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Freeways lost on the way to Sydney's post-CBD

By John Muscat - posted Wednesday, 30 June 2021

Model of Sydney's proposed North Western Expressway - it was never built

If Twitter is any indication, the co-existence of freeways and CBDs or downtowns is a hot issue. Urban planning Twitter is full of laments, mostly from Americans, about the impact of freeways built since the 1950s on inner-city precincts. Many claim they were created with racist intentions, to destroy minority neighbourhoods or stifle their economic development. US Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg says"there is racism physically built" into some highways. It seems more likely the controversy relates to gentrification of the urban core and a new focus on lifestyle amenity over economic efficiency in transport infrastructure. In the United States, where processes of inner-urban gentrification are a more recent development, the emphasis is on tearing down existing downtown freeways and blocking new ones. This has developed into a crusade and the tone of advocacy is militant. Accusations of racism and environmental degradation are thrown around indiscriminately. "Urban freeway removal" is something of a movement amongst progressive urban activists across American metro areas.


In Australia the history is in some ways different. Like the US, Australia saw a post-war trend of industrial dispersion from the core and the emergence of new industrial suburbs on the periphery. Some American writers are apt to label this out migration "white flight". But the same phenomenon occurred in more racially homogenous Australian cities. The real causes have to do with technological developments in manufacturing and transportation, like advanced assembly-line automation − more space extensive plant layouts − and mass adoption of commercial and passenger motor vehicles together with containerisation of freight shipping. These trends were duly noted by urban analysts of the era. One classic account is Anatomy of A Metropolisby Edgar M Hoover and Raymond Vernon, published in 1962 for the New York Metropolitan Region Study. Hoover and Vernon observed that:

[o]ne of the most universal changes in factory processes over the past 30 or 40 years has been the widespread introduction of continuous-material-flow systems and of automatic controls in processing … the disadvantages of operating on a less-than-ideal structure have grown rapidly. Today, the common practice in many lines of manufacture is to find a site which imposes the least possible restraints on the shape of the structure. The shape and size of city block grids, therefore have become a powerful restraint on factory location …

"Motor transport had a double-barreled impact in pushing industry out of the [inner] cities of the Region", they write. "Not only did it offer a new freedom to the manufacturer in selecting a site but it accentuated the disadvantages of the obsolescent street layout of the [inner] cities". The "search for space", as Hoover and Vernon call it, would "inevitably move outward to exploit the new locational freedom which the truck, the airplane, and piggy-back freight have afforded". Development of these spatial arrangements into a functional metropolitan system called for more efficient two-way transportation links between core and periphery: "high-speed highways which will converge on the Core and Inner Ring are bringing an obvious change in … Outer Ring areas, one which is beginning to link them more clearly to the Region". The ramifications flowed in both directions:

… the high-speed highway will also affect the location of middle-income housing. For occupants of this kind of housing in the Outer Ring, ties to [downtown] are not nearly so important as ties to the plants and businesses of the Inner Ring. The highways are important … because they bring large new tracts of undeveloped land into the market for mass builders of moderately priced colonies.


James Kirby machine tool plant, Milperra, western Sydney, early 1970s

Similar trends emerged in other industrialised countries. They were acknowledged with much foresight in the NSW Government's County of Cumberland Planning Scheme of 1948, which provided for new industrial land in places on Sydney's then western periphery like Bankstown and a radial expressway network. These particular roads never materialised, but the vision of an integrated core-periphery metropolis adumbrated by the likes of Hoover and Vernon shaped the received model of urban and transportation planners until the mid-1970s. At around that time the dual processes of deindustrialisation and gentrification rolled over the core more or less simultaneously, unlike in the United States. Whereas American anti-highway activists are having to fight a rearguard action to dismantle inner-city freeways – "about 18 U.S. highways have been removedin some form since the late 1970s, with a significant spike in the past five years" – Sydney's counterparts had an opportunity to launch a pre-emptive strike.

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This article was first published on The New City.

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About the Author

John Muscat is a co-editor, along with Jeremy Gilling, of The New City, a web journal of urban and political affairs.

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