Australian House & Garden

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.


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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