We need to Love the place we live

Opinion piece by Elizabeth Farrell, SMH

Sometimes I think you Sydney natives don’t deserve this gorgeous town. You don’t appreciate her properly. Certainly you don’t treat her nice. Sometimes I think we newbies are your Gaugins, here to point out just how drop-dead sexy the joint is. And how desperately she needs your protection.

Strangely it took a surprise ticket to Monday’s Paul McCartney concert to remind me of this. All you need is love, belted the maestro from somewhere deep inside the Homebush wastelands – as if to note that our callow instrumentalism, destroying everything for speed and money, isn’t the only approach to city-making. Love? How completely (I thought) we’ve expunged such romantic idealism from our city, our lives. And what a profound loss it is.

“Sydney’s a wonderful city!” McCartney yelled to a packed house. “Glorious, unique. But then” – the grand Beatle tossed the next bit over his shoulder – “you knew that.” Everyone roared. Oh boy did we know it. Sydney? Glorious.

There was much roaring that night, several pyrotechnic encores from the 75-year-old who refuses to act or sound over 50 and much rapturous, 20,000-strong singing along. We were all letting it be, giving peace a chance, waiting for the moment to be free. Then, fully peaceniked up, we poured out into the sultry dark. Out into the war zone that is Sydney.

It was a gradient of depacification. Past the Olympic stadium to be demolished for fewer seats than it had when new, into an extraordinarily inadequate train system, through a city in the grip of a massive knock-down rebuild. Back to our private wealth and public squalor, the exploitation of everything for purposes of nothing, and the acquiescence that has settled on us like smog.

Romantic idealism? When E.F. Schumacher wrote Small is Beautiful, when Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring, when Jane Jacobs wrote The Death and Life of Great American Cities, they were warning against a world of aggressive bigness and sameness. Warning of globalism. Yet here we are – eating synthetic food in synthetic buildings, increasingly obese, depressed, excluded, unequal – living it out. We’ve forgotten their teachings as surely as 8th-century peasants forgot the Romans.

It’s not that we don’t crave romantic idealism. Every grainy horse-drawn tram image that cloaks some vast mean-eyed resi-development, every bearded hipster, craft beer, farmer’s market, maker’s movement, pickling party and broth bar reveals this need for lost belief. Every shoe-shop muzacking its way to higher sales with Janis Joplin, Mick Jagger and Leonard Cohen evinces this loss.

But somehow the trappings don’t translate into purpose. When the kids go to work, the beliefs stay home. Indeed, if you Google “romantic idealism” it’s all about expecting perfection from your lover, which shows just how far we’ve schlepped down the road of solipsistic narcissism.

The movement we now know as “the sixties” – for all its hedonism, sexual silliness and love-not-war-ism, for all its foibles and contradictions – yearned to change the world. It wanted principled change – love, fairness, freedom, respect. It wanted to reinstate history, revere truth, collaborate with nature. Most extraordinary of all, its empowering medium was poetry.

Dylan and Cohen, Hendrix and Joplin, Jagger, Simon, Lennon and McCartney were prophets and poets, singing us to a better world. Today, they’d likely sink without trace. Even when they sang about sex, it wasn’t about sex – it was about a new world order, a radicalism so close to Jesus’ as to be indistinguishable; a world where last is first, where the times are a’changing, where small is beautiful and beauty is revered; where the Mercedes Benz is known as a self-satirising commodity.

To extend this romantic idealism to the ground of the city is to recognise our planetary dwelling-place, as humans have since the earliest times, as the locus of sacred meaning. This respect for place is essential to our humanity. Continuing to desecrate it, trashing our home-city and home-planet, can only yield, in philosopher Roger Scruton’s words, “not hatred, but an ever-expanding heartlessness”.

Which returns us to Sydney. Our city is in danger. As neighbourhoods are demolished, parks sliced, avenues moth-eaten by the development juggernaut that delivers wealth to the few and slums to the many, we are losing the very texture of the place. The lanes and alleys, the knotted, clotted, nature-gnarled fabric of the place, the layered story that animates this fabric: this is the city’s soul. Now, for the first time, it’s under threat.

The Planning Department – presiding withal – says we’re suffering “development fatigue”. This is like telling a person with invasive cancer they’ve got life fatigue. No, we’re not tired of development. We’re tired of a regime that hears no one, respects nothing, desecrates everything for ends that are strictly cynical.

Despite four years of record housing approvals, a further 69,700 dwellings were approved in the year to October. With the 725,000 they propose in the next 20 years Sydney will be unrecognisable.

I’d be less upset if it had a chance of being beautiful; vertical gardens, leafy streets, zero carbon, traversable towers, cooperative communities a-thrum with energy.

But the awful irony is that, even in its own reduced terms, it won’t work. It won’t make housing cheaper. Three reasons, all products of neo-liberal dogma. One, a global market means that mum-and-dad purchasers – “vertical families” – must compete with international investors who see a rental market with virtually no tenant protections as easy pickings. Two, if prices do drop, developers stop building.

Three, because let-rip development exacerbates geographic inequality, rather than relieving it. A recent report co-authored by US Nobel laureate Edward C. Prescott found that strict development control, often thought to worsen inequality by restricting supply, in fact reduces it. By dampening building activity in the most sought-after locations, it spreads economic energy around. The alternative is “winner-take-all urbanism” which concentrates wealth where it already exists and stuff the rest – as in Britain after Thatcher.

Forty thousand Australian children sought help from homelessness services last year. This is a disgrace. But letting developers destroy our city and its meager public housing for profit will make it worse, not better. Love? Perhaps it’s true. Perhaps love is all you need, but you gotta follow through.

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