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
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
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
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
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.