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green belt

Pub: Sydney Morning Herald

Pubdate: 29-Oct-2005

Edition: First

Section: Spectrum

Subsection: Arts

Page: 27

Wordcount: 1224

Idyll conversation



Old-fashioned planning and discipline are needed if Sydney’s ‘green belt’ is to be anything more than wishful thinking, writes ELIZABETH FARRELLY.

Funny old system, capitalism, fed and watered by the very traits we pretend to despise; by sin, basically. Remove kindness, intelligence or humility and the economy kicks on.

But without pride, envy, avarice, gluttony and lust, the entire Western project would shrivel and die. Not just the economy, either. The planning system, which shapes our physical context as surely as the economy shapes our culture, is similarly reliant on self-interest. Competing self-interests, sure, but self-interest just the same.

The Sydney “green belt” issue is a classic instance, where a predictable row over land values has done little more than provide a smokescreen for the Government to do what it does best: nothing at all.

Not that there ever was an green belt, truth to tell. That would be far too obvious. It’s more of a paper phenomenon, involving the application of sage-coloured dye across hundreds of square kilometres of Baulkham Hills, Hawkesbury, Liverpool and Camden – much of it private land, already subdivided and inhabited – and typing “landscape and rural lifestyle area” into the legend. This “rural lifestyle” zone meanders around and through the two vast new “growth centres” in Sydney’s west.

Each covering more than 100 square kilometres, they are expected, between them, to accommodate 1.5 million people in 700,000 dwellings over the next 30 years. Assuming this is still on the cards, which seems less and less likely as people pour into the Gold Coast and Western Australia’s Mandurah Coast, this gives 2.1 people per dwelling and a total Sydney population of 6 million by 2035.

The two growth centres are the imaginatively named Northwest Growth Centre, near Kellyville (covering Vineyard, Riverstone, Schofields and Marsden Park), and Southwest Growth Centre (Bringelly, Rossmore, Leppington, Marylands and Oran Park).

They’re Sydney’s traditional reservoirs of rural plenty, semi-rural poverty and market gardening. On the whole, that’s how they still look, but not for long. The neighbouring McMansionvilles of Kellyville, Stanhope Gardens, Beaumont Hills, Harrington Park and the rest looked like that five years ago. Now, they’re the new-money ‘burbs, with substantially above-average family incomes ($85,000 and $74,000 in the NW and SW sectors respectively, compared with a Sydney average of $56,000); higher-than-average car ownership (1.9 per household instead of the 1.5 Sydney average or 1.1 inner-urban average) and significantly fewer non-car trips to work (12 per cent compared with the Sydney average of 28 per cent). Of the dwelling stock, 95 per cent are separate houses, typically with four bedrooms, two or more bathrooms and two garages. Oh, and no eaves.

All of which, of course, is why people live there. Sprawl is what they want. They call it lifestyle, but sprawl is its proper name. And although the Department of Planning’s own documents recommend countering this profligacy with “over 40 per cent of medium- and high-density housing” in the new growth centres, signs are for more of the same.

Funny thing is, though, while the green bits cover minutely subdivided land, the red bits and white bits – signifying “mixed-use town centre” and “proposed urban area”, respectively – obliterate flood-prone strawberry fields, eucalypt forests, greenhouses, orchards and lush dairy pasture. Just common sense, really.

And while the NSW sustainability commissioner, Professor Peter Newman, is quoted in the Metro Strategy blurb as saying: “The new land releases will be close to or exceed world’s best practice,” there is, in fact, no more than a promise of a rail link. Even then, it is $8 billion and 15 years away, and we all know how this Government’s bin of trashed railway promises runneth over. Meanwhile, the roads, the roads, the roads: $3.7 billion of new road upgrades are being fast-tracked now.

And the green zone? Its purpose, goes the blurb, is to enhance biodiversity, buffer waterways, protect Aboriginal heritage and preserve land of “high scenic value”. Newman describes the scheme as “close to world’s best practice” in environmental terms. But now, a couple of weeks into the job, the Planning Minister, Frank Sartor, has agreed to “reconsider” the green zones.

Does it matter? Hard to say, in the tidal mush that is NSW Planning. But yes, it could. If Planning’s big act is simply to bend with every puff and zephyr of self-interest, we might as well scrap the entire department and let market forces rip. Sprawl from here to the Blue Mountains. Build in the flood plains, where houses will prove as uninsurable as in New Orleans. Concrete over the last remaining arable land in the Sydney basin, where 8000 farmers run a billion-dollar business. Truck our bok choy and our fresh baby endive from Griffith. Fly it from China. Bugger the money. Bugger the environment. Do it for a quick quid, I reckon. And sack the bureaucrats.

If, on the other hand, we want to keep anything breathable in the way of air or fecund in the way of nature, we’re going to need a little discipline. And if self-discipline isn’t an option, the external variety will have to do. It’s called planning.

The “green belt” idea dates from early last century, back when planning meant planning: very old-fashioned. Then, green belts were proffered as constraints on urban sprawl: beyond-which-not zones, urban corsets designed to limit city size and preserve nature as nature. It never worked, of course – not here, anyway. The greenbelt proposed in Sydney’s first official plan, the Cumberland County Plan of 1951, worked brilliantly – for about five minutes, until planning minister Pat Hills started carving it up for the mates before the ink was dry.

After that, the “green belt” idea morphed into the altogether more pliable notion of green “fingers”, which has long pockets of bush or farmland protrude into suburban areas, interspersing development with so-called “green lungs”. The idea was to stitch a lacework of recreation, biodiversity and breathing space around a city’s skirts. Sounds great, except that suddenly the corset has become a volumising petticoat. Far from stopping sprawl, the green-finger model actively promotes it.

Canberra, with its low-density Tuggeranongs and Belconnens swathed in yet more amorphous green stuff, is the obvious case in point. It may look green, but try getting anywhere, even to the corner shop, without four wheels and an internal combustion engine.

In Canberra it was comparatively easy, of course, as the land was in public ownership. It’s trickier here, especially when every last pocket handkerchief of public land besides the national parks has already been sold.

In Sydney, where our unofficial constitution puts the right to speculate plum at the top of the God-given list, green zoning, as with heritage listing, spells grief. Property owners universally regard such a zoning as an attack on their civil liberties, to be resisted with all possible zeal. They argue land-grab, they argue discrimination, they even argue racism, forcing the vote-sensitive minister to relapse into the politician’s natural base-state that colours the entire zoning map gold.

It’s traditional. What’s wrong with that? As I said, where would we be without the seven deadly sins?


PHOTO: Changing landscape … two vast new “growth centres” are transforming Sydney’s west. PHOTO: BRENDAN ESPOSITO


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