– By Michael Mobbs –

Erskineville village, a threatened species, thanks to the new supermarket death star coming to town, and the planning “rats in the night”

FAVOURITES – 1 October 2009 – No city can be sustainable until it is a “city of villages”. Only in a village can we walk to work, or buy and carry home our food. Only in a village can new businesses be easily born and thrive – in a garage, or a kitchen, or a café – nurtured by low rent. It’s the birth rate of businesses that drives our economy (1). When that birth rate falls so too does creativity, diversity, robustness, self-reliance and productivity.

And it’s the slow conversations and accountabilities we swap in the streets we walk that grow the networks of business and ideas needed for life.

Distance makes folks less accountable. It begets red tape. The more distant the producer, the further away the factory, the more red tape there is. The more red tape, the more unproductive energy diverted to comply, enforce or adjudicate things. But when we buy locally from a local business person who’s produced our food we need no food labels, no semitrailers, no car parks – nothing but our conversations with the business owner, or neighbours, is needed to discover the source of the food or product; we just need our own wits and community.

But city makers and planning tribunals are killing our villages and preventing them being reborn. And our planners, planning tribunals and the law are siding with the destroyers.

How will I prove this to you? Let me count the ways. And because we’ve lost our memory of what a village can be, may I count while I tell you my story?

My house in the centre of Sydney, a city that is no longer a city of villages and becoming less so with every council decision, is not connected to mains water or sewer. In a year, if four folk live here, it saves more than 100,000 litres of dam water being brought here from beyond the Blue Mountains.

Just saying this brings me to count No. 1: how can we have a city of villages if it’s dominated by housing and businesses that depend on water carted to them hundreds of kilometres, from so far away that if you counted up the pipe lengths they could girdle the planet – over 30,000 kilometres?

Anyway, in a month, even if every household here were similarly disconnected and used the rain from their roofs and roads they would not be within cooee of being sustainable.

That’s because in a month the water needed to grow, clean, cart, package, store and provide our food exceeds 100,000 litres. Each Aussie needs more than 5 million litres of water a year to get their food. So, you could have, say, a “sustainable office” that uses only rainwater and reuses its sewage, but if 300 workers there eat three meals a day in the office canteens, that’s more than 300,000 litres of water a day contained in their meals, or over 15 million litres of water in a five-day working week, or more than 78 million litres of water a year. Count No. 2.

Do you see why these “sustainability” rating systems for our buildings miss the point because they ignore food? And why, no matter how many “sustainable” local energy (cogeneration) plants we may have to provide more efficient energy, or how many more public transport systems – which don’t carry food, of course – we may provide, they don’t amount to more than a hill of beans? Count No. 3.

So sustainable buildings, which meet only our ablution and cleaning needs for water, provide only a drop in the ocean of the water needed to produce our food.

Only a village of locally owned businesses will sustain us and our cities.
Here’s why and how.

If we can both walk or bicycle to work, to buy food, and can grow food where we live and work, then there’s a greater prospect of sustaining our local livelihood and our wider society.

And we need one more key thing. If the food and products are not sold to us by a supermarket or in a shopping centre – only then can we have a village and be sustainable in the way we use water, energy, food, transport, land and resources.

But the folk planning and controlling our cities are directly opposed to village communities because their business model depends on forcing us to use the car, and, critically, on killing our main streets and our village businesses.

It is not our local councils or planning agencies that are doing this planning. It’s the supermarkets and shopping centres; the very things killing our villages.

Supermarkets, chain stores and shopping centres are death stars for cities. They plan them. In particular, the two dominant businesses which control most of them, Coles and Woolies, and the dozens of businesses they own operating under different names such as Thomas Dux etc, also control the majority of Australian shopping. Thomas Dux has probably been set up to kill off the small fruit and veggie specialists like Harris Farm etc by offering lower prices, and will probably hide their losses in the books of their parent companies.

Supermarkets don’t just kill our main street businesses. They make us fatter because so many of us must drive instead of walk to buy our food. They make us pollute more and their endless advertising tricks many of us into buying over-expensive, non-fresh, over-packaged food and stuff. Have you driven to a shopping centre on a Saturday when most folk shop? Jeez Louise, what a nightmare that is.

Their business model depends on:

  • Controlling the locations where we shop.
  • Controlling the councils who superficially control planning.
  • Locating their business away from the main street.
  • Attracting customers from the main street to their businesses.
  • Destroying the businesses on the main street or, as a minimum, taking at least 20 per cent of their profits (2), (3), (4).
  • Where they do build on the main street, to do so in such a way as to destroy businesses remaining there.
  • Compliant, supine, bovine and gobbledygook-talking planning tribunals, planning and traffic ‘experts’ in councils and the private sector who have never run a business, and even if they have it’s one for which they have no fear of failing should they give their ‘professional’ support, approval and self-respect to the big two chain-store businesses.
  • Sending their waste to landfill.
  • Immense food miles.

Here’s a beaut recent example of the bovinity of city building “experts”, city “planners”, and tribunals: a recent small supermarket approval in Erskineville in Sydney city.

Once home to several dozen villages, only two remain in Sydney city, and one of these will be gone in the next two years – Erskineville. City of Sydney Council’s recent approval of a small supermarket gives one of the big two chain stores a chance to break the village. It will erode and eventually break some of the existing businesses there and reduce the growth rate of new businesses. That’s what supermarkets have done to Glebe Point Road, Chippendale, Ultimo, Pyrmont and Camperdown with the Broadway Shopping Centre; and to Oxford Street, Surry Hills, Double Bay, Bondi Junction, Bondi Beach, Bondi Road with the Westfield shopping centre at Bondi Junction.

Remnants of Sydney’s villages, a block or two of shops, remain in Newtown (no big shopping centre there yet), Surry Hills, Paddington and Pyrmont but it’s tough for them.

In the planning report for the Erskineville supermarket the “experts” solemnly advised council that the “principal question is …whether it relies on outside patronage …?”

If you want a sustainable city, that is not the principal question. Final count . . . four, and out.

The principal question is, can a village such as Erskineville be sustained if a new small supermarket is added that directly competes with existing businesses and which depends on diverting shoppers to the supermarket and to converting existing pedestrian shoppers to car shoppers? Or, to put it another way, does the project pose a strategic threat to the goal of keeping and restoring Erskineville village, and villages generally in the city? Like rats in the night, the proposal to council did not say who the tenants are of the supermarket, but The Friends of Erskineville, who fought the project unsuccessfully, say on their website that, “notes in the current DA identify Woolworths, and recent media commentary indicate it will be Woolworths operating as Thomas Dux.”

Villages are not built on wider footpaths, or a colour palette of stone and cement. They’re built on food, small businesses, local employment for local residents and conversations, and relationships. The latter never occurs at supermarket checkouts, where the accountability for what’s sold and priced lies far away in some distant boardroom that has no connection with, or interest in, Erskineville’s folk except what’s in their wallets.

Solutions? Options include a rate strike by those of us wishing to retain or restore village life. We would withhold 20 per cent of our council rates and put it into a fund dedicated to growing local food and local businesses, measuring the damage being done by the supermarkets and publishing it.

Perhaps if councils were to suffer the same financial pain as the local businesses they destroy with their “planning” decisions they might be able to locate their spines and stand up to the Big Two. And our councillors might begin to understand what is meant by the word “village”.

The option of enlisting support from the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, the body supposed to champion competition, has been lost to us. Over the last 30 years it has presided over the gradual domination of the Australian shopping world.

Another option is to make supermarkets and shopping centres a crime or, as the pollution legislation puts it, a “prescribed” activity, much like an intensive feedlot piggery, or aluminium smelter or other industrial polluting activity. Once they’re prescribed we can set pollution limits for them, charge them a pollution licence fee for their car pollution and traffic congestion, and make them accountable for the huge damage they inflict on competition, small business and our air quality and transport networks. And for killing our villages and main streets.

Now that last option truly sounds super.

(1) “Monopolies gratuitously harm cities and suppress what their economies are capable of achieving.” Cities and the wealth of nations by Jane Jacobs (1985, p227) and see chapter 14, Drift.
(2), (3), (4) Several Australian and overseas parliamentary inquiries have spelled out that the business model of supermarkets depends on them rendering unviable and terminating any competing businesses. The impacts are most clearly seen and quicker for the largest supermarkets and no less certain and intended for small supermarkets. For example, a recent British inquiry found: “When a large supermarket is built on the edge of the centre, other food shops lose between 13 and 50 per cent of their trade. The result is ‘the closure of some town centre food retailers; increases in vacancy levels; and a general decline in the quality of the environment of the centre’.” (Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, October 1998. The Impact of Large Foodstores on Market Towns and District Centres; summary here: https://www.keepmachspecial.org.uk)
A 1996 Australian Senate inquiry found similar results for all ranges of supermarkets: “Fair Market or Market Failure? A review of Australia’s retailing sector: August 1999 ISBN 0 642 71025 2https://www.aph.gov.au/Senate/committee/retail_ctte/report/c01.htm

Michael Mobbs is a sustainability coach who works with developers, governments and communities to design and obtain approvals for houses, units and subdivisions. He is based in the inner Sydney suburb of Chippendale, where in 1996 he pioneered the conversion of his inner city terrace into a sustainable house, which has now been disconnected to mains water and sewerage and is powered by solar energy. michael@sustainablehouse.com.au

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