Monica Barone, City of Sydney; Geoff Roberts, Greater Sydney Commission; Bill Randolph, City Futures, UNSW

There was something about the chatter after Tuesday night’s UNSW talk on spatial inequality in Sydney that brought to mind the unhappy Mt Agung in Bali.

The white smoke and erupting sparks of the volcano on our doorstep seemed just about the right political metaphor for the anger simmering away under the urbane surface of the many professionals trying to apply reason and logic to how to handle Sydney’s growth without destroying the very things that make it a great city.

The discontent after the show ranged from smoking anger at the unmitigated poor quality mid-rise apartment blocks starting to line Old and New Canterbury roads, knocking out lovely Federation houses, to talk of an outright coup against the state government.

“There’s only 18 months to the next election,” said one would-be usurper, adding for evidence of failed public trust a long list of photos of tall apartments with no set backs, ugly designs and claims that approvals for these had been ramrodded through councils where English is not the first language so opposition is negligible-to-zero.

Ken Maher, Helen Lochhead

“All we need are some independents to take the balance of power,” our source said.

It was no surprise that strong feelings were stirred on the night.

On stage were some of the most influential heavyweights at the intelligent end of the debate for better urban planning.

They made a cogent case of why Sydney’s fabric was already unravelling and why trajectory of our built environment needed to be urgently reversed if we are to meet our carbon emission promises to the world.

But also interesting was the issue captured in the title of the evening’s talk – Cities@UNSW: Spatial Inequality in Sydney – and of how to reverse the stark inequality rising fast across the other side of the so-called “latte line” in the south-west of the city (though why that’s a metaphor is puzzling since you can these days get a good latte in the most obscure outback truck stop thanks to peripatetic hipsters).

Speakers included:

  • Monica Barone, chief executive officer, City of Sydney
  • Elizabeth Farrelly, UNSW associate professor and columnist
  • Estelle Grech, UNSW planning student working in Fairfield
  • Honorary Professor Ken Maher, HASSELL Fellow, ASBEC President
  • Professor Bill Randolph, director, City Futures Research Centre
  • Adjunct professor Geoff Roberts, deputy chief commissioner, Greater Sydney Commission
  • Professor Helen Lochhead, Dean, UNSW Built Environment chair

Missing (at least from the official count) were the people from government who could take the cues on stage and apply them (maybe against the grain) to their work.

UNSW City Futures’ Bill Randolph was first to take the microphone. And he started in the best place possible, the systemic economic trends that have swept the planet.

“Inequality hasn’t emerged from nowhere,” he said.

“We had 30 years of focused coordinated global social economic policies that have driven the outcomes we’ve seen today. There are good things and bad things out of that.

“We know it’s been a period of unparalleled growth but there has been winners and losers.”

Why does it matter?

“Inequality,” he said, “doesn’t exist in a spatial vacuum.

“Wealthy areas have concentrated and grown wealthier. Gentrification and the knowledge economy has effectively socially cleansed in the inner city of the urban poor.”

A rising tide is meant to lift all boats, he noted, but the fact is it hasn’t.

Precarious low paid jobs were now more precarious and more lowly paid than in the past (even the Reserve Bank of Australia recently said this was a concern).

And if you’re not lucky enough to be able to tap “the bank of mum and dad” well, you’re not going to get far out of your spatially disadvantaged space, which tends to become more disadvantaged the further you are from the centre.

Dealing with this, Randolph said, was the primary task of urban planners for next 30-40 years.

“For a start we need to integrate our infrastructure, land use and housing and policy particularly those related to urban renewal and housing policy.

“Second we need governments to recognise as they did in the post war period that investing in affordable housing, as economic infrastructure, is essential to maintain a positive and well functioning city, and is as important as investing in roads and rail transport hospitals and schools.

“Finally we need planning to regain the high ground of progressive urban policy.

“Planners must reinvent themselves as the drivers of social and economic change,” Randolph said.

Ah now, this last bit is very interesting. The high ground. We haven’t seen much of that of late.

Question from planner Bob Meyer

Greater Sydney Commission deputy chief commissioner Geoff Roberts jumped further into the issue.

“If we don’t do something [about the vast inequality in Sydney’s south-west] we will have a catastrophic problem in the next 10-20-30 years time,” he said.

The GSC is about to release a “great new blueprint for Sydney” so it will be interesting to see how this concern makes it into policy.

Roberts said that “right from the get go” it was clear Sydney had a structural problem.

“Largely we have a single economic engine in the heart of the city.”

“That’s no longer enough. We need more now because the average commute time between where people live and work, particularly in the precious knowledge intensive jobs, is getting greater.”

In fact Sydney has some of the longest commute times in the western world, he said.

The key, he said, was to use the “economic endowments” of each of three new “cities” – the CBD, Parramatta and Penrith – “to allow a global agglomeration in each of those cities so a higher proportion of people can access their jobs of choice”.

“We call that a 30-minute city. That has been telegraphed quite broadly.”

At present, he said the south-west had education levels 20-30 per cent below the rest of Sydney and its hospitals at Campbelltown, Nepean and Liverpool had huge investment pouring into them but performed in the lower quartile.

A key move was to develop a knowledge economy around these existing bulky pieces of infrastructure and then invest strongly in education.

There was no greater indicator of inequality than lack of access to universities, he said.

Affordable housing was also important but trumping it, was connectivity.

Getting people out of cars and into trains was “key”.

Monica Barone

The City of Sydney’s CEO Monica Barone made, as usual, some strong and clear observations.

Barone said that from the city’s point of view it wasn’t enough to focus just on where people lived. There were around 224,000 people who lived in the city boundaries but around 1.2 million who came to it each day to work.

“So when we talk about who we serve we actually serve those 1.2 million people.”

In another view it also needed to serve the people impacted by the fact that the city has most of the jobs.

So the talk about re-orienting the city to the west and ensuring that people have jobs closer to where they live would not diminish the contribution to the city.

“It enhances it,” she said, “because if we don’t do this we will have an unjust city.

“Assuming that we understand that and assuming we work towards the model that the GSC is putting forward, that we have two CBDs and eventually maybe three or more, then how do you make each of those centres really functional for people, and ensure they have everything they need for quality of life?”

Key was to make sure there was enough supply of labour to maintain a functioning city, such as cleaners and childcare support staff.

On affordable housing, the City’s plan is that 15 cent of housing should be social and affordable. It would do more, Barone said, but a barrier was the lack of policy from state government to enable that.

“Unless the government mandates a policy that enables us to do it there is very little we can do.

“We are held back by the lack of policy,” she said.

Ken Maher

As president of ASBEC, among many other high profile architectural positions, Ken Maher focused on the built environment’s need to meet our emissions reduction target.

“Buildings consume a lot of energy so what is the role of the designer in all this?”

Right now, we’ve got “no chance” to meet our global climate commitments, he said.

On affordable housing, our standard targets are five and 10 per cent, he said, but the UK has 20 and 40 per cent targets.

Another area that needed strong development was a better system of governance, such as through the New Democracy movement led by Luca Belgiorno-Nettis.

“We’ve lost the art of informed debate,” especially as faith in public institutions was falling.

Estelle Grech

What was key in cities too was the creation and protection of the public realm, especially with increased densities.

“Great cities are public cities.” And “sustainable cities is about integrated cities”.

Student planner Estelle Grech, working at Fairfield Council, wanted to remind the audience of the humans at the other end of the planning thinking, in her case people who spoke 120 different languages.

This was an area of the “have nots”, she said, but “at the same time it’s a great place to live and work”, replete with energy and among the most entrepreneurial people in Sydney.

But while there were genuine cultural attributes in the region it was important not to “exoticise” the west because of its “lovely Indian sari shops” and atmospheric places such as Cabramatta.

Elizabeth Farrelly

Elizabeth Farrelly

It took Elizabeth Farrelly, lecturer and commentator, to light the fuse under the simmering keg.

“Sorry to have to introduce emotion into this very measured debate but I’m angry about this,” she started.

“I read about plans coming out but just about everything is happening already.”

Meaning developments that were destroying fabric and entire suburbs in some cases.

Farrelly wanted to make clear she was not opposed to development.

“In fact I’ve spent 30 years advocating density as sustainable so I take this as a given. But I’m mad at the way we’re doing it.”

Sydney sprawling increased the need for “Solomonesque wisdom” to make it work, she said, “but instead we have the opposite of that” with government cynically joining the two ideas of affordability and equity to allow a developer “free for all”.

A case in point was the plan for Rhodes, with apartments to go up to 30 storeys and barely a mention, almost a secret that this is to be.

“No one even discusses it.”

Saddest was the Sydenham to Bankstown plans – and Marrickville, which “as far as I can see will be largely destroyed”.

Now Marrickville she pointed out was where the artists have gone, pushed out of Surry Hills and other places in the east. These are placed with interesting industrial spaces slated to be replaced by 25-30 storey buildings.

Of course this was gentrification and what diminished one area would serve to make another more interesting, such as Goulburn.

“I support the policy of high density and even high-rise around railway stations – that’s sensible – but to do it in a way that destroys holus-bolus whole neighbourhoods is wrong because it’s a betrayal of Sydney. Sydney needs to be beautiful and to keep its intricacy and explorability and delight because we all live there, for god’s sake.”

And cinching the night, Farrelly nailed it: What government was doing with development was bad parenting, she said.

Governments needed to say, “This is where the streets go; this is where the parks go.” In other words, set up the public realm and then hand over to the developers to do what developers do.

“Instead we have the Barangaroo model and hand over 25 hectares of land to say, Lendlease, or whoever, and say ‘Do what you want.’

“That’s bad parenting. Government is an exercise in parenting and developers need discipline, just as a four-year-old needs discipline.”

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