Why I'm angry about the city I love

2 August 2017

Dr Elizabeth Farrelly sets the scene for how planning might navigate the post-truth political landscape in her keynote speech at the launch of the University of Sydney's Festival of Urbanism iv on Monday, 31 July.

Dr Elizabeth Farrelly, explains why she is outraged at the Festival of Urbanism iv launch. Photo: Maja Baska.

Dr Elizabeth Farrelly, explains why she is outraged at the Festival of Urbanism iv launch. Photo: Maja Baska.

I’m here because I’m angry, says Dr Farrelly. I shouldn’t say that. Research shows that people don’t like ‘angry’, especially from a woman. But I am saying it. Because it’s true. And tonight is about truth.

I’m angry at being lied to. All the time. Routinely. By people who have a duty of care. About the city I love.

I’ve lived in Sydney almost thirty years. And for the first time I feel that Sydney – the Sydney I love – is under genuine threat.

I tried to leave. A few months ago I sold my house. Moved away. I lasted three weeks. When I came back I found myself falling back in love with Sydney all over again.

Not the stuff everyone raves about – the big shiny blue. What I love about Sydney – what is unique and irreplaceable - is its crooked little heart. Its fig-bulged laneways, its impossibly narrow houses and streets, its hovels built as slums and now sought after by barrister-classes, its crazy modesty and crazier pride and the determination of those half-starved ignorant convicts to rebuild, in this vast and glorious continent, precisely the cramped and gnarly culture that had rejected them.

I found myself making a secret little vow to it – as if it were a child under threat. Yes, I love you. Yes I will do what I can to protect you. From the bastardry. So this is a bruised lovesong.

I know everyone thinks New Zealand is backward. But Sydney is doing to itself what Auckland did thirty years ago. Three ‘Ms’. Motorways, Mirrorglass, McMansions. Treating the whole city as a knock-down-rebuild.

It’s everywhere. I get hundreds of emails, all the time, from people who are infuriated, or despairing, over what is happening to Sydney.

I can’t cover all of it today. So, here’s ten things that make me angry.

1. The Bays Precinct

A couple of years ago I had a call – several calls – from a bloke at the top of the NSW government bureaucracy. He wanted to talk to me about Sydney planning and, in particular, the bays precinct.

I ignored him. Nothing good ever comes from talking with government. Nothing truthful. That’s my assumption. That’s my experience.

They kept on. Eventually we had coffee. He came with minders, naturally. Imagine what would happen if you acted like a human being. I decided he was genuine, talked to him about planning, the importance of distinguishing private interests from public, and recognising that government’s main – arguably only – role is to protect the public interest. Importance of setting street patterns, lot sizes, controls – before inviting develops to the trough. Two hours.

A week later, the thing was launched – massive international event. All the handbag ladies there. All the big shots. And the plan was done.

2. Consultation - Parramatta - Councils

UrbanGrowth’s proposal to put 2,700 apartments and office space for 2,000 in buildings up to 20 storeys on precinct with Female Factory, old Parramatta Goal and old Cumberland hospital. No discussion. No debate. No change from a predetermined course.

3. The Powerhouse Museum

Six weeks before democracy is to be restored we are lulled into false sense of security. There was meant to be a meeting tonight (31 July) to “consult” the community. Instead an announcement was made today.

4. WestConnex, NorthConnex, F6 Extension

Another example – get rid of democracy and slipstream-through a hugely unpopular proposal while democracy is suspended.

A garden suburb at Hellerau in Germany, founded in 1909, is a national icon, drawing visitors from around Germany and the world to experience and study the uniqueness of the place and its architecture. It is fully protected.

Yet here in Sydney, WestConnex ploughs through this unique area (Haberfield’s heritage precinct) destroying not just 53 houses, 23 apartments and nine businesses, but iconic street trees and gardens. And that’s not all. Not by a long, long way.

This is part of a world view. The government is determined to build the F6, although it will destroy 460 homes or 60 hectares of the Royal National Park, and cost $10 billion more than a rail-tunnel alternative.

What is even more appalling, a leak in April (2017) showed that the Berejiklian government has been instructing transport planners to ignore public transport, and build more roads. – although we have known since the 1960s that roads are a bad investment and only produce more congestion, more sprawl, more climate change.

5. Trees

The beautiful avenue – destroyed not for light rail, but so that the light rail could move across Alison Road (Randwick), freeing up Crown Land for the racecourse to build a private hotel. Nine hectares of tree cover gone.

6. Selling the standstones - GPO, Land Titles

Land Titles Registry: The government’s Expression Of Interest document says the winning bidder will gain the “first mover” advantage if it wants to “consolidate other government-owned land registries across Australia”. The GPO, our greatest treasure – our Elgin marbles - didn’t get a chance: sold in secret.

7. Sirius

The (Heritage) Minister refused to list the building on grounds of “undue financial hardship” – to whom? Not the housing tenants; to Property NSW.

The judge threw this out – noting along the way that the Minister hadn’t bothered actually to sign any of the documents before the court (that’s how arrogant they are).

Minister’s “financial hardship” argument about being able to build 200 units elsewhere makes sense on a strictly numbers basis.

8. Affordability Furphy

The outright lie that the “affordability crisis” can be dealt with by capitalism. Again and again the government and property lobbyists – who noticeably share the same ‘songsheet’ – insist that it’s a supply-side issue. Which is kind of true... But it is also self-evident that the minute prices drop, developers stop building – as Stockland recently warned that Newcastle was “oversupplied” – precisely to keep prices up.

So no way they can address affordability. This is no more than a thinly-veiled green light to their developer mates.

9. Darling Harbour

So much ‘ugly’ on public land. I said to the government dudes five years ago when they were making decisions – it needs intricacy and explorability at ground level. It needs to be interesting and engaging and heal the rift with Ultimo. Imagine how fantastic that would be.

They said “oh, it’s the mums and dads. They don’t want that stuff.”

10. The word 'Urban'

“The Urban Taskforce,” writes Chris Johnson, “believes our cities are becoming more urban with new cosmopolitan lifestyles becoming popular…”

But density is not enough. It needs grace and charm and interest. Instead we are seeing bathrooms without windows, bedrooms without windows, apartments where you actually could not cook a meal even if you wanted to. Not urban, not a network, not about living.

I can’t forgive them for their world view. People are machines; cities are machines – making money, driving through en route between Willoughby and the (Sydney) airport.

I’m really, really not anti-development. But city building will be our biggest future challenge after climate change. We have to get this right, or the consequences will be catastrophic.

This means recognising that the public interest is primary, that government is fundamentally different from the market, and must shape it toward our shared, long-term goals.

If we cannot retrieve these values, and build and plan accordingly, our cities (and perhaps our planet) will become wastelands.

That’s why this fact-checking and the Festival of Urbanism matter so much.


This is an edited extract of a keynote address by Dr Elizabeth Farrelly at the launch of the Festival of Urbanism iv. Dr Farrelly is Sydney-based columnist and author who trained in architecture and philosophy, practiced in Auckland, London and Bristol, who holds a PhD in urbanism from the University of Sydney, and is an Associate Professor (Practice) at the University of NSW Graduate School of Urbanism.

Mandy Campbell

Media & PR Adviser

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