Is the city man’s greatest invention? The prominent urban economist and Harvard professor Edward Glaeser thinks so. In his 2011 book, The Triumph of the City, he argued that cities make us all richer, smarter, greener, healthier and happier.
What we know as modern cities emerged during the Industrial Revolution, and were both the cause and effect of that event’s massive levering of mankind out of general poverty into something approaching bourgeois comfort. Economists and historians of the calibre of Joel Mokyr, Deirdre (nee Donald) McCloskey and Niall Ferguson have debated at length the ultimate cause of man’s massive shift in material wellbeing over the last two hundred years or so. Whether “the killer app” was driven by ideas, by institutional factors or by culture or values, it is plain that the great levering occurred in the West’s emergent cities.
Cities are engines of innovation. They run on the benefits of agglomeration. They provide opportunities for both labour and capital that are unavailable beyond their boundaries. They create wealth for nations. All on the back of the density and the speed of circulation of ideas and interactions. All this is well known to economists, who use the term “positive externalities” to describe these city advantages.
The contemporary world is one of global cities, of virtual city states, and of giant megalopolises which have more in common with, and greater connection with, fellow international cities than with their own rural hinterlands.
Australia especially is a nation of primate cities – of first cities whose populations massively outstrip those of each state’s second cities. Famously – and now perhaps infamously – they draw in overseas migrants on a large scale as well as the rural young. While many also leave the capital cities, normally for retirement or a “sea” or “tree” change, the growth over time in the dominance of our cities has been extraordinary, and is undiminished.
Australia is a nation of imbalances – of coastal rainfall and inland aridity, of massive cities and a virtually empty inland, of an economically debilitating vertical fiscal imbalance that debauches our federalism, of local and regional government impotence in the face of growing central (Canberra) dominance. Such imbalances lead to another: the massive infrastructure spending, always playing catch-up and never enough, on our cities, often at the expense of the country. This imbalance in spending on infrastructure and services is indeed why the National Party exists, and it provides the rational for that odd political beast, the “rural independent”.
Yet, despite the economic advantages of cities, both to households and firms and to the nation as a whole, they are not altogether happy places. Is it open to argument that our states are racked by poor governance, factionalised and visionless politics, hyper regulation and atrocious planning? And since our cities cast such long shadows, they suffer massively from bad government. But it isn’t just bad government that is strangling our cities — congested, crowded and increasingly ugly.
The great Australian poet AD Hope had this view of our mainland capital cities in his depressed and depressing poem Australia:
And her five cities, like five teeming sores,
Each drains her: a vast parasite robber-state
Where second-hand Europeans pullulate
Timidly on the edge of alien shores.
And that was written before the multicultural, open borders, mass global migration rot set in. The “rot” is the mountainous wave of overseas migrants, many of whose newest arrivals seem not to themselves value “multi” culturalism but, rather, opt for non-assimilating, inward-looking, localised monocultures supported largely by generous Aussie welfare. The “rot” is also the woeful incapacity of poorly equipped state governments to cope with the growth our cities have experienced, even to understand the dimensions and the interlocking nature of the problems and how to begin to solve them. This is yet another classic Aussie imbalance – big state (city) problems and tiny political and administrative capacity to solve them.
What of Sydney, the “Emerald City”, Australia’s first city and its only truly global city? The most captivating story of the summer has been the embarrassing fiasco of a high-rise building of “state significance” that may have to be pulled down at worst, and whose residents at best will face appalling capital losses on the back of shoddy process.
Sydney, of all our cities, held the promise of the new world for our colonial forebears and for successive waves of migrants. It was always constrained by difficult geography (limited capacity to expand and tough terrain). But the growing city also had superb natural advantages, starting with its gleaming harbour, famously described as follows by our first governor:
‘… the finest harbour in the world’, in which a thousand sail of the line may ride in the most perfect security’
Being settled ahead of its competitor regions, Sydney had first-mover advantage, both in the context of the colony of New South Wales and in relation to other emerging colonial port-capitals. It also had a temperate climate, good soils, emerging agricultural excellence and a great port in an era of expanding global trade.
Alas, it has also had crap governments all the way down its history: mediocre, venal administrations that either don’t plan for growth, or plan badly, or plan too much – sometimes all at once. The city has got some of the big architectural things right by luck and the vision of once-in-a-generation engineers or architects such as Bradfield and Utzon. Its key historic sites survived the desecration of the Sixties and Seventies largely through the efforts of a single, bloody-minded builder’s labourer called Jack Mundey. If not for him, The Rocks would be just like the rest of the place as it has developed.
Admittedly, the city currently looks like a tip, with its appalling, ill-conceived, destructive and unnecessary light rail. The immediate legacies of this project are vast and ever-growing expense, destroyed downtown business confidence, the demolition of yet more buildings, traffic chaos and other infrastructure opportunities foregone. Apart from the light rail fiasco, there is Sydney city’s brutalist, one-of-everything, patchwork architecture and hodge-podge planning which has delivered a cityscape simultaneously unpleasant to the eye and without coherence or wholeness of form.
Once Sydney was known as the “golden city”, much as a result of the play of the sunlight on its many Victorian sandstone mini-masterpieces. Very few of these beauties remain. Those that do are overshadowed by nearby ugliness, and so rendered disengaged from the rest of the city, and, in most cases, all but invisible.
Tom Wolfe wrote in From Barhaus to Our House:
O beautiful, for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain, has there ever been another place on earth where so many people of wealth and power have paid for and put up with so much architecture they detested as within thy blessed borders today?
Though speaking of America, Wolfe might well have been describing modern Sydney.
Sydney’s emergent monocultures of foreign origin I have already mentioned. We perhaps don’t get the publicity of Melbourne, that bleaker city to the south, and its troubling African gangland world in the Emerald City, but we nonetheless have Lakemba! Sharia City.
Those who favour the “vibrancy” of so-called multiculturalism might well ponder the endless seas of un-mixed faces and non-English dialogue now occupying many of Sydney’s suburbs, and agree with the unfortunate Luke Foley, who made the ultimate political gaffe by telling the truth in noting that white flight is a real thing in Sydney Town and that the genuinely interactive, innovative multicultural relationships that characterised previous waves of immigration have now all but disappeared.
Outside the confines of the city itself, Sydney also faces rampant destruction across its once delightful suburbs. This is the result of what might be termed the “Meritonisation” of the city. Australia’s cities are in the grip of a slightly weird ideological marriage of leftist new urbanism and big-end-of-town developers.
New urbanism seeks “smart”, “compact”, “vibrant” (pick your own adjectival cliché) cities that purport to improve quality of life by reducing travel times and car-related congestion, increase public transport and the expense of private, and link future residential development to strategic public transport nodes – hence all the high rises near railway stations — high rises whose residential values are currently plunging, and yet which continue to blight our suburbs and usher in ever more vertical ghettoes. Not to mention the utterly bizarre love affair — more of a compulsive fetish, actually — that new urbanists have with light rail.
The revolution that has occurred is now almost complete, with forever changed skylines all across the metro area, a bulldozed downtown and the destruction of magnificent trees on Anzac Parade. Sydney now has, according to Wikipedia, 1168 completed high rise buildings. It is estimated that within seven years, apartments, townhouses and terraces will outnumber stand-alone homes across the city.
(It is no secret that most professionally trained planners, at least those who go into public service, hate cars and hate suburbs, the twin begetters of the ultimate planners’ enemy, “urban sprawl”. This hatred and the fallacies of new urbanist thinking are well explained by Robert Bruegmann in his wonderful 2005 book Sprawl: A Compact History. American anti-new urbanists Joel Kotkin and Wendell Cox have also written widely and critically on the phenomenon. I well remember the near uproar I caused a decade or so ago by inviting the well-known new urbanist sceptic, publisher and then-token ABC conservative Michael Duffy to guest lecture my urban planning class at the University of New South Wales, on the planning problems of Sydney and the limits of spatial policy. These final year students simply had never heard, nor could they understand, a reasoned argument and coherent position opposing the new urbanist dogma. Or that such a position/argument even existed).
Those who believe in a “city of cities” with high rises and bought-off-the-plan apartment buildings adorning the major transport interchanges make many assumptions that are not borne out by reality. The three biggest are, (1) that people will give up their cars and will only use public transport if we house them in high rises, (2) that people only ever travel to work, and (3), that public policy can control the location of employment and therefore plan the space economy. The image of a city of “urban villages” remains a myth. Indeed, and ironically, the many myths and limitations of the new urbanism generally were exposed by none other than that old leftist planner, the late Patrick Troy, in his book, The Perils of Urban Consolidation (1996).
The current Liberal led NSW Government is, of course, up to its armpits in new urbanism. Where does the development industry come in? Well, they get to build all the high-rises. In this they are helped along the way by the utterly compromised (corrupted?) major political parties which have come to rely on developer donations to swell party coffers and, through industry capture, prop up parliamentary and ministerial careers. Not to mention the help the industry gets from an endless flow of overseas migrants and overseas (read Chinese) investment dollars that have largely driven demand for high-rises. The big end of town genuflects before green-left “sustainability” ideology. The partners in this marriage of convenience are in a symbiotic relationship of considerable mutual benefit.
But are the glory days coming to an end? Some of the high profile high-rises are being well and truly exposed as either shoddily built (see under Opal Tower) and/or unable to be absorbed by the now retreating market demand, with all the economic jitters such a collapse brings.
All in all, the Emerald City has suffered grievously over the past half century or more, from incoming hordes of migrants who can no longer comfortably be housed and serviced with infrastructure that works; an embedded non-performing governing class; fragmentation of planning responsibilities; toothless and ineffective local governments, of which there are nearly thirty – even after the recent amalgamations – compromised values and diminished virtue among decision-makers, and a combination of venality and slipshod professionalism all round.
Of course, “Emerald City” is not that old, and is a moniker Sydney shares with a very different Seattle, and indeed with several other American cities. The nickname is borne of the 1987 play of the same name by David Williamson, which contained the memorable lines about what one of his characters described as “the city without a soul”:
The Emerald city of Oz. Everyone comes here along their yellow brick roads looking for the answers to their problems and all they find are the demons within themselves.
Well, I guess we cannot blame poor planning and woeful infrastructure for that!
Yet, perhaps, as the shadows of the twenty-first century start to lengthen and Sydney rapidly grows to the population of London – Sydney already matches London’s land area – and the second-rate governance, multi-monoculturalism and ever-growing gridlock continue to dog the once great and liveable city, we should consider recasting Williamson’s famous nickname as the far less appealing “emerald slum”. Harbour or no harbour, colour or no colour.
And yet the punters keep wanting to live there. That’s the ultimate power of economics. But, sadly, a fine city is being destroyed in the process.