Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
When the songs all sound the same you need a maestro to change key
The Helsinki Complaints Choir is a serious choral institution that performs to genuine public acclaim in the natural sound box that is Helsinki’s central station. Fully harmonised and conducted, the choir takes collective voice therapy to levels even the improbable Swedish hit film As It is in Heaven didn’t reach.
“You can’t get rich by working,” sing the Finnish sopranos in their oleaginous argot, “and love doesn’t last forever.” “In the public sauna,” rejoin the tenors, “they never ask if it’s OK to throw water on the stove. Old forests are cut down and turned into toilet paper, and still all the toilets are always out of paper. In the middle of Helsinki they built another shopping hell…”
Sydney, we like to think, doesn’t need a complaints choir. Perfect weather, fabulous beaches, breathtaking topography. But there are times, especially in listening to other cities’ ambassadors, when you realise there are things we could do better. Quite a few things,actually, quite a bit better.
Leadership was targeted by Paul Keating in opening the City Development World conference in Sydney last week: “It’s all about leadership. And leadership has two essential ingredients: imagination and courage – the capacity to imagine something better and the courage to carry it through.”
Which forces us to wonder: do our leaders, public sector or private, have either? Look left, there’s a government thoroughly intimidated by the market gods; look right, there are the gods themselves, too frightened to forsake the trodden path even as it takes their plodding clay feet over the cliff.
Next, the ambassadors. First, Susan Anderson from Portland, Oregon. Portland, having adopted its first global warming policy in 1993, leads the US cities against climate change, a charge that is dragging the feds in its wake. Anderson, as Portland’s sustainability director, drafted that policy.
Portland, she says, is really “northern, northern California”, and Portlanders “like to play, eat, shop and sprawl”. So Portland’s remarkable achievements are expressed as savings in money, congestion, time and air quality. And they’re major achievements. A 22 per cent cut in city energy use; a 210 per cent increase in recycling; an 85 per cent increase in transit use; 12,000 commuters cycling daily; a legislated urban growth boundary; a mandatory 10 per cent ethanol mix in petrol; and a wind farm to ensure the city’s electricity is 100 per cent renewable. The result is a 12 per cent emissions reduction, taking Portland to 1990 levels while US emissions overall have risen by 16 per cent. It can be done.
Anderson was surprised to see so few cyclists on Sydney streets. “It’s not like your traffic is much worse than ours,” she says. In Portland, by contrast, “it’s become kind of cool, to arrive a little rumpled looking, carrying a bike helmet”.
Next up was Tan Tian Chong, the director of Singapore’s Green Mark incentives scheme. “Singapore,” he says, “has no fear of legislating. No worry that the populace might revolt.” And yet, Tan prefers to pluck the “low-hanging fruit” of demand reduction, passive design and incentives, rather than regulation.
There are also government demonstration projects, like the “eco-precinct” public housing, platinum-rated and heavily oversubscribed; Singapore’s first zero-energy building, featuring semi-transparent photovoltaic windows and vertical greening. Plus Singapore, ever anxious about buying water from Johor, now recycles all sewage (while ours goes to the Bondi fishes), producing the wholly potable “NeWater”, of which Tan handed around a very palatable bottle.
And so to London. Andrew McAnulty runs the Stonebridge Housing Action Trust that has overseen the widely admired, $1.3 billion renewal of one of Norf Lundin’s most notorious no-go housing estates. Home to 6000 (compare with the Block’s hundred odd), mostly black, young and poor, Stonebridge had been cleared of its “slum” terraces in the 1960s. Redeveloped with Barbican-style high rise, it was back, by the ’90s, in intractable slumdom, blossoming with high-skill cottage enterprise in the gun-running and smack-dealing industries.
New Stonebridge has pretty much reinstated its old 1930s plan, with terraces rebuilt along most streets, seven-storey apartment buildings on landmark corners and several plummy architecture and town-planning awards to its credit. With a brief to reduce density, since that was seen as part of the problem, the renewal increased dwelling numbers (from 1775 to 2200) for urban design reasons. With a mix of rental and owner-occupied, the demographic is, if anything, more mixed than before. A variety of sports programs, children’s centres, college training links and cultural ventures (including a radio station) have drastically reduced crime, fear and unemployment.
The key, says McAnulty, is value capture, or what he calls the “ripple effect”, where increased land value around the development is ploughed back in. Other crucial factors include a refusal to displace the existing community, the planned obsolescence of the trust (this September) and McAnulty’s rejection of “operation ordinary”. “If a development isn’t extraordinary,” he says, “it’s not worthy of being a development at all.”
See? Sydney has a lot to learn.