Killing Sydney by Elizabeth Farrelly

‘Sydney’s not full.  And it’s not failing because of density.’

‘It’s just fed up with too much development too fast and too close, development that is ugly, greedy, undercontrolled and importunate.’

I read this book because, while I have never lived in Sydney, I have spent quite a bit of time there both personally and professionally.  I spent some time in the beautiful Education Department building in Bridge Street in the early 1980s (since sold by the NSW government) and in other buildings around the CBD.  I have enjoyed walking around the inner city especially Surry Hills and Potts Point.  But these days, my visits are occasional (for medical reasons or cultural purposes) and more often my rare trips terminate in what the real estate world now calls ‘Outer South Western Sydney’ (around Tahmoor and Picton). 

Walking around the centre of Sydney or catching the train (during non-peak times) is enjoyable.  Trying to drive around in Sydney or using public transport during peak times is horrific.  To me, Sydney looks full.  How can Sydney accommodate more people?  This is the question I kept in my mind as I read Ms Farrelly’s book.

From reading this book (and from my own observations) too much of the development is driven by profit: short-term profit by government as public assets are exchanged for money; and longer-term profit by developers fitting as much income-generating activity into as little space as possible.  And the people?  For me, that is the heart of Ms Farrell’s message.  Most of the development or redevelopment disregards what people want or need.  Especially people on low incomes.  And what about the people whose lives have been disrupted by WestConnex?

If cities are meant to be about and for people, then people’s views should be considered.  Ms Farelly mentions the newDemocracy model.  I was fortunate enough to be part of the group selected to look at Housing Choices in the ACT, and I think that the process followed there was a good example of citizen involvement.   I am one of those people, Ms Farrelly, who lives in and likes Canberra.  And Canberra has problems of its own: travel can be problematic for those without access to a car, especially in the more remote suburbs.  But development in Sydney troubles me more.  The endless urban sprawl, the impact (on the environment and on people’s health) of the commuting between home and work, the reclamation of public space for private development.

Ms Farrelly raises several important questions in this book If you have an interest in Sydney, if you care about cities meeting the needs of their inhabitants, then I recommend reading this book.  The issues raised by Ms Farrelly apply to all large cities.

Note: My thanks to NetGalley and Pan Macmillan Australia for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book for review purposes. 

Jennifer Cameron-Smith



4 thoughts on “Killing Sydney by Elizabeth Farrelly

  1. Well, I haven’t read the book, but people say we have the same problem here in Melbourne.
    It is difficult, however, to sift out the Nimby argument from the valid complaints.
    I remember people complaining that the CBD was dead because it was only shops. Now it has apartments and is full of life, more like a European city. I wouldn’t like to live there because I like a garden, but for young people and students and retirees, it’s wonderful. (Maybe not so much during lockdown, of course).
    Then there were complaints about the urban sprawl. Vast swathes of low density development spreading across the plains, and not enough infrastructure to support it. There was a bit of panic when outer suburban market gardens were threatened.
    So now we have a program to increase the density of the middle suburbs, where I live, where the vast majority of 3 and 4 bedroom houses are inhabited by one or two people and very nice it is too. There are howls of outrage when one of these is pulled down (usually because it’s been long neglected) and two units or town houses are built on the block. They are especially peeved by double-storey buildings as if two-storey houses weren’t the norm in posh inner suburbs like Carlton and South Melbourne, not to mention London, Paris &c. People get really cross when, in commercial areas like shopping strips, they build 4-5 storey apartments because that’s where the train station is. TBH, I can’t see what the problem is, except for the cars. And the solution to that is to get rid of the cars, by building better public transport.
    This is not a popular view!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I am only familiar with central Melbourne and the CBD: I’ve never driven to or in Melbourne, always flown in or travelled by train. I like the bookshops 🙂 and the fact that I could find my way around relatively easily. Sadly, I’ve not been to Melbourne for years. I think that much of what Ms Farrelly writes about Sydney would apply to Melbourne although I am not sure whether Melbourne has the same push for private development of public spaces. I live in the Belconnen region of Canberra, and there is lots of (relatively) high density development happening in the Belconnen Town Centre. I can even see one of the (about 27 storey) buildings from the top of my street (it’s about 1.5 kms away in a straight line). Public transport is relatively good in Canberra for some of us, but the distances make it impractical for many.

      The older I become, the more I am in favour of better public transport. People need to be included and considered in effective planning: this is (for me) MS Farelly’s most important point. Should be obvious, really ….


      1. Yes indeed. And we should be more aware of walkability. There’s actually a system for rating walkability: whether doctors, shops, libraries, schools, vets, parks & PT etc are within walking distance. (See,in%20their%20decision%20to%20walk.)
        During lockdown when we had a 5k limit on movement, the high walkability of my address came into its own. I bought petrol five times in 2020, spending a total of $226.26, not buying any at all between July and December. The only time I use my car at the moment is to collect library books from Beaumaris because it’s too hot for a two-hour walk there and back, and I reserved lots of books from them when my own local library wasn’t taking reserves. I can do everything else I want to do, on foot. Walkability should be a selling point for real estate!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. The urban sprawl is the thing that makes it hard for public transport to work well (atm). Unless we’re prepared to lay down an extensive underground train network like London have. I always think of the time when we had to get boys to soccer games every weekend. If we’d used the public transport network as it currently exists, we would have had to allow up to 2-3 hrs to get to some of the grounds and then do the same thing again on the way home! Or we could drive for 40 mins and be there.

    I would love to use public transport like I did when I lived in London, but I also didn’t have anything else to do (except work), so it didn’t matter if I had to factor in an hour of travelling to get to the art gallery or suburb that was on the agenda that weekend.

    Japan has got it sorted it though – fast trains are amazing. The only time we drove in Japan was five days of meandering around Mt Fuji so we could go in and around all the lakes and little villages not connected by the train network. The rest of the time we trained everywhere, even into remote mountain villages. It was amazing – clean, efficient and on time every single time.

    I’m not sure any Australian politician will ever be brave enough to make the long term financial commitment to fast trains and an underground network in our big cities. The land acquisition to make it a reality, would cause such an uproar to start with. If we lived in Victorian London or depression era Sydney, you could demolish half a suburb and move people on to create this kind of infrastructure, but not now!

    Ooops, that ended up as a bit of a rant!

    Liked by 1 person

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