Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
More reason than ever to fight for human cities
Elizabeth Farrelly. Elizabeth Farrelly writes on planning and architectural issues for the Herald.
BRENDAN Gleeson, you may know, is Mad-Eye Moody, Harry Potter’s Professor of Defence Against the Dark Arts. What neither Harry nor anyone else gets, though, is that Mad-Eye is an imposter. The real Mad-Eye is locked in a trunk, his body commandeered by Barty Crouch jnr, disciple of the evil Voldemort who plots relentlessly to destroy Harry and the world. Mad-Eye the Imposter constantly sips polyjuice from a hipflask, in order to stay benevolently in character. That’s Potter-land.
Here, meanwhile, in life-imitates-art-Australia, Mad-Eye has assumed another incarnation, a Griffith University professor of urban policy, Brendan Gleeson. In two new books – Gleeson’s Australian Heartlands: Making Space for Hope in the Suburbs and its companion piece, The Big Picture, by demographer Bernard Salt – Voldemort’s agenda shows through. The cloak may be humanist but the subtext is unreconstructed suburban fight-back. More suspicious still, both books appeared within weeks of the April death of Jane Jacobs, the Professor McGonagall of popular urbanism, aged 89.
Jacobs, born in 1916 Pennsylvania, moved to New York as a freelance writer, aged 18. She married an architect, landed a job at Architectural Forum (1952), led the charge that saved Washington Square from becoming an on-ramp to Robert Moses’s Lower Manhattan Expressway and produced a book that changed the world. It was The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961) and it established Jacobs as the founder of contemporary urbanism. She was first to argue for the human, rather than the car, as the city’s basic unit; for pluralism over planned sterility; and for the urban-village over the suburb-ringed CBD.
Now, 45 years on, we’re still fighting the battles. Urbanism, long resisted in Australia, has slowly gained recognition as environmentally sound and culturally fertile. But now comes the backlash, reviling urbanists as a latte-soaked elite and defending suburbia as the Great Australian Way. As if it were, in some way, ours.
In fact, our long suburban tradition sprang from England; from Ebenezer Howard’s 1902 polemic, Garden Cities of Tomorrow. But the fact that we were relatively late adopters does nothing to take the emotion from the debate: our suburban apologists, from Hugh Stretton through Canberra’s Pat Troy (to whom Heartlands is dedicated) to Gleeson and Salt, defend suburbia as one of their own.
The essential argument is this. Suburbia is something we’ve always had (wrong). In fact, we bloody near invented it (definitely wrong). We like it, a lot (sure), so we are entitled to go on having it (nuh-uh). This elision, from want to need to birthright, parallels Michael Costa’s argument on roads, or the child’s on Macca’s; we want them, dammit, so we’ve a right to them.
Heartlands, the cover tells us, won the inaugural John Iremonger Award for Writing on Public Issues – except it was given by the publisher, two years before publication. Still, content is the thing. Gleeson’s core argument is a nostalgic one. He worries about McMansions and about gated communities. He worries about climate change and that our cities are unfair to poor people, children, or the public generally.
All of which would suggest a classic urbanist stance. Cities, after all, produce better public spaces (think Rome), cleaner air, reduced energy-use, viable public transit (New York), better amenity for the poor through proximity (Vienna) and fewer noxious gases per head: adding up to a better future for the children.
In fact, though, Mad-Eye Gleeson is intensely anti-urban, arguing that “cities … are most deadly to nature” and, on ABC radio’s Nightlife recently, that there is no “necessary relationship between density and sustainability”; indeed, that “suburbia has served Australia very well”.
Salt agrees. His books, based on creative census-crunching, discuss which professions offer most eligible blokes and how food became “sex for the over-40s”. His last book noted Australia’s “big shift” to the coast. This one argues that since sprawl is clearly happening, it’s just fine with him.
“Sprawl isn’t necessarily bad,” said Salt on Nightlife. “I don’t think there’s a shortage of arable land in Australia. We don’t need to densify. Suburbs are Australia’s heartland and I don’t see anything wrong with them.” Never mind rising sea levels and galloping desertification. Never mind that suburbia guzzles land, wastes energy, pollutes air, generates traffic, disperses community, makes services expensive and public transport impossible. Or that in 20 years, when the dominant household is the single person, all these effects will intensify.
The word “sprawl”, said Gleeson, “should not be used in Australia”. Not because sprawl is bad but because the word is “confusing and emotive” and gives the burbs a bad name. “Hear, hear,” said Salt.
But give the last word to the good wizard, Jacobs. She noted that Howard’s garden suburb “set spinning powerful and city-destroying ideas”. Howard’s ideas, propagated by polemicists such as Lewis Mumford and Le Corbusier, consistently, almost willfully ignored the facts that “the cities of human beings … are as natural as the colonies of prairie dogs or the beds of oysters … [and that] lively, diverse intense cities contain the seeds of their own regeneration, with energy enough … for problems and needs outside themselves.” Hear, hear.
PHOTO: Photo: Michele Mossop