Elizabeth Farrelly’s controversial new book Killing Sydney: The Fight for a City’s Soul has made a splash in development, planning and design circles. We asked Dick Clarke,  to review it for A&D, but he said the book is too important for a notional review of a few hundred words, instead producing this short essay.

“When asked who is buying these high-rise apartments, Mr Eltakchi responds: “No one that I bloody know of. Ever since these monstrosities were built, especially in Granville, they can’t sell them…”

Western Sydney real estate agent quoted in Domain (SMH), 11 March 2021[1]

“…most international planners I know who are familiar with Sydney are shocked by what we consider normal practice. ‘That’s not flexibility,’ they say, ‘It’s not even neoliberalism. It’s cronyism, pure and simple.’

            Elizabeth Farrelly, Killing Sydney, p.318.

Not much love is lost between Liz Farrelly and the forces of redevelopment in Sydney. This includes the NSW Governments past and present, Prime Ministers, Well known developer-barons, and even some architects.

In Killing Sydney Farrelly fiercely lays into the unseemly and arguably corrupt relationship between governments and developers with the passion of one rightly stung by the blatant injustices done to her beloved city of Sydney.

At the heart of the problem, she posits that we are “disguising moral and aesthetic values in numbers, dollars and …traffic flow, density, population. …We pursue excellence in swimming and football but not in anything that actually shapes our future.” The actuality behind this is that the tension between “primate and angel” – self-centredness vs civic-mindedness -  has swung too far to the primate, the masculine, the convex, the city as a competition between shouty ego-driven towers of externality, leaving behind the angel, the feminine, the concave, the labyrinth of quiet inviting spaces between and within.

Her argument is far from all esotericism and poetry. She gets down to tin tacks. Of the controversial and as yet unjustified split up and relocation of the Powerhouse Museum, she says “…neoliberal ideology undermines our urban habitat. Everything public is sold, commodified, compromised, commercialised, diminished or demolished for the sake of economic efficiency, but then we end up paying again, anyway. And again, and again.”

This summary follows an in-depth analysis of the issues and ‘process’ to date - though this actually diminishes the word ‘process’ – reading that chapter will explain why.

Criticism of her authority in such matters is sometimes based on her limited career in architectural practice, calling on old idioms like “Those cannot do, teach, and those who cannot teach, write about it”, but such attacks are rooted more in opposed ideology than logic. She sure can write – as any regular reader of her columns in the Sydney Morning Herald will attest. Her erudite description of how she came to fall in love with Sydney should make the hardest heart melt.

And of course she is not the Lone Ranger in her criticism. Many have done so before her, and, will continue to so until genuine reform happens. An example is an almost identical argument in James Weirick’s excellent opinion piece in the Sydney Morning Herald on 22 March, 2021[2].

But more than just great writing, Farrelly analytically sifts through how things came to be in Sydney, uncovering the various protagonists, visionaries, and forces that acted to create the city, and that are currently acting to change it, and in ways that diminish it severely, in her view. It’s a view I generally share, though we differ in the detail here and there. My own view aligns with hers in probably 95% of instances, and where I explain my disagreement here, it is not intended to take anything away from the importance of this work: it blows the cover on what’s happening in Sydney, a story we all know intuitively, but sometimes struggle to articulate fully. Articulation is surely one of her greatest skills.

I hope she will forgive me using her nickname here – it’s just that I and my comrades in pursuit of a sustainable future have so often hailed, shared and reposted her columns in the Herald, we feel a certain fond attachment to her, as Liz, one of our own. Our disagreements she acknowledges as healthy in a city’s journey to democratic self-determination.

The overall thrust of the book (oh dear – is that too ‘male’ a word?) pierces right to the heart of the problem (maintaining the violent metaphor – in for a penny, in for a pound). Chapter 4 Nature and Culture is the perhaps zenith of her pitch against the dark forces of destruction, both of nature in the city, and of the culture that gives the city its humanity. Indeed the two cannot be separated: sometimes a dichotomy, sometimes a harmonious union, never a severance. And in this she pulls no punches, bravely naming names, dates, and who said what. This alone should make some people in positions of political and market power quiver; hard questions should be asked.

They should have been asked before today, and often were, but we Sydneysiders let them get away with it, returning them to power (perhaps because of a very weak and unattractive alternative) and continuing to buy their products (perhaps also for lack of an alternative).

Yes Sydney is a shallow city in many ways, all too aware of its beauty in parts that make so many other global cities wilt by comparison (sorry, London). Tim Freedman captured it beautifully:

You gotta love this city, love this city, love this city,

You gotta love this city - for its body, and not its brain.

David Williamson also said as much back in the 70’s in his wonderful play The Emerald City. There are too many scars of brutal ugliness to pretend it’s an urban nirvana. And Farrelly’s argument rests on the observation that these scars are increasing, and that the forces behind the ugliness have got out of hand. The last time the pendulum swung so violently toward rampant  bad development we saw Jack Mundy and the BLF champion the cause of heritage preservation – and so we saved The Rocks, and so many other well-loved inner Sydney icons.

Jack is dead - is there anyone to carry his mantle? Killing Sydney is a clarion call to the city’s people, challenging them to step up again to moderate and corral the forces of redevelopment to produce better outcomes than our friend the Granville estate agent sees popping up. She says Killing Sydney is “…part love song, and part jeremiad” (beaut word – look it up). “If in fact, if we do not wish to kill Sydney, we need seriously to plan how to save it.” And in a novel yet logical structure, Liz sets out her method for doing so.

The kernel of her role as inquisitor to the new wave of redevelopment appears in each of the thematically discreet chapters, expressed perfectly in this example: “Will the new developments eventually deliver a green, lean, lovely city centre? Will the destruction be worth it for what we gained? Or will we be left …with a ghetto?” Mr Eltakchi already has the answer in Granville. An important discussion in the book is the distinction between height, density, and urbanism. This should be front and centre of every interaction between governments and communities. What community groups often object to as ‘over-development’ is just height. The actual density may be a very different concept, poorly understood. Along with this is government’s increasingly reduced provision of social infrastructure, or weak requirements for developers to provide it on the community’s behalf.

She opens with an analysis of the long running debate on whether Sydney is “full”. Setting aside looney ideas rooted in xenophobia, her take on this discussion brings clarity in many ways, making the book worth its paper alone. But she does not really address the issue of how big is too big. London’s 20 million people do not all fit into its centre, which she clearly loves, admitting that its middle and outer rings are no better than Sydney. Would 20 million in Sydney be too many? Can a mega-city have more than one centre? While we certainly have to do ‘city’ better – much better! - at some point numbers do come into play. It would be good to see her add to this discourse, because in a free-market economy without a population policy, it’s impossible to control.

Liz’s argument that there is no culture without city is, however, flawed. Tell that to the people of tiny country towns, whose inhabitants and those from the surrounding district come together to create, to sing, to dance, to commune – this is culture at its core - sticking like glue in communities where there is no density, no city at all. Having built her escape house somewhere in the wilds of the Southern Highlands she may yet discover there is community and culture without city, assuming she chooses to engage with that community. But that flaw does nothing to undermine her critique of the forces at work in Sydney in the 21st century.

Perhaps the distinction is that a city without city-lovers easily becomes a soulless place, whose only purpose is to profit those in power at the expense of the general public – characterised as “James ripping off Bruce” in Murray and Frijters’ cutting analysis Game of Mates (self-published, 2017).

The evils of uncontrolled urban sprawl are well understood by everybody except its commercial targets, who fall for the old ideal of the not-quite-a-quarter-acre-any-more-but close-enough-to-be-sold-as-such. And so the fecund farmland of the outer west of the city is being covered in motorways and black tiled roofs, the heat island spreads, climate heating accelerates, the food bowl diminishes, while the developer friends on the inside of the game reap the profits. The suckers who bought there are consigned to a life of commuting to work, driving to the shops and schools, and are so much the poorer for it; our emissions go up, our collective quality of life goes down.

One of the problems cities do not inherently solve is ‘nature deficit disorder’, the removal of its citizens from daily interaction with plants, insects and animals so essential for a healthy mindset and value-set. This alienation is not compulsory in the creation of city, but it is common. Some cities have begun to address it, such as the greening of Singapore’s CBD, but none have yet to re-establish anything approaching original biodiversity, and perhaps can never do so – which is why we need deep green spaces within close reach of our cities. The little that Sydney had has been chopped up or chopped down with stupid abandon in recent years, and Liz’s fury on that score, such as the removal of 100-year old figs along Anzac Parade, is plain to see. As it should be in all of us.

But village-based suburbia can do rather well at having a full integration of deep nature and human occupation. As cities grow, they often envelope smaller surrounding villages, and these can retain their local flavour, to varying extents. Those who choose to live and work locally in village-centres like Freshwater or Lane Cove can operate their lives in exactly the same way as her ideal city-dwellers in Newtown, Redfern, or Marrickville.

My own village-suburb operates this way – I walk to work and for my daily needs and catch a bus to the city when required (thankfully not often; I treasure serenity in the same way as Liz gets a buzz from intensity). We walk to the shops and chat with neighbours there and on the way, we have bandicoots and snakes in our gardens, oodles of birdlife in our trees, and we walk to a pristine escarpment waterfall that looks like Kakadu, with close to 100% of pre-1788 biodiversity. In suburban Sydney, not the city centre. No nature deficit disorder here.

Not that it’s perfect. Some years ago when our local council was ‘rejuvenating’ the village centres, we proposed reducing the speed limit in the high street to 10kmh as a shared traffic zone complete with bus route, setting the space between shopfronts free from the tyranny of the motor car’s domination. This was a bridge too far, in spite of showing many wonderful examples around the world. “We act out consultation, but no-one is under any illusion that it works” Liz says in her dissection of Primates and Angels. Maybe next time – cities evolve, and we will keep pushing.

However Liz mostly dismisses modern suburbia without hesitation and little opportunity for redemption, though with a nod to her perception of community-minded suburbia of old. They still exist here and there, even if they are the exception to the ever-increasing rule of McMansion domination. The organically created examples such as those noted above are different to the artificially planned suburbs of Sydney’s western suburbs (with the exceptions of the old towns of Blacktown, Liverpool, and Windsor etc).

Liz contends that “A city is not nature”, it is a “made thing”, and should never attempt to fake a recreation of nature. Fair call, but it can - and should – invite nature in, give it nooks and crannies in which to establish itself safely. To do this, she makes an argument against the work of most of her peers over the last 40 years: cities cannot be all smooth and linear and hard, they must be perforated, articulated, bendy and soft. Acres of glass doesn’t cut it with nature, nor barriers like motorways, nor harsh paved narrow canyons between towers.

And so she introduces a wonderful new word into the lexicon, ‘pokability’: the ability to ‘poke about’ in nooks and crannies finding interest at every turn. Wonderful concept, and exactly what nature sees as an open invitation to move in with us.

She is, correctly, extremely cynical of ‘State Significant Development’, where proposals are ‘lifted’ beyond the reach of the council’s planning controls and assessed by an entirely different and very opaque process. This is extremely frustrating for the average building designer, whose work is subject to a tighter set of rules – which, having been created in the crucible of localness, are generally quite appropriate. But if a project is classified as SSD, the sky is no longer the limit, the locality no longer the contextual driver of height and scale.

Another of Liz’s amusing but terrifyingly powerful metaphors concerns privatisation, likening selling public assets to losing one’s virginity: “…you can only do it once, so pick your moment really really well.” Indeed! Yet Killing Sydney is filled almost from cover to cover with what can only be described as governments selling assets – our assets – rather cheaply, leaving us feeling like we’ve been done in the back seat of a car at the drive-in.

Her final chapter, Primate and Angel, examines the opportunity posed in deliberative democracy. I first ventured into this exciting space back in the early 2000s in my Masters thesis and remain convinced of its potential to change the way we plan our built environment. Back then I used Pittwater 21 as a case study, where the then Pittwater Council (since amalgamated perforce by the NSW Government) undertook something that started to look scarily like a deliberative democratic process when formulating its new local environment plan. It looks like the worthy remnants of that process are about to be swept away by the new amalgamated LEP, and the Pittwater community will be the poorer for it.

Farrelly finishes with a firey ‘Citizen’s Manifesto’, a clarion call that brings the activist boots out of your wardrobe and none too subtly suggests it would be good for everybody if you stepped into them and started walking the talk. “Make noise. Get engaged, get elected, get your local hero elected. Make the issues matter. Plant things, mainly trees…”

Go on, I bloody dare you.

PS– keep your dictionary handy. While some have criticised Farrelly for exercising an indulgent and arcane use of obscure words, no one can ever ever accuse her of having a bland 300 word vocabulary!

Dick Clarke is principal of Envirotecture, is an Accredited Building Designer with over 35-years experience, focusing exclusively on ecologically sustainable and culturally appropriate buildings, as well as sustainable design in vehicles and vessels, and has received many Design Awards. He is also the head judge of the annual Sustainability Awards.

[1] Domain (SMH), 11 Mach 2021[1] https://www.domain.com.au/news/why-ugly-developments-are-still-being-built-in-western-sydney-1029049/?utm_campaign=strap-masthead&utm_source=smh&utm_medium=link&utm_content=pos4

[2] https://www.smh.com.au/national/nsw/after-a-decade-of-lost-opportunity-to-fix-nsw-s-planning-mess-here-s-a-model-for-success-20210319-p57caq.html