object disconnected from the process of its production. Garbage is a noun rather than a verb, and as such, it conceals process. Creative destruction is again at play; waste is destroyed (as process) and garbage (as object) is produced. In the suburbs this conversion from process to object is narrated through the objectifying language of anti social behavior and incivility. I recently attended Maribyrnong council meeting (Maribyrnong being the local government authority for Footscray), where a discussion about cleaning up the central activity district quickly became a discussion about “those antisocial people.” This was not the terminology of council officers, but of a number of ratepayers. This anxiety about the image of the area is reflected also in the minutes of a further council meeting where differences between the stigmatised image of Footscray was compared with the changing images of other inner municipalities: “The visibility of these antisocial behaviours and the associated negative impact has significantly diminished in these [other] areas due to the gentrification of the inner-city, and the associated revitalisation of street activities. [Our municipality] is on the cusp of a similar transformation. In the meantime the social issues … continue to remain more visible” (71). These bodies are the garbage to be removed from the urban landscape so it might be made anew.

The bodies at the imaginative centre of this cleansing impulse are those bodies that one might see as the waste products of neoliberalism. Loic Wacquant suggests that today’s urban policies focus on “making the dangerous and dirty classes invisible.” This, he argues is “leading to a cleansing of the urban environment and the streets from the physical and human detritus wrought by economic deregulation and welfare retrenchment” (198). Consequently, waste in urban renewal both conceals and reveals the shadow side of contemporary cultural politics. Public policy is increasingly concerned with the detritus, yet the failed and wasted bodies that litter the streets and stations, these bodies and their predicaments, as with other garbage objects, are steadfastly disconnected from the policies and processes that produced and continue to ‘breed’ them.

The moral economy of urban renewal targets a cluster of wastes—idle bodies, wasted time, and improper uses of space—all fused in an endless reproduction of uselessness. This coalescence of wastes and wasters forms the spectacle of contemporary urban decay and failure. Neoliberal urban renewal begins to mimic Locke’s taming of nature, making it useful as a defense against ruin and disorder. The uncultivated bodies of urban waste are contemporary versions of Lockean wildness. Being of such poor character they have no right to occupy the property in which they idle. Through the panoptical time of neoliberalism they are cast as remarkable spectacles of failure, out of place in this time and space. They are wasting time, and are themselves a waste of space.


Brenner, Neil and Nik Theodore. “Cities and the Geographies of ‘Actually Existing Neoliberalism’.” Antipode 34.3 (July 2002): 349-79.
Butler, Judith. “Sexual Politics, Torture and Secular Time.” The British Journal of Sociology 59.1 (2008): 1-23.
Fanon, Frantz. Wretched of the Earth. London: Penguin, 1963.
Maribyrnong City Council. Ordinary Meeting Minutes, File no: HEA-60-014, 29 April. 2010.
McClintock, Anne. Imperial Leather: Race, Gender and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest. London: Routledge, 1995.
Scanlan, John. On Garbage. London: Reaktion, 2005.
Wacquant, Loic. “Relocating Gentrification: The Working Class, Science and the State in Recent Urban Research.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 32.1 (2008): 198-205.
Zukin, Sharon. The Culture of Cities. Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell, 1995.


waste; idleness; urban renewal, space; time

Copyright (c) 2010 Maree Pardy

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