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Taking stock

By Jenny Stewart - posted Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Samuel Beckett, a great writer and a wise man, had little to say on political matters. “Why get worked up about something you have no hope of changing?” was his general attitude.

I acknowledge that I don’t have much hope of changing Sydney’s future. The shape and density and size of the city is in the hands of people - developers and politicians - who are not likely to listen to me, or to people like me when we say that Sydneysiders, and with them all Australians, are in imminent danger of losing something precious and unique - a city that shares space and a sense of freedom with all its citizens.

I am not even sure many residents of the city would agree that there is a need to slow down the current rate of population growth so that we can, literally, take stock. Many thousands of Sydney residents may, for all I know, be busting to sell up their suburban house and land for subdivision, and move up the coast somewhere. If the neighbourhood is wrecked, well, it’s the people who are left who will have to put up with the consequences.


But let me say my piece, anyway. I grew up in Sydney. I moved to Canberra years ago, but Sydney will always be my hometown. Each time I visit, I note the changes that have taken place since last time. The accumulated changes both define what the city is, and suggest what it will be. Some of the changes I like very much - the increased attention to urban landscaping, the paving, the facades of fine old buildings in the CBD that have been retained rather than obliterated. But there are other changes that are worrying - the increasingly toy-like harbour, set about by new apartment blocks, the relentless traffic congestion, the narrow ridges crowned with tall buildings, the remaining open spaces snaffled up and built on.

My sister, who lives on the North Shore, tells me that there are plans to build multi-storey blocks up and down the line. Some of the city’s most beautiful old homes will go under the wrecker’s hammer. It’s said the New South Wales government doesn’t care, because the people who live in these suburbs don’t vote Labor. But I haven’t heard that the Liberal Party is about to take up their cause. And I imagine that for people in Labor electorates who quite like their neighbourhoods as they are, it is the same story. It is almost as if there is a conspiracy by the major parties to shut their ears to these issues. The Greens are about the only hope, but insofar as they think about population, tend to focus on ecological carrying capacity. They have yet to understand that conservation means conserving the habitats of people, and not just those of endangered species.

The reality is that federal governments, whether Labor or Coalition, are hooked on immigration, and Sydney, like Melbourne, is being groomed to take more people. Let’s hope the developers do a better job than last time. The last big population surge, in the 1960s and 1970s, saw new apartment blocks, many of them very ugly, springing up in the inner-city suburbs. Further out, where there was room, new houses were crammed onto battle-axe blocks, or built on new subdivisions on bushland ridges, with some even snaking down into the gullies. Despite significant opposition at the time, large areas of Woolloomooloo and the Rocks would undoubtedly have been destroyed but for the Green Bans imposed by Jack Mundey’s Builders’ Labourers’ Federation. Green bans and local activists saved Kelly’s Bush in Hunters Hill. But that was a long time ago now.

The new surge will see much bigger blocks of apartments, many of them on former industrial sites. Others have been, or will be, built in subsidiary centres, like Chatswood and Hornsby. Every council is supposed to do its bit to meet the demand for housing. If they don’t, because their residents want to keep their neighbourhoods the way they are, they are forced by the NSW government to comply.

To be fair, the NSW government does not have much choice, either. The states have little say in the size of the immigration program, and not much capacity to divert people away from the cities: most people want to live where the jobs are. But more time, surely, is needed, to adjust.

If the immigration intake were to be reduced from its current level of more than 190,000 new arrivals annually, the pressure would be taken off, house prices would not rise as rapidly (so young people would be better-placed to buy their first home) and there would be a breathing space, at least, in which Australians could think about what kind of cities we want.


Australia is a big country, but only our Prime Minister thinks we have boundless plains to share. If the land were as fertile as the United States we would already have much the same population as the United States. But it isn’t and we don’t. Much of the land is simply too dry and too infertile for agriculture. As a result, most Australians live in cities on the coast. In New South Wales that means they live in Sydney or in cities close to it.

But as Sydney becomes more and more built up, what we lose is that precious, Australian sense of space - embodied in this case in that rarest commodity of all, urban space. Like many of our advantages, it is comparison that brings them home to us. On a recent trip to London after a gap of many years, I was aghast at the pressure of people: the footpaths too crowded to move freely along them; the tube-trains and even many of the commuter services too packed to stand comfortably, let alone get a seat (Sydney’s rail system at peak hour is moving in the same direction).

The Australian writer Peter Carey noticed the contrast when, just after the Olympics in 2000, he returned to Sydney briefly from New York. The beauty of the city took his breath away. He had, he said, a fantasy that he and his wife and kids would return, that they would live, once again, in a city with less population pressure than the Big Apple. They would live near Bondi, and have a house big enough that he would not have to throw out a book every time he bought a new one. They would have proper-sized rooms for the kids and offices for themselves. They could even have a dog. In the event, of course, Carey stayed in New York. But the point remains.

I am not arguing that people should not live in apartments if they want to. But a multi-storey building has its drawbacks. You can’t just walk out the front door. You have to wait for a lift. You don’t control the space that is around you. A body corporate does. The metering of the power and the water is no longer straightforward. You can’t dry your clothes in the backyard, because there isn’t one. And the only garden you will have is on the balcony.

If politics is about making choices, then Sydneysiders are confronted with a fairly clear one. Conservation does not just mean trying to preserve species. It means conserving what we value, and having the guts to stand up for our heritage. As someone whose step is a bit springier each time she visits Sydney, I say this to all those who love the city as it is: don’t let them take it away from you without a fight.

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About the Author

Dr Jenny Stewart is Professor of Public Policy in the University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy.

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