Saturday, October 21, 2006

Professor Bruegmann's visit

Robert Bruegmann, professor of art history, architecture and urban planning at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and author of an incredibly successful book, Sprawl: A Compact History has just spent a week in Sydney. While in Sydney he addressed a luncheon for the Housing Industry Association, participated in the "Rethinking Suburbia" discussion at UNSW, spoke at a meeting of the Urban Development of Australia in the Hunter Valley and spent two days with me looking at what is happening in Sydney.

ABC presenter and SMH columnist Michael Duffy joined us on one of the days we spent touring Sydney. Picking up on a remark I made about the difficulty in getting people across Sydney united in opposing government planning policies, Michael wrote the opinion piece in today's Sydney Morning Herald which I find most interesting and challenging. Please let me have your ideas on what he says - see the article below.

The "Rethinking Suburbia" discussion at the University of New South Wales was packed with developers, council officials and academics. People had to be turned away. Robert Bruegmann gave a masterly lecture in which he discussed the pros and cons of "sprawl" versus "consolidation" . His overheads made quite clear what we have been saying all along - the benefits claimed for "consolidation" do not happen. For example he showed pictures of roads in normal cities compared to roads in dense cities - the latter are congested while the former are not (which is the opposite of what the Department of Planning is claiming).

Professor Brendan Gleesan of the School of Environmental Planning at Griffith University in Brisbane was the second speaker. To my astonishment, instead of presenting an opposing viewpoint, Professor Gleeson, in the role of a sceptical urbanist, praised Bruegmann's book.

During question time I applauded Professor Gleeson's sceptical approach. Developing that theme, I said that for seven years I have been questioning successive NSW Ministers of Planning, Department Heads, Directors and the Sydney Sustainbility Commissioner why the Dept of Planning is forcing high density onto unwilling communities under the threat of taking away the planning powers of their councils. I said in spite of all efforts I have never received an anwer from them. I asked what possible reason can they have for doing this. Professor Gleeson replied that at the time the government had to be seen to be doing something about a problem. He also said he is under the impression there will be a change in the approach. If so, this is very encouraging to hear.

Robert Bruegmann's book, Sprawl: A Compact History in the paperback edition is available over the internet for about US$12 plus shipping (eg It should be added to your library.

Tony Recsei


****************** Michael Duffy's Article *******************************

Just so many villages without a heart
Michael Duffy
Sydney Morning Herald October 21, 2006

SOMETHING I've realised after writing about Sydney for years is just how few people have a sense of the city as a whole. Instead, it's a collection of villages. This can be positive, as in the sense used by the Lord Mayor, Clover Moore. The problem, though, is that those in one village don't care much about what goes on in the others. There's little sense of shared interests, or of being part of a whole.
Not all big cities are like this. I spent Wednesday travelling around the inner west with Robert Bruegmann. He's a professor of art history, architecture and urban planning at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and author of a wonderful history of cities called Sprawl: A Compact History.

Bruegmann has visited Sydney before and has friends here. He loves the place, but noted how hard it was to buy a good map of it. He also observed that we tend to navigate across the city by using the individual pages in our street directories, rather than (as often happens elsewhere) by looking at one big map. He found this symbolic of something that's struck him about us: the way we tend to think of the city in terms of our own little corner.

At the time of the Cronulla riots, many commentators disparaged the "insular peninsula" of the Sutherland Shire. Often coming from people who'd never left the north or eastern suburbs in their lives (apart, maybe, from a youthful sojourn in the inner city), this was pretty funny.

The last survey I saw on the subject did suggest people in Sydney move house fairly often, once every five years on average. But from talking to people over the years, I suspect most of us don't move very far. The main exceptions to this would be immigrants, and those who move in response to immigration.

Another American observer of Sydney is Bruce Wolpe, Fairfax's corporate affairs director, who's lived here for many years. He thinks that compared with many cities in the US, Sydney is a collection of hamlets. "Due to the climate and the ocean, there's an incredible mix of work and play here," he says. "That produces a laissez-faire approach to life, a lack of shared identity. We had it briefly during the Olympics, but it went quickly. Sport does unite the city, especially in grand finals, but it fades away in the off-season sunshine. Unlike the Broncos in Denver and the Redskins in Washington, it's not a bridge to a civic culture for greater Sydney."

It strikes me one of the reasons for this lack of identity could be that there's no political entity to represent all or most of the city, as in places such as Chicago and New York. Sydney's politics is a dispiriting mess of endless disputes between the state government and dozens of local councils. But Wolpe is not so sure this is the reason. He thinks Melbourne, with a similar set of political arrangements, still manages to have a very strong civic culture.

Could Sydney's sense of itself be changed? "The state government is the ultimate governing body and I think the right premier could bring greater Sydney together," Wolpe says. "It'd have to be an exceptional figure, very charismatic, like Rudi Giuliani in New York in the 1990s. The political system doesn't produce such figures at the moment."

As a result of this state of affairs, it's hard to get people interested in the problems of others, or problems that affect the whole city rather than just one part. Chris Hartcher, the state MP for Gosford, captured this sense of localism in a speech I heard him give a few months ago, in his capacity as Opposition spokesman for planning. He said if he held a meeting in his electorate about state planning issues he might get a few people. If he held a meeting about Gosford he might get 20. But if he held a meeting about something like the positioning of a local pedestrian crossing, 200 might turn up.

To some extent this is natural and present everywhere, but Sydney takes it to extremes, as the example of urban consolidation shows. Most people all over the city hate the imposition of medium high-rise apartment blocks by the State Government. Most councils don't like it. It's a genuinely unpopular policy that has produced many community resistance groups across the city, such as the Friends of Ku-ring-gai Environment, the Belmore Residents Action Group and the residents fighting the redevelopment of the Royal Rehabilitation Centre in Putney.

But despite the existence of an umbrella resistance group, Save Our Suburbs, generally these local groups have been more interested in trying to save their own areas than in banding together to form a politically effective resistance movement. (The Opposition's decision not to oppose urban consolidation hasn't helped.) This means that, as the policy has been gradually imposed on one area after another, the State Government has had little trouble crushing local resistance.

This is regrettable. Urban consolidation has now been intellectually discredited, by publications including Bruegmann's book and the recent report The Tragedy of Planning, from Alan Moran at the Institute of Public Affairs. Bruegmann told an audience at the University of NSW this week that Australian state governments have embraced the policy just as its early enthusiasts, such as Britain and the Netherlands, are abandoning it.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

More on health

In an attempt to counter some of the official propaganda on health and high-density, I wrote the following to the Sunday Telegraph. This was responding to a report in the issue last Sunday that the State Government has secretly axed the air quality monitoring program. Five air quality monitoring sites have been shut down and the staff sacked. The letter was printed in the edition of 8 October 2006 of this high circulation paper.

I don't think the State Government wants to know what is in the air (Watch on air toxins axed S/T, 1/10).

Its urban densification policy crams more people into our suburbs.

This concentrates the sources of pollution, including cars. The smaller area available for dilution and dispersion results in a greater intensity of poisons in the air we breathe, contributing to the death of 1500 people per year.

High density is not good for our health.

Dr Tony Recsei

Save Our Suburbs

Friday, October 06, 2006

The latest furphy is High-Density is good for our health

I realise the term "Orwellian" is becoming an overused cliche but there is no better term to describe our State Government's actions. The writer George Orwell is famous for his books Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm. He originated the phrases "Big Brother" and "thought police". "Orwellian" has come to refer to government oppression, particularly to euphemistic and misleading language originating from government bodies with a political purpose. I experienced a really chilling example this week.

As part of the SmartGrowth campaign a seminar billed as Creating neighbourhoods, streets and parks that keep us healthy was held in in Angel Place on Monday evening. It featured two "leading experts on public health and urbanisation", Professor Howard Frumkin Director, National Center for Environmental Health, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta, USA. and Professor Anthony Capon, Visiting Fellow with the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health at the Australian National University.

True to the form of high density advocates, Professor Frumkin portrayed what we all agree are desirable characteristics of cities:
clean air;
opportunities for physical activity, roads should be for walking and not cars, sprawl is "associated with lower physical activity";
safe from injury;
opportunities for social engagement (which is declining);
aging in place - prevent older people having to leave a community;
income equality - new suburbs segregate people according to income;
freedom from road rage;
need to retain greenery - opportunity for physical activity, cooling, rain runoff, air quality (How this equates with higher densities was not explained. The opposite in fact occurs).

But he was always implying and never providing any evidence that high density will meet these requirements. He also claimed that high density is good for combating obesity. All this was accompanied by misleading images projected onto the screen, in a manner reminscent of TV advertisements for tooth paste, cars or breakfast cereals. Try to buttress what you are saying with an agreeable image, irrespective of any justification.

Professor Capon's presentation focussed on criticizing public transport.

During question time, of the 500 or so strong audience I was the only one who was critical. I asked, in relation to the constant implication that quarter acre blocks cause the obesity epidemic, why during the seminar not one word was said about food consumption? I pointed out the suburbs have been with us for 60 years whereas obesity only really started to become a problem from the 1980's. What is compelling is from that time the evidence shows a substantial increase in the average number of calories consumed by people. Why has this not been mentioned, I wanted to know. Is it houses or hamburgers, I asked. What is more, why was nothing said about the fact that high density is bad for mental health, one of our most serious problems*. I also said that, completely contrary to what Professor Frampton implied, social engagement (participation in community groups, family gatherings etc) is greater in low density than high density (I proved this in a paper I wrote for the journal People and Place).

The speakers were quite ready for this type of question. I am absolutely correct, I was told. People should not be driving to the supermarket and filling the back seats of their cars with food. The audience was left with the impression that my question in no way contradicted what the speakers had said.

It has not taken long for a new line of spin to come out. On Thursday the government started a campaign to encourage exercise to improve mental health (was this as a result of my question?). The implication is that if we all live in high density, we will have to walk to public transport and so solve the mental health tragedy and the obesity epidemic!

We in Save Our Suburbs of course know that the State Government's policy of high-density is completely altruistic and has nothing to do with donations from developers! I suppose we can only say we get the politicians we deserve.

Tony Recsei

* In decades past high-rise developments were also called suicide towers. A study of over 4 million Swedes has shown why. The researchers found that the rates for psychosis were 70% greater for the denser areas and there was a 16% greater risk of developing depression. In confirmation, Professor Cummings in his comprehensive Australian Unity Well-being Index, reports that the happiest electorates tend to have a lower population density.