Urban interests trump reason: Do we need an inquiry?
Cahill Expressway by Jeffrey Smart (1962)

If recent troubling reports in The Fifth Estate and elsewhere on the state of urban planning and governance are to be believed, then a sector-wide inquiry sounds like a good idea. Mike Brown, for one, thinks it’s time to take a good hard look into the state of our urban affairs.

This well-known painting by Jeffrey Smart depicts the Cahill Expressway soon after its construction in 1962. Like many of his paintings, this one includes a lonely figure, here a diminutive overdressed spectator amid an alienating urban-scape. 

The figure apparently lacks a left arm, his sleeve tucked into the jacket pocket, and stands on a traffic island.

Those familiar with the location will recognise that in its contemporary condition he is marooned; unable to escape due to relentless traffic and high bounding walls.

Reportedly, Smart’s artistic interests were principally formal, but many ascribe allegorical significance to his work, here the impotence of urban humans in the contemporary city.citi

For some, this interpretation is inapt; our cities are genuinely democratic artefacts emphatically moulded by our reason.

In Sydney for example, newly established pan-urban institutions promise to streamline the way our cities grow and develop. Learned research explains urban problems and offers solutions. There is record public investment in urban transport improvements. Urban development participants regularly express their opinions in public forums. We are frequently offered the chance to participate in urban decision-making. We are constantly reminded of the link between our urban economic health and our personal wealth.

Others experience the city more equivocally; they see themselves as hostages to darker forces.

Their dwellings are lost to transport projects. New high-rises are built next to their suburban homes of many decades. Their fundamental interests are ignored yet they see great attention being paid to the microscopic interests of others. They ask, is this the city we actually want? How did it come about? How can we change or at least escape from it? And metaphorically, whatever happened to our instruments for effecting change – our arms?

A quick review of some recent reports illustrates this disquiet.

Urban unease

Phillip Bull questions the defining urban vision prepared by the widely welcomed Greater Sydney Commission. In part the commission was established to address a growing east-west divide in our city. Yet, in a manner analogous to the apocryphal etymology of Eton Mess, disaster was transformed into triumph simply by renaming it. Sydney will henceforth develop as three separate cities!

Mr Bull goes on to query the apparent uneven distribution of the commission’s housing targets – the numbers of new dwellings local planners must allow for in different Sydney suburbs. 

Numerous outer suburbs are expected to accommodate many new dwellings yet suburbs with high amenity, close proximity to jobs, well serviced by public infrastructure, with high per-capita wealth but low dwelling densities are expected to accommodate only modest increases.

If Sydney is deemed too big to service yet not big enough to accommodate growth why don’t we just allow greater density close to its current well-serviced pulchritudinous centre, he asks? What’s wrong with more Potts Points and Pyrmonts?

Benjamin Driver draws attention to persistently poor quality apartment design despite long standing legislation aimed at improving it and of well tried medium density alternatives.

Commenting on recent debates around urban growth, Sue Holiday highlights the impracticality of many proposed solutions. She agrees with many economists that limiting growth outright will harm our economy. She points out that simply directing growth to the regions will immediately impose greater demands for public infrastructure, but without the local economy to pay for it. Further, we would need to dilute some of the social contract freedoms that draw people to Australia in the first place. 

She instead argues for a well-reasoned bipartisan settlement strategy to grow these settlements such that they attract new settlers, rather than become their gaol.

Commenting on proposals for an extension to the northern beaches link expansion of WestConnex, Michelle Zeibots casts doubt on its business case, currently some $14 billion – almost three times that of a recently announced nation-wide drought relief package.

Recalling Professor Holiday’s observations concerning regional investment, what is sensible about spending more than the original cost of WestConnex on wider roads to low density northern beaches suburbs when we intend to dramatically increase the density out west? Is this where the money should be spent?

When it was recently elected, the state government placed housing affordability as a significant priority. Even though the housing market has slowed the cost of housing it is still beyond the reach for many and is particularly severe close to the costly centre where many high value jobs are.

In the context of increasingly scarce high-value inner urban land, this author has previously wondered at its comparative inefficient use for some transport infrastructure. Why is it financially essential to sell the Sirius building in The Rocks when less than 500 metres away a decked road cuts through the inner city, arguably the most valuable land in the nation? Why build a nest of tunnels under single story inner city Rozelle yet leave untouched elevated road decks that run from Glebe Island through valuable Pyrmont and Darling Harbour, stymying development along the way?

For most, the city’s imperfections can only be endured but some are more fortunate. The Minister for Finance, Victor Dominello, is reported as publicly opposing urban intensification targets for Hunters Hill and Lane Cove, despite these targets being the adopted policy of the cabinet he is a member of.

Similarly, Crown is currently litigating to protect views from its new Barangaroo harbour-front development.

New perspectives?

Against the fractious background illustrated by these examples, NSW opposition leader Michael Daley’s recent announcement could well be transforming.

The incoming NSW opposition leader has characterised current politics as disreputable and identified “four pillars (of) education and hospitals, easing the cost of living, jobs and overdevelopment” as priorities for his government, if elected.

He added that, “if (the federal government) is going to send 1200 new people to NSW a week, then they will have to stump up with funding for city-shaping projects”.

In essence, he has identified urban policy and infrastructure as his electoral battleground and said that the current system is broken.

It seems those identifying with the man in Smart’s painting are not mistaken.

Inquiry need

Our cities have increasingly become the centres of our economic social and political growth. At a time when democracies globally are increasingly challenged by, to coin a phrase, “mendascatocracies” (crudely, government by lying turds) the need for integrity in Australian urban governance could hardly be greater, as this author has argued previously. 

Urban debates are increasingly complex, incapable of fitting within the confines of contemporary news cycles.

They encompass ever broader themes: population growth and immigration; national productivity; social and intergenerational inequity; environmental sustainability; housing affordability; infrastructure under- and over- provision; community participation; rural versus urban interests; financial prudence; legislative powers; fiscal and taxation policy. 

These debates also transcend traditional responsibility boundaries that used to define different tiers of government or agencies within them. Cities are no longer the responsibility of any one entity.

Metaphorically, all these examples might be conceived as skirmishes in a large plain. Individual scuffles may be comprehensible within narrow perspectives close the surface, but what do they mean collectively?

What is lacking in all of this is a genuinely uniting aerial perspective.

The ongoing inquiry into the financial services sector has demonstrated that complex systems that define our lives can indeed be examined, shortcomings identified, and, hopefully, improvements recommended.

Given the commitment by one politician to address a similarly wide-ranging topic, would it be too much to demand a comparable examination of all the features affecting our contemporary cities?

State and national elections are approaching. Before any new announcements are made for yet another transport project, administrative authority, hospital, growth target, division or combination of agencies, or infrastructure-funding commitment, how about we hear an announcement of a single broad-ranging inquiry into urban development and governance.

We need to help Mr Smart’s figure get off the traffic island.

Mike Brown has worked in NSW local and state government in planning, urban design, and strategic roles for 15 years. He is also a graduate of the Masters of Urban Policy and Strategy program at the University of NSW.

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  1. As an Engineer and technologist, one of the things that intrigues me about this debate is, that like so many other debates the assumptions made about what is physically and technically possible, badly lag the reality of what can be designed and built. Witness the lag occurring where some people have realised that renewable energy is now cheaper than coal, but other people are still acting as if it isn’t.

    Its the same with transport technology. We haven’t exactly invented the Star Trek teleporter, but we do have technology that makes travelling further, faster and at considerably less cost per person-Km a reality. I’m talking about fast rail here. Not just the high speed variety (officially 250Km/hr+). But fast rail in the 130-180Km/hr range. The kinds of speeds needed to banish distances given the sheer physical size of Sydney.

    A lot of the urban planning debate ultimately derives from a kind of learned helplessness. There are roads and then there are slow trains and buses (and that’s all) and every argument flows from that assumption. As a consequence we have the “30 minute city” idea – essentially the notion that you can magically make all kinds of jobs happen everywhere, without fast transport. The Greater Sydney Commission acknowledges that its “30 minute” cities will be specialised in terms of employment. What that amounts to is “if you were born in the wrong postcode and your particular ’30 minute city’ doesn’t suit you, then tough luck”.

    So then we have the debate about settlement of the inner and middle ring versus the outer reaches. Again, the underlying context is outdated assumptions about what faster transport is capable of doing. After all there was once a famous treatise on the maximum size of London that said that beyond a certain size, it would be impossible to remove the horse manure quickly enough. Fortunately we’ve moved on in technology.

    I am not an advocate of endless sprawl. Certainly not sprawl that is car dependent. Nor do I think that creating satellite cities is a miracle cure either – but one should think carefully about HSR in terms of building existing centres of employment such as Newcastle, Gosford, Campbelltown and Wollongong.

    I’ll go one step further to declare that “dormitory” suburbs are not in and of themselves a bad thing. They are a bad thing if the only transport you have is a car. But a lot less so if you’ve got a transport technology that moves many times more people, faster, for the same pile of cash. Also, creating dormitories has the delayed effect of creating a workforce around which future centres of employment will grow. Again I’ll point at Newcastle in particular. Plus the interaction between Wollongong and the southern end of Sydney (Campbelltown to Wilton) which could be a closely coupled growth center with both jobs and beds at both ends.

    Having said all of this, I can see the merit in more Paris style medium density within the middle ring of Sydney. In fact we’ve let ourselves down in terms of the CBD to Parramatta corridor. But, why is it so hard to have higher density in places like Haberfield or (horror) the northern beaches? That’s the thing urban planners should really should be talking about. Yes, its about politics, but I’ve never seen an urban plan yet, that has a policy of bringing landholders en-masse into the discussion. Instead its a developer driven environment and an adversarial one too.

    Now, what about the sacred sites? All those golf courses and horse race tracks? Do we dare have a discussion about that one? Such uses can be easily pushed out of the inner and middle rings. Heck, I’m going to get myself shot here, but why are we wasting so much land, so close to Parramatta on a horse race track?

    I think the other thing that should be acknowledged by planners is that they aren’t gods. Despite what they do, people will still do what they want, if they can. Its all very well to talk about not wanting to encourage longer distance commutes, but the reality is that there already exists a huge latent demand for this kind of activity. Build more road space and they will come. Despite the dreams of urban planners. And it isn’t just work related. People travel to be with people. People travel to be connected and to have opportunity. This kind of latent demand will be there always. You either build fast and high speed rail and do the job efficiently or you accept the default and instead spend tens of billions on future motorways which will give you a lot less bang for buck. You don’t get the choice. We can’t implement internal passports and physical barriers like those out of the movie “In Time”. Personal physical mobility is the basis of human civilisation and even if we do succeed in preventing sprawl into the west we still need fast and high speed rail to give people a better life and more opportunity regardless.

  2. The biggest challenge in Urban Planning is to place people at the top of the decision pyramid, not designers and planners who bring all of their preconceived biases with them including design and aesthetic biases, lifestyle biases & recreational biases. Start first with the community, its unique and distinguishing characteristics and look to enhance and grow them rather than reinvent them.

  3. Mr Cobley’s first remarks vividly characterise the most recent road funding as an eye-watering heist of scarce yet extensive taxpayers’ funds to the benefit of a relatively small sparcely populated part of Sydney; one that is also resisting pressures to accommodate its fair share of the city’s growth. Thus stripped naked of the special pleading that clothes so many of Sydney’s recent road project announcements, it is hard to disagree with his summary.

    Indeed, $14 billion would likely pay for a fully fledged Badgerys Creek airport and the high speed rail links to it. Yet, rather than investing $14 billion in those parts of Sydney slated for growth – both economic and population – the state will receive national government assistance to build just the first stage of the airport and a few roads leading to it! For its part, the national government is seriously contemplating reducing the migrant intake on the grounds that our infrastructure cannot cope with the growth!

    Recent experience of an extensive, well maintained, rapid, well used, elegant, popular and expanding metro system in Moscow motivates this author to agree with Mr Cobley’s second remarks. In contrast, that city’s road network, though wide, expanding and extensive, is notoriously choked with traffic. ‘Nuff said!

    Particularly interesting, though, is Mr Cobley’s tone of exasperation. An intention of this article was to illustrate how extensively have narrow interests displaced reason as the foundation principle motivating urban policies and projects.

    It is perhaps no accident that a profound sense of frustration is being expressed just now. Only in the last couple of decades have cities emerged as the primary engines of social, economic, political, and cultural expression. For most, living in cities is now no longer a matter of choice, particularly for those starting out on their careers. A recent article in the Sydney Morning Herald by Kym Johnstone (see:
    https://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-opinion/boomers-your-privileged-tax-deducted-time-is-up-millennials-have-arrived-20181104-p50dxj.html?btis) starkly conveys why younger voters are entitled to feel a sense of outrage at the legacies handed to them by the previous “Boomer” generation. Intergenerational inequity, concentrated in our cities, has now displaced the “fair go” as the new normal.

    A series just commencing in the same publication intends to examine how and why democracy more generally has been weakened recently.

    It this author’s view that these conditions will shape how our democracy develops henceforth. So entrenched has it become that no simple political announcement will be sufficient to disrupt this “new normal”. Instead, it is suggested, re-setting how we control our cities can only be achieved by a deep examination of these conditions, their origins, manifestations, and remedies.

    Cities are – literally almost – where broad public policy rubber hits the road. They are democracy materialised. Cities express our collective values, ill or good. How our cities are shaped, and what shape they become, is the most emphatic demonstration of government the electorate is ever likely to experience.

  4. Mike, thanks for the wrap.
    Sydney’s big recent urban planning mistakes are:
    1. to pour billions into roads like westconnex (when we should have been building inner and middle ring rail), and then
    2. give into weird land releases on the fringes (often land that’s too far away, too hot or flood prone, ecologically sensitive etc), did I mention the Sydney food bowl, and
    3.then built medium density that is kinda crappy and on busy roads aka Canterbury Road;
    4. give up on local government reform and entrench NIMBYism as Sydney’s local land use strategy where everyone actually wants to live.
    But the weather is good and if you bought your house 20 years ago, life’s good.

  5. “The incoming NSW opposition leader has characterised current politics as disreputable and identified “four pillars (of) education and hospitals, easing the cost of living, jobs and overdevelopment” as priorities for his government if elected.”

    There is only one pillar that matters, a very large Metro rail program, without this, the other so-called “pillars” won’t function.

  6. We’re out of leaders, today’s politicians are followers. The very privileged residents of Warringah Shire who regard the beaches as being for their own personal use, people from other areas of Sydney to be walled out. They want things done their way, they spend their waking hour’s bombarding politicians with constant complaints about congestion, on the Spit Bridge, Warringah and Mona Vale Rd’s and demands for a super Motorway costing 14BD or $53,000 per resident (including children and dogs) or $1,300,000 per peak hour user of this new super road.

    The Warringah Shire’s followers (the politicians) then attempt to do what their God’s command them to do. Politicians must know it’s not possible to build out traffic congestion, it’s basic primary school mathematics and geometry that cars occupy too much space, so not only are politicians “followers” they are also “liars”.

    It would be a much better world if politicians stopped following and stopped telling lies. Just tell the people of Warringah the truth, congestion can’t be built out by building roads that add more cars to the road system.

    Build them an efficient Metro Rail solution. If they jump up and down and complain about the westie invasion that this may cause, remind them the beaches aren’t the personal property of Warringah shire residents, that westies travel by car too.