Yes, in my backyard: Sydney rebuilds its mojo

In a selfish city with significant infrastructure problems, NIMBYism has been a loud and at times influential force. But not everyone shares the cynicism toward development. Michael Koziol meets the residents and reformers urging on the transformation of Sydney.

Photo credit: HerryLawford (Flickr ID), licensed under CC BY 2.0

A perfect Sunday morning and I’m sitting on the trampled patch of grass at Taylor Square, watching the city wake and mobilise. To the east, above the courthouse, the sun’s light barrels down, flooding the scene with brightness.

To the left, the pub has opened its doors: it is both saviour and tormentor. The regulars, with their unmistakably torn faces, take their seats outside and keep watch over the square as the bar­man nurses them toward death.

Across the road the barterers set up their stalls, pottering around in the rare quiet. And gradually the picture comes alive, adorned with joggers and Lab­radors and coffee cups and the Sunday newspapers.

Darlinghurst has its share of blem­ishes, but it strikes me as our best at­tempt at civilisation. You can work and play here all day and all night. There is a 24-hour newsagency. Gays hold hands. The coffee is good. You can indulge your fetishes. The buildings are getting taller. Oporto and Ogalo can co-exist. There is safety in numbers.


If one were to replicate the popula­tion density of New York within Syd­ney’s existing geographical boundaries, this city would be home to 128 million people. As it stands, we have about 4.5 million, seemingly shrinking to about 2 million on any long weekend.

And yet, there are plenty who will tell you that Sydney is full. Bob Carr fa­mously declared it to be so: an astound­ing claim, really, for a Premier to make. In the lead-up to the 2010 election, a not-yet-besieged Julia Gillard took a very deliberate trip to Western Sydney to voice her support for “a sustainable Australia, not a big Australia”.

It is ironic, given how sparsely Syd­ney’s west is inhabited, that they would be the ones leading the battle cry against population growth. But it is so. They are joined, too, by a metastasising cancer of NIMBYism within the city’s inner villages, the types who don’t want their community ‘ruined’ by a big develop­ment, more traffic, and new neighbours.

This intransigence has produced endless sprawl, as Sydney’s edge seeps outwards bit by bit in to unchartered, distant terrain. Utterly lacking infra­structure, governments attempt to play catch-up with ad hoc projects such as the Leppington rail line. This patch of ground west of Macquarie Fields has been bookmarked as part of a major growth centre. But would anyone really want to live there? Or are we just leaving them with no choice?

If only there was someone obvious to blame, but it was a collective effort. The cultural warriors kept alive the small-town ideal of big houses on quarter acre blocks. The councillors blocked every project that might have delivered us from sprawl. And the politicians kept releasing more land.

Urban sprawl might be the one thing human civilisation has achieved despite nobody on earth thinking it is a good idea. One can’t imagine the twice-daily, two-hour commute makes for optimal living, nor the isolation or the numbing silence. But we have locked these people into a relentless dystopia of working, driving, sleeping, and paying off the mortgage.

In the meantime, those of us trying to enter the rental market are at the coal­face of Sydney’s housing crisis. Last week my taxi driver reminisced about living in Glebe in the late 1980s, a privilege for which he paid $25 per week in rent. That would not buy you half a carspace in 2012. But if you’re lucky, $800 a week can nab you a disintegrating four-bedroom terrace with bad plumbing and an outhouse.

That is a fairly bleak assessment of our immediate future. But there are many working hard to ensure it doesn’t have to be that way: who see an alter­native future for Sydney as a growing, sustainable, global city with a vibrant culture and beautiful environment.

Photo credit: HerryLawford (Flickr ID), licensed under CC BY 2.0

Dr Nicole Gurran is an urban plan­ner, policy analyst, and associate profes­sor in the Faculty of Architecture at Syd­ney University. In her view, Sydney must accept higher density development as a necessity and embrace its lifestyle ad­vantages of proximity and sustainability. Sprawl, she says, is the scourge of good planning, particularly when unchecked by any strategy or framework.

“Condensed living is much better around centres,” says Gurran. “Essen­tially the principle should be that you are able to walk to the places you need to on a daily basis…and you should be able to access everything else by public transport.”

That doesn’t mean we all need to ditch the backyard and resettle in high-rise, however. Gurran understands the appeal of open space and greenery for young families, and says suburbia can be desirable if done right. She cites Rouse Hill in Sydney’s west, derided by many as a semi-rural outpost, as “a really good model” of the traditional town centre.

“It’s actually quite a good thing to open up selective new areas,” she says. But they require detailed government planning and strategic implementation. “What you don’t want is a government saying: we’ll just leave it to the market. That’s when you get sprawl.”

Sprawl also arises when planners and developers are left with little other choice by intransigent councils and resi­dents opposed to higher density develop­ment in their neighbourhood. The “not in my backyard” crowd have attained a stinging reputation in this state after high-profile campaigns against urban consolidation in Ku-ring-gai, Leichhardt, and the North Coast.

More recently the citizenry of Leich­hardt – marshalled by their local council – have vocally opposed new apartments in Harold Park, a cruise terminal at White Bay, and now the new Rozelle Village, which would see three apartment towers, a shopping complex, and a new Tigers club replace the defunct Balmain Leagues site in Victoria Road.

The Sydney Business Chamber is pressing for a reduction of Sydney’s 41 councils to just 10. As the chamber’s Executive Director, Patricia Forsythe, tells me, it is not just about amalgamat­ing councils to make the development process less convoluted. It is also about re-imagining Sydney as a group of net­worked hubs, each with its own capacity to facilitate life, work, and play.

“Our local government system, in­cluding many of the council boundaries, really derive from the 19th century…and I think we can do better,” says Forsythe. She cites Macquarie Park, Macquarie University, and Ryde area as a prime around creating a holistic community because it cuts across multiple councils”. example of where “nothing is designed

Forsythe is a resident of Sydney’s North Shore and has seen community re­luctance play out in battles over residen­tial and commercial development. She has “railed against” NIMBYism in that area, having argued in favour of develop­ment at community forums.

But Forsythe believes the duelling prerogatives of growth and conservation can reach equilibrium under due process. Parts of Ku-ring-gai, she says, do possess a “special character” requiring protec­tion, and the planning system needs to “be able to meet the needs of a commu­nity, but [with] a recognition that com­munities do have to change and adapt”.

To that end, Forsythe praises the O’Farrell government’s planning Green Paper released in July. A major review of the state’s planning regulations, its cen­tral pillar is a plan to predetermine sites within suburbs that will be earmarked for growth. Then, when a development application for that site does materi­alise, its passage is essentially automatic. Other areas will be designated for preser­vation, and it will all involve the input of communities, experts, and government.

The paper’s core strength, in Gurran’s view, is that it intends to break the pat­tern of site by site debate about develop­ment, which is “a very frustrating experi­ence for nearly everybody”.

“We don’t want to have endless argu­ments about individual rules,” she says. Instead it will be the government’s job to paint in broad strokes, establishing – through community consultation – what land will be protected, what will be reserved for affordable housing and dif­ferent types of housing, and what areas are suitable for development: and those will be essentially free game.

Speaking at a panel on urban plan­ning at the Seymour Centre last week, Forsythe lamented the “absolute cyni­cism” with which some media responded to the Green Paper. She said some com­mentary took the view that if developers and the business lobby liked it, “there must be something wrong”.

It is not the first attempt by Macqua­rie Street, in recent years, to overcome the intransigence of some councils and their constituents. Labor introduced the infamous Part 3A amendment, which allowed the planning minister to take direct control of major projects away from local government. It was applauded by developers sick and tired of negotiat­ing the bureaucratic spaghetti dribbled out from councils and other government legislation.

Both Forsythe and Gurran are ambivalent when it comes to assessing Part 3A’s brief legacy. The government’s power to approve state significant de­velopment was already enshrined in the system, says Gurran, and continues to be. “The issue with Part 3A was that it put that decision entirely in the hands of a politician,” she says.

Likewise, Forsythe believes the weakness of the amendment lay not in principle but in execution. “Part 3A demonstrated there was a clear problem with the system, and it was an attempt to fix the problem,” she says. But projects with questionable state significance, which weren’t necessarily envisaged to fall under Part 3A initially, ended up be­ing approved under it.

Nonetheless, the sort of big-picture, state-significant development we must get in order to be taken seriously is still happening. Barangaroo – which For­sythe describes as “a game-changer for Sydney” – will deliver the biggest urban renewal project in the city’s recent his­tory. The toxic wasteland at which cruise passengers are presently dumped upon their arrival will at last be transformed into a bustling, modern commercial quarter, with plenty of open space.

There are new apartment towers under construction at Rhodes, and the Rozelle Village – should it survive a con­certed campaign by local muesli-chewers – will breathe new life into a shabby grey portion of Victoria Road.

The Central Park development on Broadway. [Credit: Newtown graffiti, licensed under CC BY 2.0]

And closer to home, the familiar construction site adjacent to the Aber­crombie will soon become Central Park, a multi-purpose urban space combin­ing residential, retail, and parkland. Say what you will about the name and the city’s Manhattan fetish, it is exactly the kind of development we should be encouraging.

Paul Karp, a fifth-year law student at Sydney University, lives in Darling­ton only a few blocks from the looming shadows of the Central Park towers. The Chippendale/Darlington precinct is earmarked by developers and gurus as one of Sydney’s next boom communi­ties, with more apartments, restaurants, shops, and galleries expected to blossom in coming years. Having only recently moved there from the North Shore, Karp says it is a great area which more people should have the opportunity to access.

“People want to live in Sydney. Peo­ple want to live in the city. Just because some people got here first doesn’t mean they have a greater right to live in the city than other people,” he says.

“The whole city has to build more apartments, everyone has to deal with having more neighbours.”

Over at Green Square, a new mini-city is in its infancy. Beyond glossy brochures and marketing speak, the scale and vision of the development is credit­worthy. It promises 40,000 new residents and 22,000 jobs, plus a $40 million community centre and library, the design of which will be opened up to local and international architects.

It is an important project because the inner-south is clearly the new frontier for Sydney. The skyline has been inching upwards across the Alexandria-Zetland-Waterloo trifecta, to compliment the car showrooms and homeware empires that have long characterised the old industrial site.

The danger in south Sydney is that it will come to resemble one of China’s overnight mega-cities: glossy and opti­mistic on the outside, but soulless and empty from within. Planned communities like Green Square, though less organic than Surry Hills or Newtown, at least lock in the amenities from the word go, and we’re getting better at it. We’re just not quite there yet.

Both Gurran and Forsythe name New York as the global exemplar of urbanisation, and it is hard to disagree. London, Paris, and San Francisco all rate favourably. But there is ingenu­ity to be found the world over. Gurran tells me Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital, has achieved the density of Manhattan with four-storey walk-ups (no elevators). Forsythe admires the waterfront renewal of cities such as Seattle, Vancouver, and Melbourne.

Edward L. Glaeser’s wonderful book, Triumph of the City, notes the spec­tacular rise of urban living in the 20th century. 2008 marked the first ever year that the majority of the world lived in cities. And as it turns out, they make us safer, healthier, richer, and happier.

Australia is, in fact, the most urban­ised country in the world: our tourism campaigns might lionise the outback, but we choose to live in the big smoke. As the sun sets over Darlinghurst, it’s easy to see why.


Twitter: @michaelkoziol