The Weekend Australian - Review
Lyrical hymn to a beauty
KILLING SYDNEY: THE FIGHT FOR A CITY’S SOUL
When my father and I first arrived in New York City in 1983, the desk clerk at our rundown hotel asked us where we were from. When I replied, his jaw dropped and he shook his head. “Sydney?” he exclaimed. “Well, then what the hell are you doing in this here dump?”
Nearly 40 years ago, Sydney was a city studded with century-old figs, low-rise apartment blocks and beloved heritage buildings ranging from convict-era sandstone to art deco elegance.
Darling Harbour was awash with cargo ships and grizzled wharfies; workingclass people could enjoy harbour views through their living room windows; and arts and craft, heritage-listed suburbs such as Haberfield could blossom without fear of being bulldozed.
Since then the city’s international reputation as a geographical jewel has been downgraded to a trinket.
As newspaper columnist and former City of Sydney councillor Elizabeth Farrelly points out in her timely tome, Killing Sydney, due to a string of inept, amnestic, neoliberal state governments, vast swathes of public green space have been relinquished to private developers, inner-city public housing has been hocked to the highest bidders and motorways and toll roads have mowed through long-established homes, parks and entire communities like a swarm of starving locusts.
To be sure, change in a city is inevitable and often welcome, but not at the expense of rate-paying residents, public amenity and communal continuity.
A deregulated housing industry may have shortened the red tape involved in constructing a house, but it has also resulted in the erection of shoddy and dangerous highrise residential buildings, such as the Opal Tower in Homebush Bay, where concrete crumbled and tenants fled.
A 2019 report found failures of design, of material, of craftsmanship, of regulation and of professional licensing. It took the University of NSW’s City Futures Research Centre to point out the bleeding obvious to the current state government: that our ‘‘system allowing defective apartment buildings’’ is a massive economic and social risk.
Moreover, the risk is undoubtedly increased by the fact that certifiers are not selected by an independent body, but by the self-interested developers who pay their fees.
And while Sydney is losing out with the construction of shoddy new buildings, she is also being diminished by the sale of her beloved older ones. A few years ago, Farrelly was appalled to discover a sales brochure, issued by the state government, with Chinese script and (secondarily) English, advertising for sale a number of Crown properties as ‘‘investment opportunities’’, which included the 1892 highrenaissance style sandstone Department of Lands Building, the Department of Education Building, the former County Council building on George Street, the North Head Officers Mess buildings in Manly, Jenolan Caves and, inexplicably, the historic transport hub of Central Station.
And, in a speedy journey from the sublime to the ridiculous, the government then sold off the design office responsible for producing public buildings. Between 2011 and 2017, $53bn worth of public assets in Sydney were sold to private investors.
What did Sydney get in return? The spending of $23bn into a controversial tollway, the construction of which has destroyed a string of suburban communities, and the profits of which will mainly flow to the private toll operator, Transurban. The demolition of a fully-functioning sports stadium, and the unnecessary rebuilding of it, with a price tag of $730m. A footbridge that crosses 30 metres of traffic, but which is rarely used, due to the fact it fails to link up with any attractions or destinations on either side of Anzac Parade. At a cost of $38m, even the government’s own auditor-general condemned the expenditure as wasteful.
But as Farrelly observes, it’s not just money that is being wasted, it’s also precious resources such as parks, gardens and majestic, old-growth trees. In 1868, a grand avenue of fig trees was planted along a thoroughfare that would become Anzac Parade after World War 1, to commemorate the troops who’d marched along it on their way to transport ships in Woolloomooloo.
As Sydney developed from a raffish colony into a breathtaking international city, the avenue became a leafy, shady, living war memorial.
During the construction of the ill-conceived light rail project, however, the government decided it needed a temporary traffic diversion through Moore Park. The diversion was to have shaved six months off the construction period and, in the interest of speed, the government consequently authorised the destruction of 765 trees along the route, many of which were 150 years old.
But due to inadequate precontractual specification, and the unearthing of Indigenous artefacts beneath the light rail route, any time saved was made redundant due to ongoing legal struggles that continued for years. ‘‘The cruel upshot,’’ writes Farrelly, ‘‘is that these magnificent trees were woodchipped for absolutely no reason at all.’’
Despite the title, Killing Sydney is not a narrative death knell to an enchanting city. It is a lyrical hymn to her beauty and diversity, her vivacity and potential, and a Cassandralike call for her preservation.
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