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Less traffic, cleaner air, Manhattan vibrancy: these are the benefits of denser living - 03.06.2005

Uncompromising vision is still seen as un-Australian, writes Elizabeth Farrelly.

"I've got a good idea," a friend said brightly the other day. "Why can't Sydney just not expand? Why not just throw a cordon around what we've got, and call it a day? Make a law that all new development must be brownfield development, consolidating existing stock? Has anyone ever thought of that? Ever tried it?"

Good question. And the answer is, yes. Yes, it has been thought of - for a century or more. Yes it has been tried. And no, it has not succeeded. Why? Because the requisite qualities - uncompromising vision, strong political leadership, self-discipline and other-than-suburban values - are still seen as threateningly un-Australian.

After decades of consciousness-raising about the environmental disaster that is sprawl, there are respectable academics still arguing people should have suburbia because they want it. Straight out of the total-indulgence manual of modern parenting, you might think.

And that is the point. Sprawl-on-demand is not especially Australian. Suburbia as we know it is the great American dream; fantasised by the British, but realised by the Yanks. Suburbia, like total-indulgence parenting, is another piece of cultural baggage.

Early on Australia was in fact largely urban. The colonists, moving into a hostile land, quickly circled the wagons. Cities always had a citadel role, and early Sydney was no exception. For the first 100 or so years of white occupation we lived, broadly speaking, in a huddle.

Profligate, it may have been, but not exactly sprawling. Not until 19th century reformism did things start to change. City squalor, argued the reformers, produced not only physical degeneracy but its moral equivalent as well. Rickets and tuberculosis were the outward signs of a deeper moral malaise exacerbated, even caused, by one thing: density.

Thus did the train, the car and the quarter-acre block become the tools of righteousness in this divine crusade to scatter the urban poor into the sunlight. Thus did the suburban movement acquire its largely spurious moral glow.

Why spurious? Because beneath the so-called reform agenda lurked, then as now, the primitive urge to grab land. From the viewpoint of the power elites, dispersing the indigent of Chippendale and Surry Hills to the 'burbs not only reduced the likelihood of insurrection but also bulldozed a path for lucrative inner-city redevelopment. All in the holy name of slum clearance.

Little has changed. The Carr Government's new "State Significant" listing of the Aboriginal land on the Block runs precisely parallel: dispatch the disadvantaged to areas where they have less access, less cohesion, less profile, less voice. Say it is for their own good, then redevelop their land and reap the applause as a beneficent slum-clearance landlord.

So nothing has changed. Government still talks public interest and acts property interest.

Can sprawl be curbed? It is 50 years since a green belt was last mooted for Sydney. The then local government minister, Pat Hills, began flogging it for housing before the planning ink was dry. These days the political pressure for expansion is, if anything, greater, so an absolute ban is unlikely to do the trick.

Which is where design quality comes in, since if it is market forces we are relying on, rather than thou-shaltism, people will have to want denser living. They will have to see its benefits: less traffic, cleaner air, cultural frisson, Manhattan vibrancy and (potentially) fabulous, to-die-for, aesthetics. Only then will we feel free to jettison the great American suburb from our cultural backpockets.

Fifty years ago we would have welcomed such change. Now the timidity of the times is against us, but I'm siding with Helen Keller: "Life is either a daring adventure, or it is nothing."

Elizabeth Farrelly is the Herald's architecture writer.