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Reply to Elizabeth Farrelly: suburbia not Kulturstadt

By John Muscat - posted Friday, 17 September 2021

Wilton housing estate, western Sydney (ABC Illawarra)

Recently on Twitter I came across a post about the NSW Planning Minister's announcement banning dark roofing for detached houses in fringe housing estates to minimise the heat island effect. Scrolling down the comments, I noticed one by the Sydney Morning Herald's anti-suburban architecture critic, Elizabeth Farrelly. "It's ludicrous that this greenfield sprawl is still being approved in Sydney", she wrote. Having just read a column of hers slamming the proposed high-rise tower complex for inner-city Pyrmont's Fish Market site, it was amusing to see her bash the other end of the spectrum. Where would Farrelly have people live?

Proposed Fish Market site development, Pyrmont-Blackwattle Bay (Infrastructure NSW)


I knew, in fact, that she quests for the holy grail of urbanists everywhere, medium-density or the so-called "missing middle". Since there is a body of commentary explaining why this form of development struggles to materialise – the NSW Government's Low-Rise Diversity Code has founderedon a combination of flawed economic logic and popular resistance - Farrelly's preferences add up to no housing at all. I decided to reply (hazarding the limited space on Twitter) and this exchange followed:

Elizabeth Farrelly@emfarrelly

Aug 24: It's ludicrous that this greenfield sprawl is still being approved in Sydney.

The New City@The_New_City

Aug 24: You don't like vertical high-rise like the Fish Market development, you don't like horizontal "sprawl", you don't explain how medium density is economically viable.

Elizabeth Farrelly@emfarrelly

Aug 24: Replying to @The_New_City: It's viable in London, San Francisco, Amsterdam, even Auckland. Why not here?

The New City@The_New_City

Aug 24: For historical-geographical reasons the radius of our dense inner-city is comparably small so low-density suburbia starts closer in. These middle parts are still relatively close to the centre so land values are very high and profitable redevelopment would need to be intensive.

Elizabeth Farrelly@emfarrelly

Aug 24: Replying to @The_New_City: As to the fish market development, that's private development on public land, with no public benefit. Why would that be a good model?

The New City@The_New_City

Aug 24: Replying to @emfarrelly: It's not so good a model, suburbanisation is a better model. But fish market is the type of development (mostly on private rather than public land) we will end up with if suburban "sprawl" is blocked.

Elizabeth Farrelly@emfarrelly

Aug 25: Those are the extremes. They're not the only choices – and it's silly to presume that they are.

The New City@The_New_City

Aug 25: Good luck with your other choices.

And there it seemed to end – but it didn't. Farrelly pursued the exchange, this time as a monologue in her Herald column of 4 September. She starts off rebuking the planning minister for the "classic misdirection" of banning dark roofs when "we should not be approving greenfield sprawl at all". Then comes this:

Yet, when I said that on Twitter, one of those faceless anonyms knee-jerked back: "You don't like vertical high-rise like the Fish Market development, you don't like horizontal sprawl, you don't explain how medium density is economically viable".

She demands "the missing middle", recites the standard anti-sprawl grievances and complains – yes, complains – that "suburbia was predicated on giving every family the space, autonomy and access previously reserved for the nobility." Farrelly goes nowhere near explaining why medium-density is viable, of course. As expected, she simply re-asserts her own tastes and preferences. Her work is almost entirely fixated on aesthetics and cultural amenity, scoffing at the complexities of land economics as the stuff of lesser mortals. There is a dilettantish aspect to her assumption that some grand Haussmannian director can just tell landowners, builders and home-buyers what type of housing they will have and it will appear.

Many who move to a new city as adults come to appreciate the temperament of its people but Farrelly isn't one of them. From early days Sydney emerged as a sprawling industrial-suburban metropolis which got its first railway just sixty-seven years after its foundation and two decades into the twentieth century had one of the highest rates of car ownership in the world. "City of suburbs" became a famous book title. Pragmatic Sydneysiders are quick to embrace new ideas and technologies to improve their productivity and circumstances, including more living space and mobility. Millions of immigrants who poured in since World War II have, on the whole, slipped seamlessly into this bustling culture of aspiration. Farrelly is profoundly out of sympathy with much of this and sometimes bewildered by it. Her columns and books have a tone of mystified outrage.


Viennese slum, 1901

In the course "explaining" why medium-density is viable in 2020s Sydney, Farrelly cites a case from eighteenth century Vienna, 1920s Barcelona, 1960s Berne, 1960s London and 1970s Philadelphia. Two Sydney cases are exceptions that prove the rule, built on derelict industrial sites. She variously describes examples on her list as "glorious", "lovely" and "dignifying". Given the mention of Vienna, Peter Hall's account of the old Hapsburg capital in Cities In Civilisation might say something about her urban vision:

Vienna thus remained essentially a capital of conspicuous consumption, not a centre of production: 'a capital, a centre of consumption and a Kulturstadt' … The aristocracy enjoyed fabulous wealth from feudal income transfers and rents. A rapidly growing bureaucracy had higher-than-average disposable incomes. The professions and the services – medicine, law, education, entertainment and information – ministered to them … But this remained a highly differentiated, even segregated and unequal society … the great majority lived in minute apartments, often of no more than one room, normally housing ten or more occupants, at a rent that might equal a quarter of a man's wages. They formed tenement blocks in which several hundred people lived crammed together …

However satisfying to Farrelly's aesthetic tastes, a city that halts all greenfield development and concentrates on densifying established areas, with a growing population, will eventually consign growing numbers of its working people to the sorts of conditions endured by Vienna's lower-orders more than a century ago. The key to housing is the general problem of inflated land values. This calls for a range of policy measures which must include a less rigid and restrictive planning regime for the release of peripheral land. For over a decade the Demographia survey and other studies have highlighted the link between land costs and Sydney's severely unaffordable housing. CoreLogic's Unimproved Land Value Index reports that values continue to escalate right across the greater metropolitan region. Farrelly is wrong, in her column, to say "if you zone for 30 storeys, land value rockets so of course low-rise becomes unviable." Values are historically high regardless of the zoning, particularly in inner-ring areas targeted for medium-density (this may well be endemic to the post-industrial city). The paradox is that re-zoning for this type of development makes it even less viable, as economist Cameron Murray explains. And where densification does proceed, observes Professor Patrick Condon in his new book Sick City, housing affordability is worse not better.

The NSW Planning Minister must leave Sydney's people at least some features of the egalitarian 'Australian settlement' and reject Farrelly's oppressive and hierarchical Kulturstadt.

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This article was first published on The New City Journal.

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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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