What hap­pens when the path of progress runs through fam­ily homes or cher­ished land­scapes? A spe­cial re­port.

Aus­tralia’s ur­ban land­scape is un­der­go­ing an un­prece­dented pe­riod of change, and emo­tions run high when the fam­ily home lies in the path of progress, writes Brad Nor­ing­ton.

Australian House & Garden - - NEWS -

For more than two decades, Van Ngo, 68, lived with his wife and two sons at St Peters in Syd­ney’s in­ner west. One af­ter­noon in early De­cem­ber last year, a po­lice squad was called to Ngo’s home fol­low­ing a con­fronta­tion with Roads and Mar­itime Ser­vices as they at­tempted to serve the fam­ily with an evic­tion no­tice. Ngo was ar­rested, al­legedly to “avoid a breach of the peace”. After be­ing re­leased later that day, he re­turned to the prop­erty, where he was re­ar­rested and charged with prop­erty dam­age and en­ter­ing a premises – his own home – with­out a law­ful ex­cuse. For this, Ngo spent a week in prison. What had gone so wrong that an oth­er­wise peace­ful man with no prior crim­i­nal record could be ar­rested and pros­e­cuted for en­ter­ing his own home?

Ngo’s re­ac­tion is em­blem­atic of the emo­tional ex­pe­ri­ence of hun­dreds of peo­ple be­ing evicted from their homes – in this case for the NSW gov­ern­ment’s $16.8 bil­lion WestCon­nex mo­tor­way project that is in­tended to ease traf­fic con­ges­tion in Syd­ney’s west. More broadly, Ngo’s anger re­flects the rapid and un­set­tling change oc­cur­ring across many sub­urbs in Aus­tralia.

These changes may be var­ied in na­ture, but the deep frus­tra­tions and over­whelm­ing sense of dis­lo­ca­tion and dis­em­pow­er­ment in com­mu­ni­ties is widely shared. If we value our ar­chi­tec­tural her­itage, it is ar­gued, what sense does it make if more than 50 Fed­er­a­tion homes in the ‘gar­den sub­urb’ of Haber­field are de­mol­ished for a tun­nel push­ing mo­torists into a traf­fic clog closer to the city? What is the point of cher­ish­ing cen­tury-old trees along Syd­ney’s An­zac Pa­rade if they can be so eas­ily cut down to make way for a light-rail line to Rand­wick? Is it any won­der that long-time res­i­dents be rate state gov­ern­ments and lo­cal coun­cils for poor plan­ning de­ci­sions when a mod­est semi-de­tached house is al­lowed to be dwarfed by a four-storey unit block that’s slot­ted in next door?

One of the more bizarre me­dia re­ports in Fe­bru­ary was the case of an el­derly cou­ple who were set to be evicted from their home of 40 years. Syd­ney’s Ge­orges River Coun­cil wanted to re­sume, or take pos­ses­sion of, the prop­erty so it could de­mol­ish the house for a car-park ex­ten­sion. The cou­ple, aged 88 and 77, has asked to stay in their home for the rest of their lives, or un­til they can no longer live in­de­pen­dently. But in this case, civic ur­gency seems to be over­rid­ing com­pas­sion.

Fast pop­u­la­tion growth in Aus­tralia’s big cities, where most of the na­tion lives, and a short­age of ac­com­mo­da­tion are the forces driv­ing rapid change–and per­sonal up­heaval. State gov­ern­ments are un­der in­creased pres­sure to re­zone land for high-den­sity liv­ing, and to cre­ate new roads and in­fra­struc­ture that ser­vice the ex­pan­sion.

In large part, the rush for ac­tion now is the le­gacy of a lack of fore­sight and tough de­ci­sion-mak­ing in the past. For­mer NSW Pre­mier Mike Baird, who abruptly re­signed in Jan­uary after less than three years in the job, was ac­cused of act­ing too quickly, of­ten with­out con­sul­ta­tion. Baird was seen to be in too much of a hurry as he made up ground in the in­ter­ests of the mod­erni­sa­tion of Syd­ney and NSW. Yet his per­ceived steam­roller ap­proach, lack­ing full ex­pla­na­tion and even branded dic­ta­to­rial at times, only added to the anger in subur­ban com­mu­ni­ties as peo­ple felt their con­cerns were ig­nored for the jug­ger­naut of progress.

Pro­fes­sor Roy Green, dean of the busi­ness school at Univer­sity of Tech­nol­ogy, Syd­ney, has given con­sid­er­able thought to live­abil­ity and the dy­namic of economies in Aus­tralia’s cities. Green ar­gues that more plan­ning is needed to in­te­grate fu­ture tech­nol­ogy parks or ad­vanced man­u­fac­tur­ing cen­tres with the subur­ban res­i­den­tial land­scape. He won­ders why it is that in Syd­ney, for ex­am­ple, high-tech de­vel­op­ments in Badgerys Creek, Mac­quarie Park or White Bay are con­sid­ered es­sen­tial for fu­ture jobs, yet the con­struc­tion of roads and rail net­works re­mains geared to­wards the CBD.

“WestCon­nex is de­signed to take peo­ple from the sub­urbs to the city for work, and to con­nect Port Botany,” Green says. “But high­ways are a very in­ef­fi­cient mode of trans­port. It’s old-fash­ioned think­ing about how peo­ple live and work in the city. Many cities are re­view­ing their ap­proach – even LA is think­ing of more pub­lic trans­port.”

And so back to the ca­su­al­ties. Noth­ing short of a gov­ern­ment back­down, and the com­plete aban­don­ment of WestCon­nex, is likely to sat­isfy res­i­dents such as Pauline Lockie, whose home at St Peters, like Ngo’s, was re­sumed for de­mo­li­tion. For Lockie, the ill-feel­ing she has to­wards plan­ning au­thor­i­ties was com­pounded by a lack of no­tice; she had only re­cently com­pleted ren­o­va­tions when no­ti­fied that the gov­ern­ment in­tended to take her home.

Lisa-Jane Koch, a cam­paigner for WestCon­nex-af­fected res­i­dents near the in­ner-west sub­urb of Rozelle, says one of the most galling as­pects of gov­ern­ment de­ci­sions has been sud­den plan changes. Homes marked for ac­qui­si­tion are no longer needed, and vice versa. Res­i­dents are given “plat­i­tudes” when they re­ally want cer­tainty, she says. Koch be­lieves the Baird ex­pe­ri­ence shows that pub­lic protest cam­paigns can work.

Mean­while in West­ern Aus­tralia, pro­test­ers have been cam­paign­ing against the $540 mil­lion Roe 8 high­way ex­ten­sion, which was de­signed to de­liver heavy trucks more di­rectly to the port of Fre­man­tle – at the ex­pense of the pris­tine Beel­iar Wet­lands (see Case Study 3). The pro­test­ers hope the oust­ing of the Lib­eral gov­ern­ment at the re­cent state elec­tion will put a per­ma­nent halt to the en­tire $1.9 bil­lion Perth Freight Link project – a pledge La­bor’s Mark McGowan promised to honour if elected. As it hap­pens, con­trac­tors un­der­tak­ing the Roe 8 high­way ex­ten­sion in­def­i­nitely sus­pended work after La­bor’s land­slide vic­tory so no gov­ern­ment in­ter­ven­tion is yet re­quired.

Else­where, com­mu­ni­ties have de­cided to get on the front foot when con­fronted with po­ten­tially un­com­fort­able devel­op­ment de­ci­sions. In the north-west Syd­ney sub­urb of Cas­tle Hill, 25 home­own­ers have banded to­gether in the hope of sell­ing their prop­er­ties as a sin­gle devel­op­ment (see Case Study 2). The in­ten­tion is to max­imise the to­tal earn­ings – which could be as much as $100 mil­lion for the group – by tak­ing ad­van­tage of pro­posed re­zon­ing to al­low high-den­sity liv­ing on the sites.

The Cas­tle Hill group has set a trend, yet it re­mains un­clear at this stage how other such col­lec­tives, one to­talling 90 home­own­ers, will fare. The stakes are high, and there’s al­ways a chance some home­own­ers will hold out and refuse to sell. The re­sult? A mod­est home with pretty pe­riod ar­chi­tec­ture ends up next door to an apart­ment Go­liath. Such is life in the sub­urbs.


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