Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News And Features
Subsection: News Review
Love thy neighbour
With land a dwindling resource, suburbia’s on the way out. So, writes Elizabeth Farrelly, get used to it.
CARL Hiaasen, The Miami Herald’s normally exhilarating novelist-columnist, recently harpooned tin-arsed Governor Jeb Bush for citing Florida’s population growth as a Good Thing. Whereas in truth, argued Hiaasen, rampant growthism was turning Floridians’ beloved state into an “urban pit”, writhing under highway congestion, water shortages, street crime and an ever-slimming public purse. It could have come straight from the Dear Eds of the SMH.
Here, meanwhile, as drought and bushfire demonstrate once-more-with-feeling the contingent nature of well, us really in the great southern land, the heat-knob turns clockwise, too, on the density debate.
The facts are sparse as gum trees. Australia’s growth-by-babies is grinding to zero. Pretty soon, increase of any kind is going to equal immigration. But with humanity expanding, in a static-to-shrinking universe, the supply-side of this equation is not a problem. We all want the prosperity that growth implies. What we don’t want are the downsides of growth crime, congestion and so on. Most of all, we don’t want the downsides where we can see them like next-door or down the street.
That’s about it for fact; here on in it’s opinion, emotion and prejudice all the way. Most of us recognise the obvious conflict between a growing population and a finite land mass. Sooner or later, logic says, shove must come. But we baulk at its on-the-ground consequences. And the closer they come, the more we baulk.
So let’s talk Sydney. Everyone, it seems, wants to live here, with the latest official predictions at 4.5 million by 2007. Which is why a regulation three-bed house goes for five or six times what it might fetch in, say, Launceston. This is good, for a capitalist economy, except that it also means 26,000 new dwellings each year for the next five. So the big question is, where?
One option, based on the old favourite outta-sight-outta-mind model, is to send the newbies somewhere else; somewhere, ideally, that could use a few bodies. Launceston maybe. But are we really prepared for the Stalinism this implies? Are we ready to insist that not just immigrants but our own children (when and if they do decide to fly) can’t live in their own home town?
It’s pretty zero tolerance, and although it could help with the shrinking-family syndrome, there are technicalities. Chances are you’d have not just the kids but the entire menagerie, right out to second-cousin-twice-removed. So think again. Are we seriously going to nail up the Sorry Guys, Sydney’s Full sign? Can’t see it myself.
This leaves two choices expand, or densify. Expansion is what we’ve always done; it is our expectation, our habit and, many would argue, our birthright. For much of the last century suburban expansion was positively de rigueur, encouraged by politicians, parsons and public health officials.
In the antipodes, especially, where life on the quarter-acre was tacitly seen as compensation for being here in the first godforsaken place, families were exhorted to leave town for their moral, as much as physical, wellbeing. Suburbia was fully expected to deliver health and wealth to all. But that was way back. Back when you could obliterate innocent bushland and still be intimate with your conscience two or three times a week.
These days suburban expansion appears more starkly as a form of germ-warfare; sacrificing all the pretty, creatureful Riverstones, Menangles and Harrington Parks out there to the deadly brick-veneereal pandemic. Sure, everyone gets a bit of dirt, with or without topsoil. But at the cost of trading trees, which launder air, for roads, which pollute it. Trading wombat homes for greenhouse gases, stormwater plumes, acid rain, climate change. Trading community interest, that is, for the strictly personal variety.
Contrary to what we were told, suburbia is no more at home in this great dry continent than beef or cotton-farming. Land, like water, is a dwindling resource. Suburban living may be pleasant mind-numbingly, say some but the attempt to enshrine it as some kind of inalienable right is about as community-minded as hosing the concrete in a 100-year dry.
Of course, none of this impinges greatly on Sydney’s decision-makers, except by protracting the Friday-arvo trans-urban slog to the weekender. Otherwise, well, the air in the east stays relatively pristine, and there are no votes in forcing change. It’s the first rule of politics; short-term pain, long-term political death.
And what aspect of densification, exactly, has made it such political poison? Why does the prospect of it so reliably impel sane and intelligent people into a full display of seriously threatened behaviours?
There are several factors, ranging from humanity’s innate conservatism to an atavistic urge to replicate for your offspring the best bits of your own childhood; from distrust of the unknown (persons, especially) to unvarnished deprecio-phobia. Even those who fully grasp the arguments and inevitabilities feel sure that, close to home, medium density will not only destroy the look and spirit of the place but replace a trusting neighbourhood with random low-rent strangers who will lose no opportunity to ransack the house, torture the dog and, with assorted white powders, inveigle the teens into a life of violent crime. Next layer down is the real, primal fear; property values, property values, property values.
But this isn’t how the arguments are voiced. The authorised versions usually focus on motherhoods of one kind or another. These include “heritage” (that my street/neighbourhood/suburb must be preserved in perpetuity); nature (where will all the birds/frogs/koalas go?); thinly hooded xenophobia (how will these people blend in?); and more ingeniously, in the case of Ku-ring-gai, the safety of the newcomers themselves. How, asks mayor Laura Bennett, will the old people be evacuated in bushfire emergencies?
Needless to say, none of these lines holds water but then they’re designed to ignite anxiety, not douse it. Logically, we know that streets in Darlo, Alexandria and Newtown are quite as treasured as those in leafy Ku-ring-gai. That native creatures benefit more, not less, from compact cities. That newcomers will blend as much as they are invited to. That you can’t stop people letting property. And that old people’s homes can be evacuated just as easily as child-care centres or hospitals, and more easily than the same old people in suburban bungalows.
We also know that, despite its pork-barrel cynicism in reprieving Callan Park while standing over Ku-ring-gai, the Government’s policy of creating compact urban corridors along the railway’s lines-of-huge-investment is the only responsible way to go.
We know that suburbia was only ever affordable through massive government subsidy, and that proper application of the user-pays principle would render it the preserve of the rich.
We know, too, that limiting suburbia won’t end the suburban dream, so much as take it to the next developmental stage. Kindy to primary school. And that’s OK, because Australianness never did depend, really, on universal access to the Hills hoist. It’s really about stuff like creativity, ingenuity, decency and wit all of which will survive and enhance the move to a different, more co-operative way of life.
But then, logic isn’t altogether the point when it comes to dispelling fear. This is where design comes in. The dread we feel at the prospect of a new multi-unit development down the street would be less maybe not zero, but less if we could feel confident that the architecture would be other than an outright shocker. The six-packs of the 1950s and ’60s have a lot to answer for in this regard, and much of the current residential rash, high-rise or low, will prove worse. More terrifying still is the fact that, being strata-titled, most of them are there forever.
There is hope in a new development at Zetland but Victoria Park is not the whole answer. Suburban infill in the high streets and backyards is also going to be necessary. The transition will bring pain, almost certainly, but government has to take the lead here. It needs to carry through on the Callan Parks, as well as the Ku-ring-gais, and to find ways of doing it with creativity, intelligence and flair. Beyond that, being so helplessly populist, it needs us-the-voters to make it easier for them, not harder.
This requires us to recognise that land is a limited edition; there ain’t no more coming; that squandering it, in line with our profligate suburban habits, was only ever a privilege, not a right; and that, like free school milk, cheap petrol and guaranteed super, our expectations in that regard were never sustainable. That our responsibility now is to use land wisely and with care. And that pretending otherwise puts us somewhere between foolishness and hypocrisy.
Surrounding ourselves deliciously with the birds and bees must not be allowed to masquerade as environmental friendliness when its real function is to render palatable the bush-devouring, air-sullying truth. Anyone who continues to insist that commuting from Kangaroo Valley is environmentally sound should have “SUBURBIA BUGGERS NATURE” tattooed in caps on their forehead.
C’mon. It’s not the end of the world. We’re a big global city now, like it or not, and grown-up cities must proffer a whole suite of housing recipes, not just bangers and mash.