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                                         Editorial: March 2006                                          

               Is environmental sustainability socially unsustainable?

part one

Save-Our-Suburbs is the umbrella group for a small army of resident action groups across Sydney, dedicated to keeping the barbarians out of their precious patch of the city’s turf. Despite his leadership of this questionable cause, S-O-S president Tony Recsei had a point when he started a recent attack on urban consolidation by referring to ‘Politics and the English Language’, George Orwell’s classic essay on the corruption of language by politics.

Writing for the journal
People and Place, Recsei reflected that in the context of urban planning the word ‘consolidation’ is useful as a substitute for a more accurate, if less appealing, descriptive term like ‘densification’. Conversely, the unsettling word ‘sprawl’ is invariably used to describe suburbanisation rather than a more neutral word like ‘spread’. For Recsei such verbal shifts “substitute emotive jargon for accepted good English, illustrative of techniques described by Orwell” . In his essay, Orwell referred to a category of words that “are strictly meaningless, in the sense that they do not point to any discoverable object, but are hardly even expected to do so by the reader”. He cited as examples fascism, democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic and justice.

If Orwell were alive today, his interest would no doubt be aroused by the ubiquitous term ‘sustainability’. The word intrudes into almost every contemporary social debate, often as a counterpoint to perceived emphasis on economic questions. This tendency has reached the stage that ‘sustainability’ threatens to spread, amoeba-like, into every corner of public policy. It is driven by the institutional power of environmentalists today, and the insistence that as their priorities are urgent, they must dominate all others. Hence, it is common to read policy papers and reports strewn with the phrase ‘environmental and social sustainability’, which accords precedence to the environment, and often reappears with the adjective ‘social’ missing altogether. This marks a significant transformation of left-wing priorities, as traditional challenges like socio-economic disadvantage are swamped by middle-class quality of life issues.

This is all amply illustrated in the recent bipartisan report of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Environment and Heritage, Sustainable Cities. The committee purported to lay down a long-term blueprint for the development of contemporary Australian cities. Eager to buttress its recommendations with some theoretical underpinnings, the committee began with an attempt to define ‘sustainability’. It proved to be a tortuous exercise.

Early on, it adopted the proposition that “the concept or idea of sustainability is multi-faceted and still emergent, and requires open-ended working definitions …” Having reviewed various stabs at defining the idea in their multitude of submissions, the committee conceded that “it is a challenge to translate these ideals into a more tangible concept of a sustainable city in operation” . In the end it settled for the easy escape of proposing ‘sustainability’ as a process rather than a principle - “a dynamic concept implying a continual process of improvement”. Of course, this is bureaucratese for “we'll make it up as we go along” (the committee actually used the phrase “sustainability as a journey”). It means whatever you want it to mean.

To the extent that ‘sustainability’ has any content at all, it amounts to little more than a pre-conceived bias against development regardless of the circumstances. For the standing committee, this offered a pretext for recommending a raft of heavy-handed social and economic interventions. The committee squibbed an explicit preference in the ‘suburbanisation versus consolidation’ debate, but there is little doubt where its sympathies lay. It endorsed a swipe at the “failure of policy makers and planners to facilitate a consumer shift from the traditional quarter acre block” as well as a similar suggestion that “development must be moderated within the greater framework of sustainable communities”. In other words, the committee joined the cause of environmentalists and anti-suburban planners, and wholeheartedly endorsed their cherished notion of ‘ecological footprint’, a highly artificial and contested measure of the natural resources required to sustain a particular standard of living (“Sydney’s ecological footprint is 150 times greater than the area of Sydney itself”!).

In practice this translates into the imposition of immutable urban boundaries and restrictions, sometimes to the point of prohibition, on the release of new land for residential and other development. Sadly, the ‘sustainability’ amoeba managed to attach itself to even the most laudable of recent forays into city-wide planning, the NSW government’s City of Cities blueprint. “Growing sustainably means containing Sydney's urban and environmental footprint…” says the plan’s overview. Unsurprisingly, Labor’s federal spokesman on urban matters, Senator Kim Carr, followed suit in Australia’s Future Cities, his comprehensive policy paper setting out the ALP’s position on urban development. Carr emerges as a raving fan of the standing committee, declaring that “Labor strongly supports the vision of the committee”. He also acknowledges the ‘suburbanisation versus consolidation’ debate, but, resorting to greenspeak, says it must be managed “in an environmentally, economically and socially sustainable way”.

At one point in his essay, Orwell writes that meaningless words “are often used in a consciously dishonest way”. That is, “the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows the hearer to think he means something quite different”. Carr supplies the perfect example: “Such a strategy would not dictate where Australians live. Rather, it would anticipate expected trends in settlement, identify development needs and ensure that communities develop sustainably”.

Everyone favours a clean environment, but in the hands of environmentalists and fellow travellers, ‘sustainability’ restricts freedom of choice without a reliable measure of how development would damage the environment in particular cases. Reading documents like Sustainable Cities and Australia’s Future Cities, one is left wondering whether environmentalism represents a new rationale for social control following the collapse of left-wing economics. Naturally, it is the preference of low and middle income working people for stand-alone housing on outer-suburban blocks that will be stymied. Despite his tendentious case against inner-suburban consolidation, Recsei’s objection to ‘sustainability’ is on the mark:

“At the very least it is necessary that sustainability and other objectives be defined and performance indicators set. Broad possibilities should be stated and various development models proposed, each backed by a fact-supported benefit/cost analysis. Full social cost accounting should be undertaken with external costs included.”

However, there is more at stake than just preferences. Housing affordability is approaching the status of a social justice issue for many residents of our major cities, particularly Sydney. According to Demographia’s Second Annual International Housing Affordability Survey, Sydney is the seventh most unaffordable housing market in the world, more unaffordable than New York or London. For commentators like Alan Moran and Bob Day, this outcome is undoubtedly related to the scarcity value created by urban planning and the imposts on developers of government regulations, many of them ‘environment friendly’.

Moreover, if our leaders were foolish enough to swallow the sustainability spin, they would certainly jeopardise the jobs working people need to even contemplate home ownership. One salient feature of the ‘sustainability’ push is an endless gripe about road building, excessive use of motor vehicles and the inadequacy of public transport infrastructure. Yet when the Australian Financial Review reported last year that “Sydney’s outer west is fast emerging as the city’s industrial powerhouse”, the impending opening of the Westlink M7 motorway was cited as a prominent reason. Fairfax columnist and ABC broadcaster Michael Duffy agrees that the M7 “is transforming the shape of the city and the lives of many of its inhabitants”. According to the most recent ABS regional employment survey, 10.2 per cent of the workforce in central-west Sydney is unemployed compared to 5.9 per cent a year ago. So every job in western Sydney is precious. While the environmental benefits of ‘sustainability’ are not amenable to measurement, the consequences for working families are plain enough. Many would be squeezed to the core by unaffordable housing and failing employment prospects.

part two

This is not to say that Save-Our-Suburbs type resident action and community groups have a point when they oppose urban consolidation in their more established, affluent localities. This ‘rise of localism’, as Quadrant editor PP McGuiness calls it, is clearly driven by greed and property values even if it is often dressed up in more idealistic garb, including, ironically, concern for the environment. A typical example is Pyrmont: The Waterfront Village, a ‘strategic plan’ released by the inner-city Council of Ultimo and Pyrmont Associations. CUPA’s transparent agenda is to accelerate the transformation of Pyrmont and Ultimo into exclusive, up-market enclaves (or ‘villages’), with the promise of untold capital gain windfalls for local property owners. The conversion of more and more land for open space and parkland is always a priority for organisations like CUPA, even if presented as “a national showcase for ... sustainable development initiatives” and a demonstration of “the city’s environmental leadership”. The truth is that parks are a tremendous boon to adjacent property values.

Some anti-suburban features of the NSW government’s metropolitan strategy are open to question, but the plan to settle most of Sydney’s population growth over the next 25 years in areas of established infrastructure, such as the inner-suburbs, is not objectionable as such. Since there is market demand for stand-alone housing on outer-suburban blocks as well as high-density inner-suburban town houses and units, the government should accommodate both to maximise freedom of choice and ease the pressure on house prices across the city. This is why obstructionist resident action groups (and their allies in local government) are as much a menace to Sydney’s future as the ‘sustainability’ spinners.

Mark Latham’s peevish exit from politics has overshadowed many of his ideas, but his analysis of Sydney in terms of three concentric layers still warrants attention. First, there is a global arc that stretches from North Ryde business park through the north shore, the inner city and the eastern suburbs to Sydney airport. Second, there is a middle arc that spans the older western and south-western suburbs, from Auburn to Liverpool. Third, there is an outer arc that stretches from the new release areas of the Central Coast to the North-West Corridor, Penrith/Hawkesbury, the Macarthur region, Sutherland Shire and North Wollongong.

The government’s approach to consolidation and density issues should vary according to the arc in question. There should be relatively few restrictions on ‘greenfield’ development in the outer arc, where low to middle income couples with children could afford decent housing near the new boom region for industrial employment. Conversely, there are few sound arguments against consolidation in the global arc, where excessive real estate values would be moderated and the settlement of people near established infrastructure (schools, hospitals, water, electricity, police stations) would better enable the government to provide for expansion in the outer arc. Localities within the middle arc should be considered on a case by case basis, to avoid aggravation of social pressures associated with the concentration of newly arrived migrants in this region.

Over the last half-century, Sydney has been an extraordinary experiment in large scale settlement. To the extent that the experiment succeeded, mobility has been a key ingredient. When working-class people moved up the social scale, they found better places to live than the old industrial suburbs of the inner-west. When whole suburbs were culturally transformed by the influx of non-English speaking migrants, discontented locals simply moved on. When second-generation Australians came of age, they left their parents’ ethnic suburbs for more salubrious destinations. These were typically Australian solutions - and despite the sensibilities of progressive intellectuals, infinitely superior to conflict. The space and resources to underwrite freedom of movement have been the social glue that held Sydney together. Today that freedom is threatened, not so much by prejudice (Cronulla notwithstanding) but by a stultifying green ideology, whether of the professional planning or the amateur resident action variety, that seeks to block mobility at every turn. Our elected representatives, especially those espousing Labor principles, should always stand for mobility over exclusion


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