City Hub

The elephant in the room

Grand Victorial era Ultimo terrace houses. Photo: John Moyle



I recently attended a forum at the University of NSW convened by the Nature Conservation Council NSW. Apart from the presenters there were about thirty or so who’d come to listen to speakers including Peter Newman talk about urban sprawl and the need to increase the density of our capital cities. Peter believed that density increases were inevitable and that attempts to encourage populations away from the coastal cities were doomed to fail. This approach hadn’t succeeded elsewhere in the world so why should it be successful here? He also disagreed with the contention that there surely has to be an upper limit to a city’s population.

The pachyderm is the doctrine that in order to ensure our survival we need to radically increase the population of the capital cities by importing hundreds of thousands of people annually. This commonly held belief is espoused by our political masters on all sides of politics. It is the driver behind much of the ‘development’ that so many of us find both alienating and obnoxious. High rise and toll roads top the list.

However this credo is also a long way from being an established fact, having far more to do with large donations to both of the major parties from the development lobby and the toll road multinationals, than from any merit based rationale.

The Sydney basin is a finite geographical area. It has finite resources. Water catchments can’t be increased. The sewerage system is already at capacity with untreated sewerage discharged into the harbour during periods of heavy rain. Roads and public transport are choked during peak hours. Bumper to bumper traffic is becoming the norm on the weekends. Open space is deficient in too many LGA’s. Schools and hospitals are at breaking point.

Much of the infrastructure dollar is wasted in our capitals on projects such as WestConnex. Obviously if a greater proportion were to be spent regionally then it would be much easier to entice people away from the capital cities. The sort of density increases that rob residents in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and the other capital cities of their amenity, simply wouldn’t be needed.

The Victorian ring of suburbs surrounding the CBD were fully developed in the 1880’s and offer a form of accommodation that is aesthetically pleasing and as such is much sought after. This Victorian architecture strikes a perfect balance between economic land use, amenity, structural art and accommodation.

Clearly when comparing all of the phases of housing evolution throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, the Victorian terrace has not been surpassed in terms of form, function and the efficient use of land. This inner ring of historic precincts should be afforded protection from high density high rise obscenities, with sympathetic infill inspired by reproducing the terrace house as the preferred structural form.

If we continue to tear down existing residential structures and replace them with mind numbing and soulless medium/high rise, we will have completely destroyed our history and our Victorian heritage. And for what? Ultimately there will come a time when this ‘knock down and rebuild’ approach is no longer an option because there will be nothing left to knock down but high rise.

So what do we do then? Replace an ugly twelve stories with an even uglier twenty-four? The only sane solution is to develop our regional cities and towns in a sustainable manner, with the necessary infrastructure sufficient to attract businesses, their workforce and the plethora of service industries that inevitably follow.

Reproducing rows of terraces with front and rear gardens and lanes at the back coupled with expanses of open space opposite would be the desired development model.

There is an argument to increase the density of the middle and outer ring of suburbs to some degree but this needs to be done in a sensitive manner, with access to open space as a priority. It should also happen slowly and only in conjunction with moves to encourage populations to establish themselves in rural cities and towns.

High speed rail and a comprehensive, efficient, affordable public transport system is absolutely essential, along with the expansion of regional airports. It makes perfect sense to provide financial incentives to regional communities in order to accommodate businesses and homes where land is relatively inexpensive. The $45 billion that we are paying for WestConnex would be far better spent developing regional communities.

Where open space can be easily provided, where green places can be enhanced and developed and where the air is fresh and clean. Where wildlife and nature corridors are protected and where aesthetically pleasing structures are the order of the day, with the worst excesses of the developer and the ego of the architect held in check.

It has long been the dream of successive generations to open up the interior, harking back to the soldier settlement schemes following both World Wars.

The time to act is now – before what’s left of the amenity, history, heritage and integrity of the Victorian development adjacent to the CBD’s  in our capital cities is destroyed forever.



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