Skip links

sprawl bawl

Pub: Sydney Morning Herald

Pubdate: 05-Aug-2010

Edition: First

Section: News and Features

Subsection: Opinion

Page: 15

Wordcount: 717

Cities, like babies, cry out for loving care



Niall Ferguson, Harvard polymath, thinks our population debate is “asinine” and, given the braying, it’s hard to disagree. But when it comes to the rafted issues of population, immigration, cities and environment, there’s not even braying from the towpath donkeys. Just an eerie silence.

“Julia Gillard and Labor”, as they style themselves, offer a “Building Better Regional Cities Fact Sheet”, though you could count the “facts” quicker than Bob Hawke can summon tears. It promises the usual billions for roads, a piddling 15,000 new homes over three years and “up to 7500 rural nurses” over 10 – although how rural nurses count as urban policy is a mystery. There’s no linking building projects to sustainability goals. Indeed, no goals. Just fluff; “good urban design, environmental improvements and … appropriate planning benchmarks”.

But even this has the edge on Tony Abbott’s policy offering, where the word “city” appears only with “electri” as a prefix. This is odd. Urbanism ought to be our baby.

Since invasion, our population has been mainly urban. In 2008, when humanity passed its 50 per cent city dwellers milestone, the figure here was 80 per cent. If you count urbanised, as opposed to urban (including towns under 100,000) it is 90 per cent. Nearly all of us lead urban lives – which no doubt explains the dominance of swagmen and jumbucks in our national dreaming.

Yet we treat our cities as objects of shame. As though, in the back of our psyches, runs the rhythmic chant: nature good, cities bad. As though we’re sorry we have to live in them.

Why do we refuse to think this thing through? Look around. We have a booming economy based not on human genius but on digging stuff up to sell or burn; a coast already crumbling because of the tempests and sea-levels caused by such digging and burning, cities where the bill for traffic congestion roughly equals the promised spending on climate change.

We also have cities we don’t like, cities whose shamefacedness suggests they know we don’t like them. Cities whose centres lack the intensity of the truly urban and whose suburbs too often just mess with nature.

But cities hold the key to both culture and climate change, and what they feed on is humans. Hungry humans.

It’s not that Australians aren’t up to it. Bill Mitchell, the late Melbourne-born dean of architecture and planning at MIT, was a leading urban futurologist. His imagineering ranged from the tiny CityCars that get used, folded, plugged-in and stacked like supermarket trolleys, to sentient cities that anticipate every need of their cyborg citizens.

It’s easily sinisterised. Amphibious buildings cramming waterways; street furniture that recognises vagrancy and tips the perp onto the asphalt; bins that spit non-recyclables straight back at you.

But, back in the grounded present, we are constantly betrayed by governments that can’t even maintain last century technology, much less visualise the leap to the next, governments that daren’t breathe a word against sprawl.

When Gough Whitlam proffered decentralisation as “an idea whose hour has come”, he was genuinely considering our future, not just political survivalism. “Cities and civilisation go hand in hand,” he told the Planning Institute in 1965, before arguing, presciently, that “the motor car … certainly is not the solution to inner city traffic” because “improved road facilities will only encourage more motorists and so make the congestion as bad as before”.

The Greens, not Labor, are the true inheritors of Whitlam’s vision. They alone approximate coherent urban strategy. On population they bet both ways, torn between ecological and humanitarian obligations. But on cities, at least, they promise to encourage public transport, to densify city fabric around it and to link development to sustainability.

Gillard’s only interest in the main cities is to “take pressure off” by attending to the small (read marginal) ones. She plays to our basest fears by opposing “a Big Australia”, but won’t admit that building more roads increases congestion or that we’re the world’s highest per capita polluter precisely because our population is so sparse and sprawling.

She refuses to see that cities are the primary creative force; our cities are our future. More, livelier, denser, more inclusive cities – cities in which we take pride – mean a more inventive culture, a stronger economy and a cleaner, more dignified future. Enough with the braying. Move that forward, donkeys.


Join the Discussion