Residents at a 1970s public housing estate in Sydney are fighting gentrification in a simple yet striking display that asserts the presence of their community to the entire city. Every night, hundreds of residents living in soaring towers at the Waterloo estate are turning on colorful lights in their windows to illuminate the buildings. The gesture is part of a major campaign to oppose a New South Wales government plan to raze and redevelop the 40-acre estate into a mixture of private and public housing — a project that would relocate at least 3,600 people and create a high level of dwelling density that’s unprecedented in the country.
Launched last week, #WeLiveHere2017 represents two years of planning by Waterloo residents and local activists that began soon after the state government announced its redevelopment plans. The illuminated towers, known as Matavaia and Turanga, were chosen as they are the tallest in the estate, each rising 29 floors to overlook the surrounding cityscape. Residents interested in participating were given free lights whose color they can control to express how they feel about the redevelopment. The multicolor checkers stand out against the dark sky, persistent like the always-flashing buttons of an arcade game machine.
“The towers are sending a message on behalf of all the public housing residents of Waterloo: the lights are on, somebody is home,” resident and organizer Carolina Sorensen told Hyperallergic. “We want to call attention to the huge scale of the proposed project as Waterloo is an inner city area, but it is often over-looked and feared.
“We also want to humanize the discussion around public housing. People who don’t know this area well often talk about the ‘ugliness’ of the buildings and we want people to know that within these buildings is a place people call home.” To give residents further visibility, photographer Nic Walker has been taking portrait of participating residents next to their vibrant windows, and is posting these on Instagram along with their subjects’ individual stories.
These issues are global, as residents from New York City to Cape Town know first-hand: public housing estates get “cleaned up” as real estate, and what it’s worth, becomes a priority over human lives; communities get broken up and property prices rise as social problems don’t get fixed, only relocated. The illuminating display for #WeLiveHere2017 could be an accessible model of resistance for others who oppose rapid urban development in their own cities. It’s not a message that directly addresses developers, but it’s one that invites the broader community to remember that cities are made up of people, not just property.
“We hope that people stop for a moment to think about what we want our cities to look like,” Sorensen said. “Sydney is obsessed with property value, which seems to be the case in many first world countries.”
The residents are now trying to place as much pressure on the government as possible as city planners are currently drafting the masterplans to develop the area. The first resident relocations are now slated for mid 2018, but the campaigners believe there’s a real chance for change since they have been fighting the plans from the start.
“We hope that the people living on the estate are given an actual say in what the future of their community looks like,” Sorensen said. “Too often these redevelopment projects fly under the radar, and the outrage starts when tenants are moving. By then it’s too late. Whether we can have an impact or not … let’s see.”