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Brogden aims to capitalise on Sydney's urban stress

By Russ Grayson - posted Wednesday, 11 December 2002

It was a long street lined with block after block of red-brick walk-ups - those ubiquitous two to five storey buildings that spread through Sydney's western suburbs during the 1960s. Cabramatta that day was blisteringly hot and there were no trees to cool the tarmac. Just a week before I had stood on another long street, this one in Hurstville, a major suburban centre on the city's southside. That street was lined with the 1970s version of those walk-ups but the feeling here was completely different thanks to an avenue of tall shady trees, which cooled the air and provided a sense of softness to the streetscape.

Two streets, two different parts of Sydney. Each similar in housing type but different in ambience ... like the policies of the two major parties on urban development, I thought a few days later, when state Liberal leader and would-be Premier John Brogden condemned the NSW urban consolidation policy.

Urban development in Sydney is a timely issue because the city's growth potential is limited by national parks to the north and south and the escarpment of the Blue Mountains to the west. With sprawling urban development now abutting the foothills of the Blue Mountains, the agricultural south-western and north-western corridors are the only remaining growth sectors, the open country that developers would change into grids of single-household dwellings. As land becomes scarcer, the intrusion of urban development onto agricultural land and the form of medium-density development in the suburbs have become political issues. The real answers to these issues, however, may have less to do with electoral politics than with urban design and the zoning of land according to suitability for use.


Urban Consolidation is a vote winner

What Brogden has been railing against is the fear that the Sydney of the future could look more like that street in Cabramatta than the city of detached houses, each with their spacious garden, that characterised the metropolis from the 1930s. He thinks people still retain the "Australian dream" of a house and garden in the suburbs and that the government's urban consolidation policy, a policy that has underwritten Sydney's boom in apartment building construction, is ruining the character of the suburbs.

There are votes in Brogden's thinking and he knows it – that's why he has already started to campaign on the issue. He doesn't have to try very hard because urban development has been an irritant to Premier Bob Carr since the last local government elections. Then, independents found success in campaigning against urban consolidation on the same grounds that Brogden will put to use over the coming year.

What the Opposition Leader is pinning his hopes on is the growing groundswell against medium-density development. This focuses on issues such as poor apartment building design, lack of public open space, overshadowing, overcrowding, stressed infrastructure and excessive traffic. These are all valid complaints that can only be solved by introducing legislation providing for the setting-aside of public open space in major developments, the design of high-rise so that it does not overshadow public places and ensuring that sufficient infrastructure exists before the go-ahead to build is granted by local government. As for the design of apartment buildings, Carr believes he has already addressed that by stipulating that all buildings over a certain height must be designed by an architect. The Premier has even gone so far as to name in public the buildings he approves of.

John Brogden's notion of a "loss of suburban character" due to urban consolidation is a slippery one. It is a difficult notion to pin down and necessarily varies from place to place. What he is talking about, of course, is the intrusion of apartment living into the streets consisting more or less exclusively of detached homes. Brogden's notion harks back to past decades when communities and the suburbs they inhabited were more secure and changed less rapidly, yet in using the notion as a vote catcher Brogden has to tread warily because the evidence is that the apartment is attractive to more and more people.

Some critics say that the notion has much to do with middle-class urban respectability but, irrespective of whether that is true, the perceived loss of suburban character has plenty of electoral potential on Sydney's predominately Liberal northern shore and in marginal seats such as Hurstville. 'Loss of character' is set to become a well-worn phrase by the time the election is over.

There remains another issue cited by Premier Carr as evidence of the need for urban consolidation. This is potentially more controversial and it has been something of a fixation with Carr for some years. It is immigration.


A city of too many

It may be an economic strength but it is a planning dilemma that migrants account for 75 per cent of Sydney's annual population growth. According to Carr and state planning Minister Andrew Refshauge, immigration is increasing the demand for housing, driving up prices and straining infrastructure.

Immigrants are attracted to Sydney because it is economically dynamic and because they can find people from the same country or ethnicity here. Once in the city, immigrants frequently settle in enclaves where they can find a language they know, churches, temples or mosques, cultural associations, community workers to help them and the food they are familiar with.

Understandable as it might be to settle in ethnic or national enclaves, critics say that it leads to a defensive and isolationist mentality with little interaction with the Anglo majority. This breeds suspicion, not sympathy, with people identifying themselves according to ethnicity or religion rather than as citizens of the city.

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About the Author

Russ Grayson has a background in journalism and in aid work in the South Pacific. He has been editor of an environmental industry journal, a freelance writer and photographer for magazines and a writer and editor of training manuals for field staff involved in aid and development work with villagers in the Solomon Islands.

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