Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Hurry to the Slurry, a grey area where stuff gets done
Just years ago Dolour Darcy, from Ruth Park’s The Harp in the South, made “getting out of Surry Hills” her life’s ambition. After that nothing would matter; the simple fact of escape would seal her success. These days, Dolour’s aspirational equivalents would snort coke off their Hills Hoists just to get into the Slurry, as it’s known, and international design mags lovingly feature this former slum as a creative cluster, Greenwich Village Down Under.
Gentrification isn’t news. Similar clusters have distinguished the Cross, Darlo, Glebe, Newtown and Erskineville. The Richard Floridas of the world make a very nice living pointing out that such clusters typify city centres everywhere and, in any case, history said it first. Alexandria, Rome, Paris; cities have always been humanity’s idea fountains, sucking talent from the countryside to feed their creative ferment.
But what generates such a cluster? What crucial factor impels young and not-so-young creatives to eschew suburban spaciousness and pour their energies into a life of relative constraint; the narrow street and narrower terrace, the constant fight for parking, the mewling bloody neighbours?
Not money. Former slum, present slum, but a two-storey Redfern terrace can set you back a million-and-a-half, easy. Not pleasure either, in the normal sense. Surry Hills may have more bars and cafes per square micron than most parts of the planet. It may also be more tolerant – there’s no doubt that inner Sydney’s gay cultures have contributed hugely to its creative bubble. But these are not core. The essence of city is something quite different, something that can be rather an acquired taste.
When I first set foot in London I thought it the ugliest place on earth; leafless, colourless and lacking the vitalising shadow to which antipodean eyes are addicted. Gradually, of course, I came to see its loveliness. But I also saw that the sensory deprivation is part of the point.
To quote Michael Hodges of Time Out, grey old inner London “is a perfect place for the miserable … [but] it’s being miserable that gets things done. No one comes to the capital to be happy. They come here to do stuff.”
This idea is reinforced by psych Professor Joe Forgas’s recent work at the University of NSW, which suggests not only that grumpiness can enhance cognition but also that grey, rainy weather improves memory and acuity, while sunny weather encourages forgetfulness.
In other words, there’s what feels nice, and there’s what gets stuff done.
This may help explain why European culture is so noticeably more fertile than that, shall we say, of sunnier climes (and no, I don’t believe this is cultural cringe). It may also explain why a modicum of repression seems historically to act as a creativity enhancer.
And it brings me to the elephant in the room. The d-word. Everyone wants vital, mixed-use urban environments but no one will call them by their proper name.
Weighing It Up, last year’s Commonwealth obesity report that itself weighs in at a hefty 223 pages, insisted that “poor urban design” contributes to our “obesogenic environment”. It wittered on endlessly about “walkable” neighbourhoods, public transport and “embedding” physical activity in cities (an ugly, swollen sort of a thought if ever there was). But not once – except regarding bones – did it mention the crucial factor underpinning all of this: density.
Barcelona, Paris, Vienna. Good cities are dense cities. No one will say it, yet it’s density that gives cities their shoulder-rubbing buzz, that fills Surry Hills streets with cafe goers, dog walkers, shoppers, web designers and people taking their funny haircuts for a walk. Density lines the streets with strange and unpredictable retail events and puts a hundred cafes within walking distance of any point.
So the predicted population blowout is the perfect opportunity to create proper cities. And yet the new Intergenerational Report also wimps out, no sooner conceding that cities are much, much cheaper to build than sprawl (true) than it faces about, arguing that “increasing population density can lead to significant congestion costs that offset the benefits”.
False. In fact, says the Harvard economist Edward Glaeser, “Americans who settle in leafy, low-density suburbs will leave a significantly deeper carbon footprint, it turns out, than Americans who live cheek by jowl in urban towers.”
Suburban environmentalists who (like the Ku-ring-gai FOKE) agitate against density actually help destroy the very ecosystems they wish to protect. In Glaeser’s words, “much local environmentalism, in short, is bad for the environment”.
Glaeser has quantified this effect. His study makes medium-density San Francisco greenest, at 17,200 kilograms CO2 per household a year. New York, at 22,000 kilograms, is in the middle (because although it is denser and lower-energy, its energy sources are browner than California’s) and Houston at the far, brown end of the field (31,000 kilograms). Interestingly, America’s five sunbelt cities – Atlanta, Dallas, Memphis, Oklahoma City and Houston – were the five highest emitters.
Four things drove sprawl: cheap fuel, property speculation, air-conditioning, ministerial discretion. Four things future cities will legislate for: rent control, betterment tax, thermal mass and density. In city planning we could wish the entire American century undone; delete the malls, the freeways, the air-con and the sprawl, start again as if we meant to survive, delight and create. Then, perhaps, we would.