A Finger on the Third Rail of Politics: Left-Urbanism for the SimCity Generation

Be there, or be Green Square.

Art by Ludmilla Nunell and Amelia Mertha

In his 1968 biography, Desert Solitaire, Edward Abbey remarked, that “growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.” In his lifetime, the very quotable anarchist, national parksman and alleged eco-terrorist watched as the cities of America marched tirelessly in every direction, goose-stepping over the Continent’s forests and mountains behind a vanguard of suburbs. The years came and went, taking Abbey’s generation of anti-Urbanists with them, but the urban sprawl shambled on in all parts of the world.

Half a century later, the dissident youth have once again arrived at the interchange between Urbanism and politics. The generation reared on SimCity has learned a lesson the city-building genre of video games would not teach them. The outward spread of a city signals dysfunction as much as prosperity. The growth’s revenue is not reinvested by an omniscient central planner, but is returned to free agents who would prefer to build more houses than the roads, rails and waterways their occupants need to comfortably live in them.

New Urbanist Memes for Transport-Oriented Teens (NUMTOTs) is a Facebook group at the forefront of this rediscovery. Its 165 000 members (most of which are young adults) discuss and share memes about all things relating to the urban experience. Naturally, common topics are public transport and urban planning. The group’s description describes itself as “not explicitly Leftbook (a neologism describing left-wing fora on FaceBook) but … certainly left-leaning. [The moderators] won’t ban you for being a capitalist, but don’t expect [them] to defend you either.”

Certainly, the group boasts a much larger membership than most Leftbook spaces. While many of its members and posts are politically agnostic, the humble meme group has achieved the Herculean task of bringing together the left in one place. Perhaps this is because experiencing defective public transport and being priced out of the housing market is a universal experience for young adults. More likely, it is because the group’s innocuous subject matter invites the projection of one’s beliefs. Most people would find a post criticising car-centric urban planning politically ambiguous. A democratic socialist might find the subject disagreeable because it represents the individualisation of the factors of production in a way that is disproportionately burdensome on workers. A green leftist might find it disagreeable because it creates the highest emissions per user of any mode of transport. A state socialist might dislike it because private toll-roads obstruct the nationalisation of productive property, and a libertarian socialist might dislike it because it promotes coercive commercial relationships that predate on the workers’ need to commute.

The underlying thread is that the urban experience is mediated by demographic factors. It is therefore unsurprising that young adults are more apt to see the politics of urban planning policy when they are most likely to feel the sting of its failures. Sometimes these demographic factors may be positive, like the emergence of cultural enclaves that have facilitated the settlement of immigrants, and “gayborhoods” that have protected queer communities. However, these positives reflect decades of segregation. This is a story that has played out in countless suburbs in Sydney at different points in time. Early in the twentieth century, it was the Irish in Surry Hills and First Nations families in Redfern. When the dismantling of the White Australia Policy opened the country to people of colour, this story played out in the new outer suburbs: Lebanese families in Bankstown, Vietnamese families in Cabramatta.

The experience of First Nations people in the area around Redfern is a harrowing case study in the marginalisation of communities through urban planning policy. Since the beginning of the twentieth century, de facto segregation across Sydney pushed First Nations people into Redfern. It was only after projects like the Aboriginal Housing Company (AHC) and Aboriginal Legal Service (ALS) were created in the 1970s to put control of the suburb in its residents’ own hands that policy-makers became interested in the suburb in order to curtail its growing autonomy. To prevent more land being bought by the AHC, redevelopment proposals were approved so major construction companies would buy the land instead. In 2004, the year the Redfern riot occurred following the death of young Kamilaroi boy TJ Hickey, the Redfern-Waterloo Authority Act was instituted. The new authority (replacing the failed Redfern-Eveleigh-Darlington Program) was tasked, inter alia, with “the development of Redfern-Waterloo into an active, vibrant and sustainable community.” The area was given its own minister from that year until 2011, when the Keneally Ministry ended. That same year, the NSW Government finally succeeded in demolishing “the Block,” the AHC’s housing project which is now familiar to students at the University of Sydney as the empty, fenced-off area along Eveleigh street visible from Redfern station. In March this year, it was reported that a 24-storey student accommodation tower and commercial centre would replace it. Proponents at the AHC claim this is necessary to bankroll its efforts to provide 62 housing units to Indigenous residents in the same project. But some may observe that the AHC has taken on the appearance of the gentrifying developers that it once opposed.

For the uninitiated, it may help to note that “urban renewal” is a euphemism originating in the USA that provides the most immediate mechanism for this kind of gentrification. Large-scale development companies acquire low-value housing in disadvantaged areas (often with the State’s assistance) and turn them into higher-price (and higher-density) homes; not so much value-adding but starting from scratch. Having played their part, they step back and wait for the State to reroute public transport in the area to accommodate the area’s demanding new residents. Bus stops sprout like clovers after rain, and train stations like toadstools.

Green Square is one such train station. Like Macdonaldtown, it is one of the few stations that neither belongs to, nor is named for, any one suburb. Its namesake is the brainchild of the descriptively – if not dystopianly – named UrbanGrowth NSW Development Corporation, now part of Infrastructure NSW. Stretched over 278 hectares and $13 billion dollars, Green Square annexes parts of Beaconsfield, Zetland, Alexandria, Rosebery and Waterloo. The City of Sydney webpage describes it as an urban renewal project in which “Sydney’s oldest industrial heartland is transforming into a vibrant, sustainable and connected community.” An astute observer might notice that urban renewal projects like Green Square and the Redfern-Waterloo Authority frequently describe themselves as “vibrant” as if the communities that preceded them were raw concrete hellscapes plucked out of the Soviet Union. Cast in that role, few would question the need to renew those localities. 

But this tired cliche is becoming increasingly doubtful in the eyes of today’s young adults. The popularity of groups like NUMTOTs should alarm those in Australia’s governments who have turned the housing market into a cash-cow. This is a process from which the youth are unlikely to derive direct benefits while the same governments refuse to reinvest the gains appropriately and fight constantly for cuts to tertiary-education and community services.