Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
THE SYDNEY THAT GREW HERE
Reviewed by ELIZABETH FARRELLY
THIS is a book that had to be written. In a city less cavalier about its own history, this book would have capped a long tradition, but published attempts to document the intellectual and political background to Sydney’s physical evolution may be counted on a very few fingers indeed.
The Accidental City, one of a series of histories commissioned by the City Council to mark its sesquicentenary, is a scholarly but immensely readable work, full of illustration and conversation, which begins with Phillip’s unsuccessful attempts to
establish a city with 200-foot wide streets and ends, mid-air, with the current council’s 1992 decision to abandon the draft plan which had been prepared by the Central Sydney Planning Committee and would have seen the city’s main development contro
l (floor space ratio, or FSR)raised still higher, from 12.5 to 15:1.
There is little point in my claiming impartiality on this. Nor is it my intention, however, to present The Accidental City as the last word on the subject. It’s a good book, and necessary, but it has the odd lacuna – to do primarily with Ashton’s reluctance to focus analytically on the core issue of his subject, namely, the plans themselves, and to evaluate their success, or otherwise, in translating the generative idea or ideology, on the one hand, into a living, breathing city, on the other.
Consciously rejecting the traditional approach to planning history as what he dubs “hagiography (in this case the study of saintly planners)”, Ashton nevertheless focuses on the front end of this three-stage process, the ideologies at play. His scrutiny moves to the third, real-world stage of the process long enough and often enough to enable him to claim as a primary theme the long failure of Sydney’s planning to achieve anything more effective, on the ground, than description of urban
change as, or after, it occurs. (Sometimes, as in the premature ministerial sell-off in the late 1950s of Cumberland County green belt, it has failed to achieve even this.)
Both parts of this discussion are welcome and timely contributions to a seriously undernourished debate. And Ashton is a professional historian, remember, not a planner. But his reluctance to move from the political wings of planning into evaluation of the plans themselves has some curious effects.
One is his acceptance at face value of the customary assumption that Sydney’s 1909 Improvement Commission was some sort of antipodean offshoot of Daniel Burnham’s Chicago-based “City Beautiful” movement. In fact the commission was heavily positivistic in outlook, its recommendations dealing almost exclusively with street-widening (for traffic purposes), slum-clearance and building regulations. What “beautification” it did propose aspired not to any Versailles-inspired choreography of urban space, as advocated by Burnham, but to the much more mundane art “of making utilities beautiful”.
Another oddity that springs from this reluctance to distinguish between types and qualities of plan is the presumption throughout the book that the big question about “planning” is not how to do it, but whether to or not. In some ways this may be reasonable, since that prior battle, between the laissez-fairers and those who would institute some sort of control, began before Macarthur got rid of Macquarie and continues apace to this day.
It is also true that the intellectual content of planning here has generally been so debased and diluted by distance that it scarcely repays academic scrutiny (the Improvement Commission’s report, for instance, clearly seeing no contradiction, eulogised the Beaux Arts City Beautiful and the picturesque in the same breath).
If, on the other hand, this is ever to change, if we are ever to develop sane urban planning controls which bear not only debate but some genuine relationship to this particular part of the planet, and if we are ever to overcome the staggering ineffectuality of planning in Sydney, scrutinise and substantiate its intellectual content, we must.
To say this is not to disparage Ashton’s book, which brings intelligence, clarity and humour to a task long overdue, but to offer a brief for the next one.
Ashton charts the scientism of the ’50s, the exuberance of the ’70s, and the sad excesses of the ’80s with a lucid enthusiasm which whets the appetite for a less slim volume. It’s a damned good book; read it.
Drawing: By Michael Fitzjames