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Save Our Sydney Suburbs (NSW) Inc.
News Release March 2006

Troy versus Newman

Hi SOS Members

It is vital that the community responds to programs such as Monday's ABC RN Counterpoint program. This featured a battle between Professor Patrick Troy and perpetual high-density advocate ex Sydney Sustainability Commissioner Professor Peter Newman. If there is no public response to programs such as this the ABC will decide that there is no community interest in opposition to forced urban consolidation. This will leave the way clear for developers and the high density bullies to keep on dominating the media and continue to have their way.

A program transcript is below. Please read it (even if you listened at the time). An idea for a comment or anecdote is bound to spring up. It is really quick and easy to make your comment. You can choose from:

  1. On your computer by using your Internet Explorer search window to go to http://www.abc.net.au/rn/counterpoint/contact/ and typing your thoughts on the email form provided there
  2. Alternatively you can leave a voice mail message for Counterpoint by phoning 1300 361 700
  3. Or you can send in a letter to Counterpoint, GPO Box 9994, Sydney 2001

The important thing is to take advantage of this golden opportunity and swing into action without delay. It would be appreciated if you could let me know you have done so.


Michael Duffy: Let's begin with a subject closer to our own backyards and that's the changing form of our cities where, in some cases, outwards growth has been restricted and replaced by upwards growth; townhouses and flats. Sydney leads the way and in the past decade about 70% of new housing has been built in existing suburbs. It has become a hot issue elsewhere, especially in Melbourne more recently.

Today we're going to talk to two experts with opposing views on this. Professor Peter Newman is director at the Institute for Sustainability and Technical Policy at Murdoch University in Perth. His books include Sustainability in Cities and he's been involved in the strategic plans for three Australian cities. Patrick Troy is emeritus professor from the Australian National University and his books include The Perils of Consolidation.

Welcome to the program both of you. Peter Newman, can I ask you for a brief opening statement; what are the main reasons you believe we need urban consolidation?

Peter Newman: I think that the key is that we have an unbalance in our cities. Eighty to ninety per cent of our suburbs are car dependent and the opportunities for living and walking in transit based suburbs are increasingly where the market is pushing so that people can have easy access to services and employment and all of the good things that a city provides without being so dependant on a car. So it's a matter of balancing what is available. At the moment we are very car dependent and the key thing is to be able to find opportunities for people to live with more urban services nearby, and that is a very real market demand which is driving the processes back inwards.

Michael Duffy: One of the implications of that seems to be that people will have to live in smaller houses than they have traditionally. Is there a market demand for that?

Peter Newman: Very clearly, and the problem is that much of the market is very structured around the project home which have been getting bigger and bigger with fewer and fewer people in them, and yet the market is for smaller places. I've had a number of people say to me, 'Look, I've had to buy a larger house than I really wanted because they're cheaper.' The strange thing is that we just aren't providing enough of the opportunities for people to live closer to things and that does mean smaller places but it's not necessarily going to have a poorer market for it. There is a substantial and growing market for that smaller place, near things.

Michael Duffy: Patrick Troy, can I ask you what you think? Do people actually want to live in denser housing?

Patrick Troy: No. One of the great fallacies of this argument is that we know that 80% of the population who live in houses want to stay in houses, and 85% of the population who live in flats want to live in houses. So the argument that there's a big demand there for people who want to live crushed up on top of one another is nonsense. They are basically being forced into that situation at the moment, and I should also remind you that the form of the housing does not in fact predetermine whether or not a place is car orientated or not. Australian cities, when they were more public transport orientated, were actually at a lower density than they now are. So the argument that it's just a density issue and that that's primarily related to the car just does not connect with what is going on. Part of the argument that you can reduce the dwelling area or the area in which people live their residential lives, that you'll somehow reduce the size of the city, totally ignores the fact that the area of the city taken up by the residential development is around about thirty to thirty-five per cent, depending on density or where you are in that city. The great bulk of the area of the city, which is what determines the travel distances and so on, is taken up by the demand for open space for playgrounds, golf courses, football fields and also for parks and other preserves, but it's also taken up by large, extensive, flat kinds of industrial estates which we now have rather than...formerly we had high density, high rise industrial concerns which were organised that way because that was the cheapest way to get the energy needed for their manufacturing processes.

Michael Duffy: Peter, can I ask you what you think of that idea? Do you think the people are on your side?

Peter Newman: I've been looking at these preferences for housing statistics that have been around for a long time, and they always reflect the proportion of high density that is available. So that's always been a higher preference in Sydney because there's been a higher amount of it. People generally adapt to what they have available, but the key thing is that that proportion has been going up considerably in the last 10-20 years. The younger person who is faced with the prospect of living 50 or even 80 kilometres out without access to the kind of services that they are looking for and employment opportunities is increasingly very happy to get an apartment close in and near to the kind of urbanity that they're looking for.

Michael Duffy: Okay, let's run through some of the environmental claims made for consolidation, and I'm not sure if you agree with all of them, either of you, but you can tell us what you think. The first one, the most basic one you sometimes hear is that urban sprawl (as it's called) is a bad use of land for environmental reasons. Patrick, your view on that please.

Patrick Troy: Properly defined, urban sprawl is a bad use of land but that's not what we've got. We don't actually have what is technically urban sprawl, we don't have development which gets ahead of the provision of services, and we haven't actually had that for over 60 years. So people use this very, very emotionally loaded word to prosecute a case which they can't sustain any other way other than by raising these emotional issues.

Michael Duffy: But in colloquial terms, people in Australia...when they say 'urban sprawl' they just mean the endless spread of the cities which is happening.

Patrick Troy: I would prefer to call it a lower density development rather than sprawl. Sprawl actually has a special meaning for most planners in most environments, and certainly we just borrowed that term, misused an American version of it and applied it to the Australian debate, but that's not where we are at all. A lot of the presupposition behind this argument that you will have an extensive city is actually a function of the structure of the city, not the form of the city. So if you actually have all the activities highly centralised, then of course you're going to get people wanting to come into those cities, but they'll only do that for a short phase of their life. The fact of the matter is that home ownership rates...the owner/occupancy rates of flats is significant...about less than half what it is for houses. So that tells you something else about the preference functions that people have; when they choose to settle down or when they finish their roaming around, they choose to have a house...they want to go for a much more traditional house and garden, and a very high proportion of those people who do stick with a flat in the centre of the city actually have another house up the coast or in the mountains where they really do spend most of their free time. So they're not actually locked into that central city location in the way that is suggested that...you know, that there is a big clamour for people to go into high rise accommodation. That's just not the case.

Michael Duffy: Peter, can I bring you in here? I know you've suggested that there be no more land releases in Sydney after the two current very big ones. Do you think that, for environmental reasons, the city should not extend beyond a certain point?

Peter Newman: I think that you have to look at it case by case, and in Sydney those land release areas are essentially the last part that ought to be developed without infringing on to substantial agricultural and bushland areas that are very significant. But they have been carefully designed. As Pat suggests, they're not sprawling out willy-nilly, they are actually planned, but they are planned car dependence generally. We also do have leap-frog developments occurring and certainly the central coast and a lot of the coastal sprawl in Australian cities which are going further and further out is very unplanned and is our example of what leap-frog oughtn't to...

Michael Duffy: Can you just tell us very briefly for our listeners what you mean by leap-frog developments?

Peter Newman: It means that instead of fitting on to the end of the last suburb and using the infrastructure that was built for that and just extending it, you go out further and then you have to provide that infrastructure, and generally it isn't. So you basically have houses stuck out there without the kind of bus services and sometimes not even linked in properly to physical services. So it's a question of tying in to the provision in an orderly way of infrastructure, both social and physical, and that's what good planning does. But my key thing is that you can do that in a planned way or an unplanned way and my suggestion to Pat and others is that we do need to have a balance, we do need some further development on the fringes, but we have to try and keep that to a minimum and make sure that we are using the areas within the city as much as possible. The problem that I have with Pat's approach is that he just doesn't seem to want any of that, and many of the people in the anti-density movement, they freeze up as soon as there's anything over two stories proposed.

Michael Duffy: Could we now move to the...

Patrick Troy: Before you move off that, it's a pity that Professor Newman sets up a straw man to argue that people are opposed to anything over two stories; for example, his latest idiotic suggestion. That is just not the case. He should know that all good planners who are concerned about both the equity and the environmental concerns of our urban development are totally opposed to the sprawl development along the coast, we are totally opposed to the misuse of good quality land used for agricultural and food production, generally speaking, and none of us would want to have just unplanned, open development. But that's not the only issue; if we are talking about accommodation of people, we've got to actually have a population policy, we've got to have a population distribution policy, we've got to say how many people should be in Sydney and what do we do if the population increase is going to still keep going on with government policy the way it is. Where do we accommodate them? We don't just assume we can throw them into Sydney and just rack them up in multi-storey blocks of flats and that'll solve the problem. It certainly won't.

Michael Duffy: It's one of the problems with this...is that it's more of a national issue, whereby it's the state governments that have to cope. And talking of state governments, can we talk about public transport for a moment? Peter, what about the use of energy? Does consolidation help things like use of public transport, pollution?

Peter Newman: We've been studying the question of transport and energy use, particularly oil which is a major issue now with the peak oil now being seen to be a major determinant of our future, so we do have to come to terms with that. We find that if you lived in the city of Sydney, for example, you would use less than 10 gigalitres of energy for transport...I could convert that to litres I suppose, but just see the comparison; if you lived in the inner city in general it might rise to 15-20, the outer suburbs are around 30-40, and out on the coasts or the ex-urban areas of the Blue Mountains, central coast, out on the western Port area of Melbourne and so on, you're in the 40-50, even 60. So you're talking six times what you would have in the central area. What we find is that it is possible to develop cities in the suburbs so that you can actually reproduce that opportunity for people in the area where they perhaps have lived or want to live close to the kind of bushland or river areas that they've grown up with and live in an urban kind of location with apartments and so on and have considerably reduced car dependence, and therefore fuel use and air quality issues follow. So it is possible to reproduce that kind of inner city lifestyle in certain specific centres out in the suburbs. It doesn't mean you roll them all over, and I do oppose that kind of infill that happens willy-nilly. It's the same as Pat is opposing the urban sprawl which is willy-nilly, I think we all do that too. So you want to try and focus it and therefore make public transport operate so much better and have the opportunity to be able to walk to certain key things in the centre.

Michael Duffy: Can I ask you, Patrick Troy, does that make sense to you? Does densification lead to better condition in terms of the use of public transport?

Patrick Troy: No, it doesn't. That's one of the fallacies of...it's kind of basic physical determinism which went out with button boots. This is a much more complex set of issues. People have always wanted to travel wherever they wanted to travel under the conditions of comfort and security of their choice, and they've always sought to do that as their economies and the wealth and standard of living has increased. So the idea that we're going to somehow turn the clock back and prevent that runs against not only the development of individual preferences but the way we've actually organised our society. People have got to shift to different jobs because they've got to have several part-time jobs rather than one...you don't now have a career expectation to be in the one place for the rest of your life. You've got to move about all the time. You've got a totally different manufacturing and distributional base which involves different kinds of outlets where you might have to go to different places to secure whatever things you're interested in, whether it's recreational or shopping and so on. So the idea that you're going to be able to do this and have all that flexibility off the public transport system is nonsense. Now, we can agree that there is a problem about the oil supply and its future...well, its failing, there won't be a future for it. But we also have to acknowledge that there are other technological solutions which are coming along which we must not shut out but see what we can do to make sure that those opportunities are taken up as and when they arise. So the idea that it's just a question of getting people to live at high density and that will somehow deliver an urban lifestyle...I find that really...

Michael Duffy: Are there overseas examples we can test this against, or is it all theoretical at the moment?

Patrick Troy: What we do know is that even in the oldest cities in Europe which were dense for a historical set of reasons, largely to do with defence because they were built inside walls and so on and there was a high degree of control over the land, those same cities now are expanding outwards and have the same kind of suburban developments that we see in Australia. That's what you get around Paris, that's what you get around Berlin, that's what you get around all the big cities in Germany and other big cities in France, it's what you get in England. So the idea that it's just density that will deliver you the urbane lifestyle...it is a very dangerous simplification of what is going on and what are the aspirations of the population.

Michael Duffy: I'm afraid we're going to have to leave it there, we're out of time, but thanks very much to both of you for coming on the program.

That's Professor Peter Newman from Murdoch University in Perth. His books include Sustainability in Cities and until recently he was Sydney's sustainability commissioner. Patrick Troy is emeritus professor from the Australian National University and his books include The Perils of Consolidation.



Tony Recsei

President, Save Our Suburbs

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