Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
ARCHITECTURE SUMMER SPECTRUM
A million more citizens squeezed into Sydney? The real problem may be the way we try to deal with the increase, writes Elizabeth Farrelly.
A city is not a tree, wrote US theorist Christopher Alexander 40 years ago, coining one of planning’s most famous, and most famously misunderstood, aphorisms. Understanding wasn’t helped by the fact that by “tree” Alexander meant not leafy green thing but clearly ordered hierarchy (as in decision, for example).
Still, he may be right. Tree may be a mis-metaphor. Seems to me, though, that a city is like a garden. And that, like a garden, a city needs two opposing forces – the burgeoning will-to-growth and the civilising will-to-order. Nature, if you like, and culture. Or, in city terms, development and government. Both forces are essential. Deprived of nature, the garden withers; deprived of culture, it goes to seed, no longer garden but wilderness, hostile and unfettered.
For reasons relating no doubt to our own complexity, these edge conditions, these ambiguity realms, are hopelessly humanly attractive. This is why we flock to the seashore, the littoral, literal edge, leaving the rest of Australia semi-vacant. It is why, a few months hence, the global population will be, for the first time, more urban than rural. It is why Sydney is expected to continued to grow – slowing a little from 50,000 a year but still growing – even when Australia as a whole drops to zero growth by 2050. And it is why, say theorists such as Richard Florida, who visited Sydney recently, the city’s relationship to creativity is that of a flower field to honey.
And just as any garden derives its charm and vigour from the sustained nature-nurture tension, so cities are made exciting and liveable by a healthy tug-of-war; development aggro versus government constraint. This is why public-private blurring (as in the development corporation model) has proved so urbanly destructive.
Any city, like any garden, has its own balance point – from the overtly untamed, like Houston or Phoenix, to the minutely clipped and coiffed, like Canberra. In Sydney, the balance has always been more nature than nurture. Governments have been reluctant inhibitors of development, from the first fierce landowners to today’s speculator-lobbyists, as though the very business of government felt wowserish. And the odd attempt to plan Sydney by any means more assertive than as-we-go narrative has generally ended in tears, like the time planning minister Pat Hills sold off the city’s encircling “green belt” before its gazettal ink was dry.
Now, though, Sydney is finally getting a little adult about planning. Suddenly we anticipate a million or so new citizens over two or three decades, and the Government is working out where they’ll all sleep.
Or is it? You might think a government that was serious about planning would have done something directional already, after 10 years in power. Something small, perhaps – like making a plan, if not actually implementing it. But no. Here we sit, still awaiting the first draft, due in March. What will it say? First, it’ll state the problem. A million humans, needing something like 650,000 dwellings (the reducing growth rate, as population ageing kicks in, being countered somewhat by diminishing household size). Of this 650,000, roughly a third will be new-built on Sydney’s greenfield fringes – Rouse Hill and Bringelly as well as the Penrith Lakes area and the St Marys defence holdings. The rest will be fed into existing suburbs; more than half into those already-densest areas, with already-highest public transport use, in the central strip between Bondi and Parramatta.
Sounds scary, perhaps. And to some extent it is, especially in view of existing water and electricity shortages. But the numbers by themselves are no recipe for disaster.
Why not? First, because the expected rate of infill home-building, at about 15,000 a year, is already lower than the 22,000 we’ve had for each of the past five years, and lived to tell. Secondly, because the density bogey is nothing like the nightmare in our heads. Most of the world cities we admire – and even many villages – have had many times Sydney’s densities for centuries. The pay-off, for residents, is all the buzz and creative energy, the accessibility and servicing and cultural frisson that our out-burbs so painfully lack, as well as walkable shopping, viable public transport, breathable air.
All of which informs the current Metro Strategy exercise. Informs the blurb, anyway – which, in this era of government-by-press-release, amounts to the same thing.
So, where’s the problem? The problem – and it’s the only problem, really, in planning -is in the implementation. Anyone can talk the talk, and most of this talk (neighbourhoods, village centres, mixed use, human scale, blah blah) has been received planning babble since the Scottish urbanist Sir Patrick Geddes pioneered it a century ago. Question is, do we have the means, the money, the political will to make it happen?
Because the end may be benign, even necessary, but the road will be rocky.
Sydney’s plan-to-be covers the Greater Metropolitan Region, or GMR, from Port Stephens to Kiama, Dividing Range to the sea. Within this vast under-weeded land, densification will clump around nominated “centres”, in line with 1951’s so-called Centres Policy. This is a Good Idea, since it puts highest densities at points of greatest service access. And (notwithstanding the sudden disappearance of North Sydney, once our second CBD and now a puff of smoke) the centres list is much as it’s always been; Parramatta, Penrith, Campbelltown, Liverpool, Wollongong, Gosford and the rest.
On the matter of implementation, though, the Government is reticent. The motherhoods are there, as always. Stuff about building communities not dorm-burbs, about the end of the McMansion, and how it won’t take a litre of petrol to buy a litre of milk.
Already, though, it’s noticeable that recalcitrants such as Ku-ring-gai will shoulder only a tiny proportion of the density burden (only 7 per cent of all infill is allocated “north” compared with 53 per cent in the central Bondi-Parramatta strip). The obvious implication, for all watchful municipalities, is that the loud and self-interested will inherit the earth, while the meek have it tipped all over them. Old story, but you’d have to say it invites dissent. And dissent is not what’s required.
Say you were serious about ending sprawl, limiting pollution, ending the McMansion, civilising the city. You can go some way with regulatory regimes such as BASIX, which limits water and energy use in new houses. Beyond that, though, there’s a major cultural shift required. That requires guts, stickability, leadership and imagination. Real green-thumbery. These are qualities we talk about, admire even. But they’re not what we reward in our politicians.
Just look at what happens when a lord mayor proposes to actually apply development controls without fear or favour. Suddenly every developer in town – however loudly wishing for certainty – gets all threatened and wants her sacked. Or at what happens when a government applies, just once, its own planning rules, regardless of lobbying – suddenly it’s up before ICAC. Just for doing what’s right.
No wonder our pollies learn that duck and weave, spin and spittle, lunch and favour are the way to go. And, indeed, why not? Forget strategy, rules, governance. Give every shortneck boofhead his own development corporation and let rip, I say. Deify the profit motive, screw heritage, bring it on. Let the flowers seed and never mind the honeybees. Let them buzz in Melbourne.
PHOTO: Village green: a crowded city needs politicians with guts, not motherhood statements. Photo: Rick Stevens