The politics of cities

16 November 2022
Steph Price

There was once a little pub in Carlton called the Corkman. Built in 1854, it was one of the oldest buildings in the suburb. It wasn’t particularly charming—mission brown had been slopped all over it in the 1970s—and it didn’t have a particularly worthwhile social function, mostly used as a watering hole by Melbourne University law students.

But in 2016 when its owners—developers who had bought the building a few years earlier—illegally razed it, leaving just a pile of bricks and clouds of asbestos dust, it seemed that all of Melbourne was up in arms.

The Corkman wasn’t beloved; nor was it theirs to destroy. It was ours; so the sentiment went. To have it turned to rubble, in the middle of the day and in defiance of the rules intended to prevent such things, was an insult.

The incident briefly gave a face and name to the anonymous and apparently unstoppable forces that shape our cities: the owners and developers who see profit where the rest of us see the potential for shelter, respite, connection or recreation. It emphasised the abject lack of control most of us have over our physical surroundings. It hasn’t always been this way.

Cities have always been sites of struggle and social conflict because cities are where both capital and the working class is concentrated. But cities have often been the object of that struggle too.

The most well-known example is the green bans, which involved construction workers organised in the Builders’ Labourers Federation (BLF) refusing to demolish or build things that they deemed to be contrary to workers’ interests or the social good. Their actions saved numerous heritage buildings, green spaces and public housing estates, and sabotaged planning crimes like the proposal to put a carpark and 24-hour restaurant in Melbourne’s Botanical Gardens.

The NSW BLF came to be regarded as, in the words of one journalist, “the most powerful town planning agency operating in NSW”. One notable victory the union had was to save the public housing at Millers Point and the Rocks in Sydney in the 1970s. A plan to clear out these working-class populations in inner Sydney and redevelop the area, which sits right up against the harbour, was stymied by actions taken by the BLF and residents. But 40 years later, and in the context of a much weaker union movement, the plan was carried through. The travesty of workers, new migrants and the poor occupying prime harbourside real estate simply was too much for the state government to endure, and the $1 billion it pocketed from the dispossession of the residents of Millers Point and the nearby Sirius building too good to forego.

Far from meekly accepting “urban renewal”—i.e. moving out the poor to make way for the rich—as inevitable, the BLF built a movement premised on the idea that the city is built by and lived in by workers, and that they should have a say over how it looks and functions.

As the union’s NSW leader Jack Mundey put it, workers are not “just robots directed by develop-builders ... more and more we are going to determine which buildings we will build”. The BLF understood that the battle to improve the conditions of the working class was also a battle about the city.

There must be, in all this city area provision for working-class people, for people of low and middle income, to be able to reside in the area”, Mundey said. “It’s not much good winning a 35-hour week if we are going to choke to death in planless and polluted cities, where rents are too high, where ordinary people can’t live.”

The green ban era was the heyday of workers’ struggle over cities in Australia. And it wasn’t only the unions staking claim to the city. As students and intellectuals descended on the inner cities during the 1960s and ‘70s—drawn in by mass tertiary education and the political foment of the time—residents’ action groups emerged. It was a time of pitched battles over freeways, parks and “slums”.

The continued existence and character of the Melbourne suburb of Carlton, for example, is largely due to these fights. In 1969, Housing Commission Victoria had plans to “renew” nearly one square kilometre of Carlton—half the entire suburb—that it had declared a slum. This, of course, meant demolishing the existing housing and relocating the occupants. Many of the poor and working-class residents didn’t want to go, rejected the slum declaration and fought—on at least one occasion with shotgun in hand—to keep the commission out. They were joined by the students and academics who weren’t keen on the gritty and bohemian suburbs they had been drawn to being turned over to “the brutal modernism” of pre-fab concrete housing and huge apartment towers. It was in Carlton that the Commission’s decades long campaign of slum reclamations ended.

Like anything dictated by the market, urban development is chaotic and highly irrational. Nowhere is this irrationality more evident than in relation to how our cities have responded to the climate crisis.

Up and down the coast of Australia, brand new houses are being built in areas that all sensible science says will be inundated by a rising sea by the end of this century, and well before that will be vulnerable to storm surges and flooding.

Researchers asked a group of developers and property investors to explain why. Their answers were published in a 2021 article in the journal Climate Risk Management.

“The change [catastrophic sea level rises] isn’t going to come through now, or in the next two, three, four, five years—it’s going to come through gradually over the next 50 to 100 years and if that’s the case, do I really need to care? I mean it’s a terribly selfish thing to say but as a property owner, do I need to care?”, asked one respondent.

Many of Sydney’s growth areas are on floodplains. The current rules allow developers to construct estates in these areas so long as they are considered likely to flood only once every 100 years. But some have had two such events just in the last five years.

In Melbourne—up until recently the fastest growing of all Australia’s cities—most growth is happening on the fringes, where about 100,000 people settle every year. The urban boundary has expanded three times in the last two decades, twice under Labor governments at the behest of developers and landowners who reap huge windfall profits when native grasslands and farmland is re-zoned residential.

The housing estates that are subsequently built in these areas are a patchwork of disconnected “planned” communities—miles away from the public transport network—with little in the way of jobs, shops, hospitals or other vital infrastructure.

Fewer than 5 percent of jobs are accessible to those living on Melbourne’s urban fringe, meaning they are within 60 minutes on public transport or 30 minutes in a car. If you have a job, you will be driving for a long time to get to it in most cases—car-dependence is baked into the design of these developments.

Then there are the houses themselves. Prices are at record highs, but the blocks are getting smaller so the developers can carve out more from each land parcel. The average block size in many growth suburbs is about the same as some of the more densely packed inner ring, but the houses are getting bigger. The building footprint area in some places is as high as 90 percent of the block, while in older suburbs it tends to range between 45 and 70 percent. This means there is little space for a backyard, trees, or soil for rainwater to be absorbed. It also makes these areas much hotter than other parts of Melbourne.

A knock-on effect is that air-conditioners are needed in order for many new houses to be habitable, but the heat island effect of such densely packed suburbs can impair the air conditioners. This is not even to mention the environmental consequences of continuing to build new houses that are dependent on air-conditioning to be fit for human habitation.

This all matters because although it’s not always obvious, the built environment has an enormous impact on our well-being. Studies show that living within one kilometre of a supermarket is associated with better health and less disease, and that this relationship is strongest in working class areas. Yet in urban growth local government areas in Victoria, only about one quarter of houses are within this radius, despite the target being 80-90 percent.

Access and proximity to green open spaces is likewise associated with better social connection, better sleep, improved physical and mental health and less disease. Even the presence or absence of street trees has an impact—studies show people are more likely to walk when there are trees and they are more likely to talk to their neighbours. Yet tree canopy data shows that parks in the western suburbs of Melbourne have less canopy tree coverage (6.2 percent) than the industrial areas of the eastern suburbs (7.7 percent), and that parks in working class areas have less infrastructure to encourage use, like playgrounds, benches and shade.

It’s the same story in relation to access to public facilities such as libraries. For people living in the wealthy local government area of Stonnington in Melbourne, there is one library for every 40,000 people. In the more working-class council areas of Melton (outer west) and Dandenong (outer south-east), there is currently one library for every 90,000 people. In ten years, there will be one library for every 160,000 people in Melton. By this time, there will be four times as many children living in Melton as there are in Stonnington, and half the number of libraries.

In Melton, libraries are being substituted with “access points”, which is a vending machine operated by Lendlease where you can collect pre-ordered books without ever talking to a single person, let alone making a social connection. There is no building or public space associated with the machines, no shelves to browse and zero prospect of making a serendipitous discovery that give libraries some of their magic.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Contrast the Lendlease book vending machines to the approach briefly favoured by Enrique Peñalosa, a reforming mayor of Bogota, Colombia, in the late 1990s. The local government built grand and beautiful buildings in some of the poorest areas of the city. Libraries became more than utilitarian exercises in distributing reading material.

“There was an emphasis on not only that libraries were functional, but also that they had to be majestic, in homage to every child, every citizen who would enter there”, wrote Charles Montgomery in his book Happy City. It’s unlikely that any child feels lifted by the majesty of the Lendlease vending machine.

There are challenges that humanity faces which don’t have easy answers—even under a socialist system controlled by the majority. But how to make cities that are fit for the people who live in and sustain them is not one of those. It is astounding how much is known about how our buildings, cities, parks and nature can improve or diminish our lives. In the very first strategic plan prepared for the city of Melbourne in 1929 nearly 100 years ago, the authors knew that children needed parks to be healthy. What’s more, they knew the minimum park space each child needed, and they knew the maximum distance a child would be able to walk to get there.

People who study cities know what the ideal depth of a front garden is to encourage conviviality among neighbours but that also permit retreat when desired. They know what the ideal footpath width is to encourage walking, and what type of street signage could help people with dementia navigate their neighbourhoods. But this immense knowledge is not put to use unless it happens to also be profitable.

Making cities genuinely liveable for all, places which help people live happy and healthy lives, is principally a political question, not a technical one. Capitalism, and the profit-hungry priorities that underpin it, is the barrier to achieving this. Winning collective, democratic control over the vast resources that make cities work is the solution we need.

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