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bulldozers and people

Hardman, M. & Manning, P. Green Bans—the story of an Australian phenomenon

excerpt one

Is the redoubtable Mick Fowler right when he says the people are winning? Who knows? There's no way of asking "the people" and they are unlikely to rise up and tell us interested observers. One way of telling how bored or interested the citizenry are is to look at the responsiveness of people to grass roots organizing. Before the green bans came resident action and before that a few stirrers. What do they think?

The most depressing tale comes from Jim Munro of Ultimo. He is a newcomer to Ultimo and he and Bronwyn, both teachers, feel it deeply. You get the sense they feel they have arrived in foreign territory despite the fact they bought a house there, became involved in general community affairs centred on the Harris Centre and have been trying to save the homes of Ultimo people from the encroaching expressway. "I am really cynical about the lack of support you get here," Bronwyn Munro says. "The attitude is, 'It's my home, not homes as such', and we actually had people out there cheering the bulldozers on." Jim Munro says: "People saw it all coming five years ago but felt they couldn't do anything about it. Feeling rather helpless." The numbers in the area are steadily declining, industry is continuing to move in and there's an increasing proportion of city office workers buying into homes. Bronwyn: "Then there's the older Ultimo people. They just refuse to recognise you. They might be standing in the street talking and they'll just stand there and look right through you. And we've been here a few years now!" The Ultimo-Pyrmont Residents' Action Group has found it heavy going. The Munros, who constitute its core along with a few others, say their main role is keeping an eye on what's happening. "Like with the battle over Fig Street last year. Someone from Ultimo rang a few of the people in Glebe and said they were awoken by the sounds of bulldozers." The Main Roads Department was pulling down the pub on the corner of Fig and Harris Streets and a three-day occupation/resistance/skirmish that ended in victory for the protesters (i.e. the demolition was halted) began.

In all other communities in the inner-city though, the response has been virtually immediate. How does Nita McRae get crusty old Labor people from the Rocks to cross the line into passive resistance? Nita: "It wasn't a matter of trying to do that. We had problems from the beginning. The Bridge divided the Rocks community– physically. When it came to seeking West Rocks support for the struggle in East Rocks, it was interesting. Even though they're related to you, they'd say 'you poor things, it's bad, but it's your problem.' They'd have fetes, raffles, collect money, but they would never stand in front of the bulldozers. It became the sort of subject you didn't mention at the family dinner table. No-one particularly liked standing in front of bulldozers. Thirteen went to gaol one day. None of them younger than 40. One dear old man plays the organ up at the Catholic Church. There are the staunchies and the weakies. The weakies will do it if they have to. How do you get them to? By knocking on their door and saying 'the crunch is on.' By 1973 we had been going since 1970. I would say: 'Are you going to give up now? You might as well go all the way. Sometimes you'd knock on the door and they'd say 'Get the union' and I'd say, 'No. It's your ban. You've got to come out. And bring carpet to put on the ground."

Albert Mispel, who worked in the Glebe area to educate people about the coming expressway, makes a point slightly adjacent to Nita McRae's: "I have had it said to me a hundred times: 'Oh look you haven't got a hope, not a hope of stopping an expressway!' This happens all the time. But as soon as people see you make some progress things start to change." The Leichhardt anti expressway movement ended up crystallizing into three in an effective scissors movement on local public opinion. A young people's group worked on door-knocking, talking to people, issuing leaflets, getting the word around–and getting the response. Another group was almost entirely research-oriented. A third was a kind of anti-expressway parliament that brought disparate people and interests together. It was chaired by the then Mayor, Ald. Nick Origlass. It was an impressive operation. Says Mispel: "It now means that there's probably no way in which a local politician could not oppose the expressway. Everyone's behind it. A poll would show that."

At Kelly's Bush it was different again. There was no doubt of fervent support in the immediate area as a comic opera incident on a sunny Saturday showed. Kath Lehany: "My mother, going on 80, ran out one day in her nightdress, saying 'Bulldozer! Bulldozer!' Within a quarter of an hour 50 people were there, children and all. People felt so much about it. We had television crews, radio reporters and the Press here within 15 minutes. One woman came out cutting up pieces of rope and we all looked at her. Finally, someone went up to her and said: 'What are you doing there?' Do you know what she was doing? She said she was cutting up pieces of rope and she was going to tie her children to the trees!' But it was a false alarm. The bulldozer was not there to do Jennings' dirty work.

The Kelly's Bush experience has been a model for the others in the sense that almost all "the organizers" feel the learning process has been two-way. There were no "experts" in community organizing or anything else. "We've learned a lot," four women of the Battlers agree: Betty James, Kath Lehany, Christine Lawson, Monica Sheehan. "We're very cynical now about politicians, very cynical.'' One cynicizing event, they agree, was the pre-election Askin telegram and its aftermath, another was the discovery that a private letter to the Premier landed in duplicate form in the hands of Jennings' executives. Some of them agree they have shifted to the left since the struggle began. Betty: "But I have been tremendously impressed by the fibre and steadfastness of union officials. They are solid and believe in what they're doing… I think Jack Mundey is a very far-sighted man. And Joe Owens has been very sound, too."

There have been other idealists turned cynics too. Margaret Barry in Waterloo woke up to find her local paper featuring a press release from the Housing Commission searching out the family company of her mother and herself. It accused the Barrys of being "developers" too, because they owned the house they lived in and the former house they had lived in. Some Waterloo residents claim they have seen the files that the Commission keeps on the activists in the Waterloo Residents' Action Group. But that can't be true, can it?

 

after the green bans

Hardman, M. & Manning, P. Green Bans—the story of an Australian phenomenon

excerpt one

Two years ago the Lord Mayor of Sydney said: "All these action groups and harum-scarums… I have nothing to do with them. I regard them with a great deal of dismay because I don't like anarchism." The then Premier of NSW, Sir Robert Askin, defined his government's view of the role of government in these terms: "It is a government's job to create an atmosphere where private enterprise can flourish and make profits."

At least Sir Robert was being honest. One step down the scale of hypocrisy is a different attitude, pinpointed in a letter to the press in 1972 by Patrick White and the prime mover behind the Save the (Centennial and Moore) Parks Campaign, Professor Neil Runcie. They said: "The paradox of the existing situation today in Sydney town-planning is that many responsible politicians, from both sides, tacitly welcome industrial action, when the authorities are faced with inadequate, unimaginative reports from professional consultants and decisions pressed by rampaging developers…In professional institutes as well, the low standards of Australian town planning and the relentless urban over-development are causing deep concern and the authorities are not always able or willing to act…ill-considered action by the City Commissioners and ineptitude in correcting the situation by the City Council have established precedents which developers apparently feel compelled to exploit, irrespective of social costs."

Australian planning has been revolutionised by the combination of resident action and worker power. If green bans as a phenomenon had died in 1975 with the political demolition job done on the extraordinary NSW Branch of the BLF, its effects would still be felt. Planning journals, official reports, consultant briefs, academics' papers all reek now of the 'planning is people' syndrome. A shift in values and ideals – similar to other shifts that occurred for somewhat different reasons in the U.S. and Britain – is evident. There has been a polarization: instead of it being assumed that professionally-trained experts are necessarily correct in their evaluations because of the money poured into them in training programmes, it is now recognised that all town planning decisions involve making political decisions. That is, how are the resources of space and form and taste, not to say the physical requirements of housing, roads, services and shops, to be distributed within a given, limited area? The Canadian planning theorist James Lorimer laid it on the line in an article reprinted in the April, 1972, edition of the Royal Australian Planning Institute Journal. Lorimer's main points: the work of city planners focuses on land and its uses; urban land and its buildings are usually owned by "a host of small property owners and a few large ones"; the most important regulatory agency of land and buildings is the "elected" city government, the property industry usually controls the regulatory agency/city government ("It is the major downtown property owners, the property financing institutions, the construction firms and the developers that are running every city hall"); planners carry out the administrative work of city government policies as worked out at higher levels; therefore, for planners, "it is clear that you have to decide which side you are on." Says Lorimer: – "There may indeed be little honest work left for planners, in terms of work that is properly paid, but there is certainly lots of honest work for people who resign themselves to the fact that you usually have to live modestly these days if you don't want to work for the wrong side …It is time to forget the warm nonsense, the talk about the public interest and the city beautiful, and to face reality… Either you work against the power and influence of the property industry, or you work for it."

The constant wish, of course, is that the choice for everybody was as direct and easy as that. Maybe it is easier for Americans. Their defamation laws enable real and sustained investigation by a variety of journals and newspapers of the corruption of "city hall" and the real confluence of power. Not so in Australia. No-one can ever suggest, let alone prove, that the real patterns of power are as devious and informal as Lorimer's American analysis. So we sit tight and believe the warm nonsense. See no evil, hear no evil… and it encourages comments like those of Professor R.S. Parker at a planning symposium in 1972: "Except for aesthetes, planners and intellectuals (overlapping categories?), people by and large seem undisturbed by noise, smoke, asphalt, commuting, crowds, traffic congestion, suburban sprawl and urban constriction and the unlovely facades of the technological metropolis – on the contrary they relish some of these features as part of the 'stimulus of city life'." If nothing else, the events of the past three to five years have proven that statement wrong. People do not like the urban guck that intellectuals like Professor Parker think they alone abhor.

Picking sides, even without investigatory evidence, purely on the sensitivity of one's political nose can be an easy ego trip for the flabby-minded–as the conservatives amongst us will be quick to point out. It is easy to think you're participating when you're not and it is easy to invite participation when the final and/or crucial decisions are yours. The question can become one of when those in power are willing to bring down the intellectual shutters and accuse the potential participants of ignorance, buffoonery and lack of concern. But there are more complex problems involved in such a process than drawing up battlements. One is that people at different levels of power see the urban environment in different ways. One of the catalysts for action in Woolloomooloo was the discovery by the new secretary of WRAG (Wooloomooloo Residents Action Group), Fr Campion of a brochure being shown around Europe and the United States characterising the 'loo as an area of poverty, vice and crime. The implication clearly was that such slums ought to go–and why not make your mint in contributing to the public weal?

The stereotype of the slum lives on at a time when the notion of slum might be more properly applied to brand new home unit blocks squashed together in rows in places like Hillsdale. The Federal Government appointed "residents" advocate in Woolloomooloo, planner Colin James, says most planners are middle-class and regard their life-style as the norm and others as deviant. "It's all right to round on a 'windscreen survey' and say: 'That's nice, that's bad, we'll pull that down'–but there might have been somebody living in that for 30-odd years who really likes it." On a more microscopic level, social psychological studies of fields such as crowding, culture bound notions of social distance, perception of neighbourhood, noise consciousness and the rest all point to the incredible relativity of planning judgements. And the logical extension of that relativity is an enforced humility on the part of the experts. The new philosophy will start to work in practice when the ivory tower social engineers of technostructures like Housing Commission and highway authorities come down and talk with people in the areas they want to obliterate – before drawing up impossible planning options.

But talking may not work either. There may be a complete polarization of values. Brenda Humble, of Woolloomooloo, says too many middle-class do-gooders come walking into struggles like the 'Loo's, expecting that they will be able to get people to appreciate their set of values. "Quite often they are just knocking their heads up against brick walls because they just do not want to believe that they cannot change people, that they cannot bring them around to 'reason'." Sometimes, she emphasizes, the desire to stay put in a neighbourhood has nothing to do with notions of community and fellow feeling. "It's sheer self-interest, stubbornness, all those sort of things", Brenda says. You might get the same stubbornness about things that middle-class people wouldn't dream of.

excerpt two

In 1973, Wendy Bacon, who had been involved at Victoria Street, interviewed Jack Bourke, the chairman of the NSW Housing Commission, for the University of New South Wales newspaper Tharunka. For the article she dug up some of the planning texts of the l940s. She knew that Bourke enrolled in the town planning department of Sydney University after World War Two. She found that one of the formative influences on the department and its thinking was the young architect and planner, Walter Gunning (alias Jersey Road controversy in Paddington, Sydney Cove Redevelopment Authority board member, Centennial Park consultant and, later, compromiser on Myall Lakes mining). Gunning was in the tradition of the planners who were still being impressed by Dickensian visions of the industrial poor a century and another country away from its original conception. Gunning wrote idealistically in his 1945 book, Homes in the Sun: "This (aerial photograph of an inner city area) happens to be Sydney… It has narrow city streets, lanes and alleys and mean pocket handkerchief allotments… The children play in the lanes and alleys; they live a lane life and their parents sit on the doorsteps. The authorities call it a 'blighted area'. We call it the 'slums'.'' The solution? In true middle-class distaste for meanness and dirt, the answer was to demolish the lot and clear the land and let the air in and build modern compact towers… "The flat is best suited to solving the slum clearance problem in areas where the population is undesirably dense." Such was the planning mentality that forms the basis for today's Waterloo and all the rest!

Of all the cities in Australia, Sydney has most exhibited this willingness to do away with its living heart. Is it because of some modern-day shame about the colonial origins of its narrow city streets, lanes and alleys? Or is it simply lack of foresight, humanity and control by governments that see their role as handmaidens to profiteers rather than making independent judgements about the people's interests?

Hugh Stretton, in his gloriously eclectic, self-published work Ideas for Australian Cities (1970), talks at length about Australian concepts of what makes a city and what makes a suburb. In a very perceptive chapter on Sydney, Stretton says the city is faced "with a terrible paradox: being desperately short of good city, we must continuously destroy the very best city we've got… the New South Wales government so far concentrates job customers' traffic into the single old centre more resolutely than any other Australian or American state government does."

Stretton emphasizes two very important points in reference to one of the forces obliterating inner Sydney expressways. First: "If nothing but travellers' gains are balanced against the resumption and construction costs, the works can be said to pay for themselves by reducing travel times. Nobody surveys the personal and social injury to the thousands of displaced people. Beyond financial compensation and some rehousing, there is no attention to the general social costs or to the economic effect on the city's whole stock of buildings." Second: "Orthodox planners… see their role as merely co-ordinating and economizing the central urban reconstructions as efficiently as possible. They accept 'the people's locational decisions and follow up with the transport 'the people' obviously want. In reality of course they are doing nothing so negative. Such planning makes a drastic choice of a particular future… Nor are such policies adapting democratically 'the people's' locational decisions: they work in favour of the interests of tiny minorities of central investors and developers." Limits can be set on inner city growth and inner city destruction. Stretton instances the case of London where for 50 years the city has limited its central office development to less than half that envisaged for Sydney!

More importantly, he underlines the fact that some of the best features of cities come from deliberately keeping their inner-city communities carefully protected. "The culture of assembly and conspiracy, of theatre and gallery and cafe, of great newspapers and little magazines, of chance encounters and intellectual communities, is rarely strong in a commuters' city. Such a culture… is rarely found in quarters which empty at night. The great cities are the ones people live in." It is a point Mrs Honora Wilkinson, aged 54, made about Woolloomooloo three years ago.

The more hopeless of the community organizers would say it is inevitable that those with power, education, status, money and affluence will deprive the powerless, the uneducated, the badly thought-of and the poor of their rights. Computer maps published recently of statistics from the 1971 census in Sydney show a truly dramatic tie up between these factors. If you are a child in Redfern you have about one-quarter the chance of the child in Ku-ring-gai of getting to university. Still, in analytical terms, Australians have yet to figure out the class dimensions of their society in the way older societies have – our mythology assumes classlessness but it is too clearly only mythology.

For the question of class is central to the notion of resident participation on all sorts of levels. Jack Mundey says: "It's the working class that suffers most because they're in the worst suburbs." You don't have to be a Communist to agree with him. Stretton refers to the way in which the rich grabbed Sydney's magic – its harbourside – and priced it out of reach of anyone other than themselves. Other social scientists hold to the theory that railway lines determined Sydney's distribution of environmental wealth. For that is the question: should the less well-off be destined to the worst living conditions? Is urban amenity a commodity up for grabs on the open market, laissezfaire-like?

Critics of the green ban movement – sympathetic critics, that is – accuse it of bolstering up the current state of environmental wealth. They say green bans have simply ensured that the status quo is kept – the rich keep their Centennial Park intact and Hunter's Hill keeps its trees; the most the poor get is not to have an expressway demolish their homes, not to be obliterated by office blocks, not to be moved out west for housing towers. How?, the critics ask are the resources of this society being redistributed along more just lines?

We know what the friends of the green ban movement are saying. They are saying the movement has changed the power relations between institutions in Australian society and the people. Professor Runcie says issues like controls on demolition work and on appeals system for residents over various developments are now real talking-points. The Mundeys and the Pringles and the Owens and the rest of the BLF's leadership and the rank-and-file have effected one of those rare shifts in public thinking that occurs only a few times in a lifetime. Maybe they were madhatters and larrikins – a true Australian tradition – but, by God, there's many a Sydney resident who will remember them with love.

Reproduced with the permission of the Australian Conservation Foundation.


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