Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Choking to death in the suburbs
‘Fog!” the kids shout excitedly as we round the bend above Bronte. “Look at the fog!”
“That’s not fog,” the adult voice lobs from the front seat like the wrath of God. “See the dirty brown of it? That’s pollution.”
It put a pall on the conversation, I can tell you. But that pall was nothing compared with the one that lay across the ocean like a great brown cat asleep on its sequined cushion. It was 7pm Tuesday. A stinker of a day. Before dawn, the Bureau of Meteorology had warned Sydneysiders to avoid outdoor exercise for fear of breathing difficulties. In Sydney. Not Beijing. Not Seoul. Sydney.
The pollution was expected to peak at 7pm. But at Bronte, within that thick brown blanket, the water was clear and cool, the seven o’clock crowds frolicked oblivious and we with them, almost like there was no tomorrow.
Parking was at a premium because, except for the locals and the leisured few who can wait on the bus system, every one of the sweltering thousands drove there. Hence the smog.
This will be remembered as one of the great ironies of modern planning, that the system we call suburbia, whose main promise was sunshine and fresh air for all, ended up destroying those things for everyone. Even now, people – thinking people who should know better (and do, in fact, but somehow choose not to) – defend suburbia on the basis of how nice it is to wake up with birds and trees outside the window.
And it is nice. There’s no denying it. I like. You like it. We all like it. And that’s the point, really. Because just as one binge is fine but every weekend means you’re an alkie, or one house among the gum trees is fine, but millions? Millions of suburban houses means millions of cars, millions of smog-belching passenger kilometres and millions of kids with chronic asthma and bronchitis.
And sure, these warnings happen a few times every summer. We’re blase because it’s invisible and the sea breezes, we think, blow it away. Off to someone else’s atoll, ready for the sparkling new South Pacific day.
In fact, what happens is that the muck drifts around the Sydney basin for days or weeks, hemmed in by the higher ground and frequent temperature inversions. Each day, from about mid-morning, the land breezes waft it out to sea and there it sits, just offshore, until the afternoon sea breezes send it back, settling it over all of us but most densely on Sydney’s south and west.
The upshot? Lung cancer hot spots that correlate strongly with pollution densities and CSIRO figures that show more than twice as many Australians die from air pollution as on the roads.
Clearly, something must be done. Equally clearly, though, when it comes to planning, the states, bless them, are one car short of a traffic jam.
So Rudd made Infrastructure Australia. This is something Labor governments do. Every 15 years or so they have a go. Whitlam did it with Tom Uren’s gorgeously acronymed but largely ineffectual DURD (Department of Urban and Regional Development). Keating did it with Brian Howe’s Building Better Cities, which produced Pyrmont, East Perth and the more worrying Honeysuckle redevelopment in Newcastle.
But Infrastructure Australia, sadly, is no power grab. In the child’s play of Pulling the Planning Powers Off Governments, the feds are much kinder to the states, albeit with less reason, than the states are to local councils.
Infrastructure Australia – don’t you hate how they’re still doing that ugly ’80s-type nomenclature that makes government departments look like they’re trying to look privatised? – was invented last year by the same Commonwealth Act that established COAG, the Council of Australian Governments. It has no planning powers, but is designed strictly to advise the Infrastructure Minister, Anthony Albanese, and COAG.
And yet, Infrastructure Australia is seen as the planning hope for our cities. This is partly because the states – NSW, especially – seem so without hope in this regard. And partly because it has always been thus. Even at state level, there are two separate streams of activity, planning and infrastructure.
Planning, mostly run by women, does the words and pictures; making and announcing plans (such as the Metro Strategy) that never hit the ground. Public Works, by contrast, has no strategic capacity, no cerebellum, but just builds things – roads, tunnels, bridges and rail lines. This, you will be unsurprised to learn, is generally a boy thing.
So our cities are shaped not by planners but by ad hoc resource allocation decisions; a bridge to this marginal electorate, a tunnel to that donor developer. And it is this quasi-planning power that the feds hope to usurp.
More power to them. One metro line carries as many people as a 20-lane freeway. A clean, leafy, tower-flanked Parramatta Road would be a vast improvement on the filthy drain we have now. Far from destroying the pretty village-like pockets, a decent rail system will preserve them by concentrating development where it is most beneficial.
But the Sydney proposals – the $4 billion northern rail freight corridor, the $4.8 billion CBD Metro and the $8.1 billion West Metro under Parramatta Road – are three projects out of the 94 in Infrastructure Australia’s report, ranging from housing in the Pilbara to a South Australia-Darwin fibre optic cable.
The prioritising process is next. We should offer oblations to the apple-cheeked Ruddbot or the future of our emerald city looks grubby indeed.
DRAWING: By Ed Aragon