Ed Glaeser in Sydney

26 June 2012 – The sun is shining. Children are playing. Sincere government officials conduct community surveys on the doorsteps of cute, little, high-density, affordable houses. Smiling entrepreneurs cycle down streets of mixed local business, somewhere in the Penrith of the future. This was the strange image stewing in my mind on Wednesday night as I left the Angel Place Recital Hall.

The dreamy NSW Department of Planning’s “Urban Conversations” event, hosted by media personality James O’Loghlin, began with a 40 minute presentation by the man of the night, renowned urban economist and author of Triumph of the City, Ed Glaeser.

Glaeser loves cities as much as he loves innovation. “Cities”, his book tells us, “Are the healthiest, greenest, and richest (in economic and cultural terms) places to live”, and it’s in our best interests to nurture them.

He’s a fast talking American guy with a mind like a renaissance machine gun and a good sense of humour. My frantic notes look like abstract line drawings of hairballs but from what I’ve pieced together, his jam-packed presentation of years of research can be boiled down to a few key points. I may be missing a few things, but bear with me.

Firstly, the more dense cities are, the more productive, innovative, and efficient they are. City dwellers use 40 per cent less energy than suburbanites, and more than half of America’s income is earned in 22 metropolitan areas. From Da Vinci to Henry Ford, none of our geniuses have invented in isolation. Cities, Glaeser argues, connect the links in the “chain of genius” – collaboration –  required to make great leaps of development.

Secondly, more and more people continue to favour cities despite having other choices, both in the developed and developing world. Life expectancies, wages and sometimes happiness are all higher than in rural areas. Thus, dense, vibrant cities are to be desired and are, but this trend comes with challenges such as the need for affordable housing. Cities need to be managed without being over-regulated.

Thirdly, some cities work and some don’t. From Mumbai to Chicago, New York to Detroit, cities have changed over the last century from transportation hubs, to manufacturing hubs and beyond. Some of these cities have survived that transition –  and some haven’t. The cities that fail do so because planners forget that cities are the people who live there.

the sort of dramatic American …flair that
makes me feel so affectionate towards
that country of orators and
gun enthusiasts.

Glaeser concluded with exactly the sort of dramatic American “the fate of the world rests on this presentation” flair that makes me feel so affectionate towards that country of orators and gun enthusiasts. Cities are essential to the “Google moments” that humanity will need to deal with the issues of our time, he assured us. “We work miracles when we learn from each other. As long as we continue to work together, we will be able to continue to solve our problems and look forward to a free and hopeful future”.

Left to right: Giovanni Cirillo, Sarah Hil, James OLoghlin, Ed Glaeser

Just as we sat there thinking “Where can I get one”, O’Loghlin handed the mike over to the audience to quiz “Sydney’s thought leaders in urban planning”: Sarah Hill from the NSW Planning Institute, NSW Government Architect Peter Poulet, and the Department of Planning & Infrastructure’s Giovanni Cirillo and Norma Shankie-Williams.

The great thing about this panel was that it wasn’t just a session in speculation. The people up there work for the NSW Department of Planning. They have control over what happens to Sydney, and it was heartening to see from their responses how intelligent and experienced they obviously are. So I was a little disappointed by how general the discussion was, even allowing for some vague questions.

It’s what wasn’t said. Cultural diversity. The Arts. Community housing. These are important aspects of a vibrant and equitable Sydney too. What’s the plan, guys? Ed? We’re haemorrhaging artists to Melbourne. It’s getting messy. There’s watercolour leaking all the way down the south coast.

Call me cynical, but there was more head nodding over the general importance of everything Glaeser raised, from urban renewal, fewer cars and high density housing to cycle-ways, than there was evidence of those ideas being implemented.

Green Square kept coming up, with the fact that it was kick-started by City of Sydney politely ignored. Meanwhile, the NSW Government just passed legislation to override that bothersome Clover Moore on transport, citing “disagreement” on issues such as bike lanes. I’m so confused. Didn’t we just say we like cycle-ways?

As sometimes happens while watching movies containing impassioned speeches, but rarely in real life, I had my final say vicariously through someone else. The last question of the night came from someone clearly sharing my crisis of faith. “We’re building more sprawl in Western Sydney. How convinced are we really, of the benefits of high density?” asked my exasperated kindred spirit to the panel.

Cirillo responded that designated lots in the growth centres are small by comparison to those of the past, thus preventing sprawl. And he’s right, from that narrow perspective.

I want to believe in that happy image
of a vibrant, sustainable city of Penrith under the
benevolent stewardship of a strangely progressive O-Farrell government.

But just step back and take one look at the map of the North Western and South Western growth centres, and tell me that’s not more suburbia plonked kilometres away even from the “cities” of Penrith or Parramatta. I guess the “up not out” part of Glaeser’s talk didn’t quite make it to our ears.

I want to believe, I truly do. I want to believe in that happy image of a vibrant, sustainable city of Penrith under the benevolent stewardship of a strangely progressive O-Farrell government. But on Wednesday night, I left the building a silent heretic. O-Barry, deliver unto me more evidence so that I may keep the faith.