Why I am a NiMBY*

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Sydney's comparative advantage — a male King parrot (Alisterus scapularis). Photo © 2011 Alan Miller.

Sydney's comparative advantage — a male King parrot (Alisterus scapularis). Photo © 2011 Alan Miller.

Three times in the past month, The Sydney Morning Herald, the city’s broadsheet of record by default, has published a particularly irritating kind of article on urban density. To paraphrase Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia (1999), this is not just a matter of chance. These articles, by the paper’s two resident economists and sole architecture critic, represent a disturbing and powerful tendency to treat cities as economic entities, blobs on a map rather than physical spaces. They don’t realize that you can’t extrude spreadsheets into skyscrapers. Help! The Borg economists are eating Sydney.

Density is, directly or implicitly, the topic of nearly every article which appears in this space, but it is never enough to simply be for, against or in the middle. The argument articulated from slightly different points of view in the three Herald articles, and supported by academics such as Richard Florida and Edward Glaeser, holds that increased urban density is good for housing affordability, the environment and the economy, and that a misguided coalition of bureaucrats, pro-sprawl theorists, heritage fetishists, sentimental flâneurs and greens are holding up progress by blocking new development. This summary may be over-simplified, but it is the subtext and physical consequences of such a view that are most complex and interesting.

Besides “density,” the word, if one could call it a word, which recurs in all three articles is “NiMBY.” This of course stands for Not in My Backyard, and these days it seems to be just about the worst thing one Sydneysider can call another. Like invoking Hitler before the advent of Godwin’s law, calling your opponent a NiMBY is intended to stop debate in its tracks. The word, whose chunky shape stands out clearly in the internet forums and comments threads which comprise its native habitat, encapsulates the crudity of Sydney’s current discussion about its future. The antiNiMBYite makes no distinction between the Bondi Beach locals who scandalously prevented the extension of the railway to “their” beach and someone who lives nowhere near Barangaroo, has no objection to the site being “developed” but happens to have serious reservations about the project’s design and political process. Both, apparently, are NiMBYs, standing in the way of progress, borne back ceaselessly into a past which must in their view always be consumed so that the present can grow forever in spite of a finite world.

NiMBY is an insult ripe for re-appropriation, or at least critical appraisal. It seems to carry a force way beyond its intrinsic clunkiness. People run scared from it, as though from a hundred letter thunderword or a piece of space junk hurtling toward a colony of McMansions. No one wants to be anti-progress, no matter how forcefully the reality of the world begs us to question our assumption of its endlessness. I spent about half of the past year fighting (our weapons were email and tape measures) alongside a group of neighbors who objected to an extremely brutal proposal by a local developer. The saga would require a very misshapen novel to recount, but in my many discussions with residents, politicians and local activists I heard the following sentence too many times for it to not be the whisper of this city’s collective unconscious: “I’m not anti-development, I’m just anti-bad development” (the word “bad” was sometimes replaced with “inappropriate” or the like, the number of syllables increasing in proportion to how long the speaker had been kicking around the urban planning game).

Development. Photo © 2011 Alan Miller.

Development. Photo © 2011 Alan Miller.

I was talking to reasonable people, it’s a reasonable thing to say and yet I found the phrase troubling. What are we conceding when we call buildings “development?” The plural of building is buildings, the plural of development is, at least in Sydney, more development. To say “I like architecture, even sometimes bad architecture, but I can’t stand buildings which don’t even try to be architecture” is to kick off an interesting and useful conversation. I would stand and cheer if anybody out there said “I’m not against dense urban form, but the proliferation of 5-10-20 story apartment blocks seems particularly misguided in Sydney’s delicate landscape, a setting which for two centuries has been much better served by the terrace house, a typology perhaps more advanced here than in any other city.” The problem is that “development” is never neutral, at least not in this town. It has a look and a style. In Sydney that style is “contemporary,” not quite “modern” and certainly never modernist. Development speaks the language of real estate rather than architecture. As the word “development” implies, repetition is the key, stacking balconies, multiplying floorplates and building forms until a site ends up, like a globetrotting backpacker’s credit card, “maxed out.” The typical debate over urban density, as exemplified in the Herald, never walks the streets, never trades numbers and theories for the real places where this conversation actually becomes interesting and where common ground might even be found.

The phrase “urban density” seems designed to preclude such specificity. It is as heavy and boring as the word NiMBY is hollow and explosive (mothers, don’t let your kids grow up to be planners!). It’s much more fun to dream about F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise (1927), often described as the greatest film of the silent era. The story hinges on a delirious and almost comically efficient tram ride between idyllic countryside and a teeming city. A Man (George O’Brien) tries, perhaps half-heartedly, to murder his wife (Janet Gaynor) in a rowboat. She flees up a steep hillside to the edge of a forest where, of all things, a tram rolls through the trees. It stops, she gets on and her husband follows. At the movies, we are used to seeing characters entering the big city, more than once to the strident beat of a bad theme song as the sun sets somewhere west of the George Washington Bridge, upon it a particular brand of car making its way into Manhattan. What we almost never see is what Sunrise so naively and so confidently shows us — the full trajectory of a journey into the city. Rather than cut, the landscape beyond the window of the tram undergoes a miraculous transformation. Without ever leaving the tram, suddenly we are in the middle of the city.

The question of Murnau’s attitude to the city (and the perhaps related question of how Terrence Malick regards the city in The Tree of Life) will have to wait for another day. What’s important from an urban design perspective is the way Sunrise’s unnamed city forms a diagram of what we, the density boosters and I both, might agree upon as the ideal sustainable city. If I were designing a city from scratch, I would be tempted to design it around that tram ride — unspoiled countryside accessible to all, no sprawl, and then, suddenly, a lively city (Paris, thanks to its succession of city walls, is still roughly like this). The problem — and where the density triumphalists of today fall down — is that outside of China and the Persian Gulf we are no longer designing cities from scratch. Our cities are not diagrams; they are the built chronicle of decades of silly mistakes and unexpected triumphs. They have a momentum and a character which must be understood. They need a gentle touch rather than a magic wand waved over a spreadsheet.

Though a comparison between cities and people can be pushed too far, we and our cities are alike in that we grow in stages, not indefinitely at the same rate though time (and both cities and people accumulate increasingly indelible neuroses which are, we hope, on balance more adorable than irritating). Today’s Venice does not grow at the same rate, or in the same way, as Guangzhou and likely never will again (in fact it is shrinking fast). For a city somewhere in between the two extremes, like Sydney, the way ahead is less clear. If Australia were the United States, a landmass capable of supporting many important cities, medium, large and huge, then Sydney might be able to slide by in the manner of New York, essentially not growing in population as younger cities boom, but still innovating enough to remain important. The problem is Australia’s bizarre pattern of settlement — almost half of Australia’s 22.7 million people live in the three main urban areas of Sydney, Melbourne and Southeast Queensland. Australia has no Chicagos; the heartland is desert, not amber waves of grain.

As a result, Sydney, according to the New South Wales Government’s blandly oracular Metropolitan Strategy, must accommodate 770,000 additional dwellings by 2030, essentially adding the population of Dallas to itself in two decades. For the density boosters, this is a challenge, requiring a new wave of urban renewal and shared sacrifice. They never seem to consider, physically, just how big a mouthful they have bitten off. 770,000 dwellings is a lot — you could accommodate them in the form of McMansions covering the area of Andorra, or 770 skyscrapers 100 meters high, or a five story apartment building stretching from Sydney to Melbourne (which, if it were built around a high speed rail line, might not be such a bad idea, though bear in mind that Melbourne, growing even faster than Sydney, would require its own intercity block of flats alongside)[1].

With successive governments too worried about maintaining state’s AAA credit rating to build new infrastructure, particularly public transport, Sydney is not wearing its current population of 4.6 million well; the city is simultaneously sprawling outwards into what once was some of the continent’s most fertile farmland and consuming its core, regurgitating 5-6 story development where once there were characteristic homes and gardens. Just as most film buffs prefer the Bernardo Bertolucci of Before the Revolution (1964) to that of Stealing Beauty (1996), so you would, I think, have to look hard to find a Sydneysider who prefers the 2011 version of their city to the one which so triumphantly hosted the Olympics eleven years ago. It feels like one of those Star Trek alternate universes — recognizable but sinister.

Sydney red gum (Angophora costata). Photo © 2011 Alan Miller.

Sydney red gum (Angophora costata). Photo © 2011 Alan Miller.

A Broad-tailed Rock Gecko (Phyllurus platurus). Photo © 2011 Alan Miller.

A Broad-tailed Rock Gecko (Phyllurus platurus). Photo © 2011 Alan Miller.

Lurking in the background of those three Herald articles, like the silhouette of a gum tree against a dawn sky, is Ku-ring-gai, the band of suburbs which stretch along the Pacific Highway and North Shore railway line to the north of Sydney, from Roseville in the south to (debatably) Waitara in the north. The word “suburb,” now so pejorative, is a misleading description of the place. Ku-ring-gai is all about trees, a nearly unbroken canopy of mature eucalyptus forest under which were built many fine houses in all the styles fashionable in Australia from the 1890s to the modernist era (the Rose Seidler House (1948-50), built by Harry Seidler for his mother in Wahroonga, is most definitely worth a visit). Ku-ring-gai is the distillation of a certain uniquely Sydneyriffic way of life. Other cities might have more old master paintings, hipper bars or more important hedge funds, but in no other big city is the power of nature, a strange and wild nature, so palpable as in Sydney. Ku-ring-gai at its best is a kind of paradise; a place where you wake up to the laughter of kookaburras, whip birds and parrots, where a Broad-tailed Rock Gecko (Phyllurus platurus) — or a deadly spider — might lurk in the corners of a garden shed, where vast national parks extend like fingers along the creek lines into residential streets. As culture is for Paris and education for Boston, nature is Sydney’s, to grudgingly use an economist’s term, comparative advantage. People don’t fly twenty hours to come here and marvel at how rapacious our developers are.

Like fauna everywhere, Sydney’s wildlife inhabits niches, an ecosystem’s way of establishing a sustainable density. What is wonderful about our local creatures, particularly in comparison to the beigeness of most human architecture hereabouts, is that they fill their niches with such panache. Imagine them as architects. The Brush-turkey (Alectura lathami), for example, is one of three Australian members of the Megapodiidae, or mound-building, family. The male Brush-turkey, distinguished by his pendulous yellow gobble, lives to kick up leaf litter, sometimes over a great distance, sometimes up hills or even stairs, into a huge mound. This impresses the females enough that they lay eggs in the mound, to which the male then adds and subtracts leaves in order to regulate the temperature within. When the chicks come out of their eggs they have all their feathers but must fight their way though to the surface of the mound (this can take 40 hours). When they finally emerge, their parents then ignore them, for they live for the mound.

This Australian Brush-turkey (Alectura lathami) seems to have taken up with a gang of feral chickens. This could be the result of Megapodes' hands-off approach to parenting. Photo © 2011 Alan Miller.

This Australian Brush-turkey (Alectura lathami) seems to have taken up with a gang of feral chickens. This could be the result of Megapodes' hands-off approach to parenting. Photo © 2011 Alan Miller.

This spring, in the most delicate outside branches of a huge Queensland Box Gum, a pair of Butcherbirds (Cracticus torquatus) have built a nest which seems barely attached to the tree. If the Brush-turkey represents the earthbound tradition of Australian animal architecture, then these particular Butcherbirds are more like the animal kingdom’s Frei Otto. They take the lightweight, flexible approach. In the wind their nest bobs and swings wildly, but somehow survives as the parents keep coming back with carnivorous sustenance for their three chicks. Somehow these birds know that the swinging branch is able to absorb the force of the wind and rain, rather than fighting against it.

The birds have unwittingly illustrated Pritzker Prize winner Glenn Murcutt’s “touch the earth lightly” approach to architecture. Ten years ago, architects like Murcutt, broadly categorized as bush modernists, represented the dominant theoretical tendency in Australian architecture. I can remember a lecture in which one of them, it could have been Murcutt or, more likely, the architect-sailor Richard Leplastrier, expressed the beautiful idea that a house should be like a sailboat, an inhabited contraption which can be adjusted by hand in response to the weather. Bush modernism has its limitations. Its fusing of the outback wool shed and Mies is at once a brilliant new Australian confection and a little too oversimplified to be the “national architecture” of such an urbanized country. Murcutt’s derivation of building details from the structure of nature, from the way tree canopies feather at their edges or the shape of leaves, presents such a deep field of possible inquiry that the marginalization of this approach to architecture over the past decade is all the more surprising. This striving for an architecture which grows out of organic details (a tendency perhaps kicked off in Australia by Joern Utzon’s “organic architecture”) seems to have given way to a galaxy of more detached ways of designing buildings, from parametric design among the younger generation to the economic rationalist approach of the big end of town. Alas, it seems our city will be designed by economists rather than sailors.

A house in Ku-ring-gai awaits development. Photo © 2011 Alan Miller.

A house in Ku-ring-gai awaits development. Photo © 2011 Alan Miller.

Ku-ring-gai, unrelentingly described as “leafy” by both its critics and fans, would be nothing, or more precisely just another sun-bleached suburb, without its trees. Unlike some of the suburbs along the coast, it has no beaches to offset built ugliness. Like the old West End of Boston, a much more urban lost community, Ku-ring-gai has become a byword for the most brutal urban renewal. Over the past ten years its old houses, trees and birds have not been touched lightly. The local council’s planning powers were notoriously taken away by the former state government, which appointed a planning panel to re-zone many areas to allow five and six story apartment buildings. The pattern since then has been relentless and predictable. A row of two or three modest little houses with lush gardens, maybe not heritage-listed, but still gracious, will start to look a little overgrown. Months might pass, hamburger wrappers blowing in amongst the camellias, before suddenly a fence goes up and within days the houses and their gardens vanish, with maybe a couple of the larger gum trees “preserved” behind storm fencing. Next the fertile top soil gets carted off by the truckload, down the Pacific Highway to plug who knows what entrance to the inferno. An underground carpark then takes up most of the site, with a “development” perched on top. In spite of developers’ insistence that they’re doing God’s work in providing affordable housing, these are luxury apartments, average price $935,000[2].

Ku-ring-gai is squeezed from the top down and the bottom up. As the apartments rise up in response to an undemocratic process of re-zoning, many older houses outside the re-zoned areas have been torn down and replaced by variations on the McMansion. In both cases a cult of tidiness replaces Ku-ring-gai’s wild mystery. Fake stenciled brick pattern driveways replace flower beds, the whine of leaf blowers drowns the click of secateurs, air conditioning replaces a cool breeze. The unquantifiable details where, as Mies van der Rohe said, God lives, disappear, first from physical space and then from memory.

Those who have opposed all this, and there are many, have of course been called NiMBYs. They have been accused of being anti-development, of wanting to keep outsiders out, of caring only about their property values (absurd, considering the premium gained by homeowners in re-zoned areas who sell to developers). They have been up against not just political, but also psychological forces perhaps more embedded in Australia than in other places. It’s worth remembering that the first thing the First Fleet did when it landed at Sydney Cove in 1788 was to cut down trees. When RailCorp, the entity which controls Sydney’s creaking railway infrastructure, wanted to cut down five heritage listed fig trees at Wahroonga station last year, their arborist assured those assembled that he himself loved trees, but that the figs, too big, too vigorous, too — in my words — sensual, were, unfortunately, the wrong trees. The Wahroonga figs are gone now, replaced by tamer saplings, the cracks in the station platform resurfaced in smooth black asphalt. Resistance was futile.

Five trees to be removed, Wahroonga Railway Station, April 2010. Photo © 2010 Alan Miller.

Five trees to be removed, Wahroonga Railway Station, April 2010. Photo © 2010 Alan Miller.

Construction, outside of Carlo Scarpa perhaps, obliterates memory. It is very hard to remember what those trees were like. We can look at pictures, from this decade or ninety years ago, but the feeling of the space they created is gone for good, and I daresay many Wahroongans like the station better now, just as many people seem to “like” 3D blockbusters and probably will be dazzled by Barangaroo’s airport terminal shininess when it comes out. The cult of neatness, of totalizing vision, of a fear of trees, is the worst thing about architecture, so dangerous because its rich and complex opposite, embodied by Ku-ring-gai, takes time to create and appreciate, absorbed as it is with all senses, not just the eyes. I can’t show you a photograph or diagram which summarizes why Ku-ring-gai is worth learning from rather than destroying.

There are of course architectural solutions to Ku-ring-gai’s problems. If five story apartments over basement carparks seem like the most vicious possible way of increasing density in such an area, then the history of architecture presents many alternatives. A more imaginative approach might playfully scatter terrace houses (or row houses in American) amongst the trees. Simply confining new apartment buildings to the footprint of existing houses would save existing trees and gardens and begin to create a layering of old and new, rather than tabula rasa obliteration. Eliminating underground car parking, or confining it to a single, half-excavated level within the building footprint, would reduce the impact of the buildings and the cost of the apartments within while actually encouraging people to use public transport, one of the purported benefits of higher density living. An apartment-dweller wanting to house an extra car could use a car share or buy a parking space separately, with the additional spaces built into the local shopping center, where no trees need be uprooted. There are a lot of possibilities: taller buildings could be built straddling the railway line, connected by an elevated ribbon of bike path; larger old houses could be converted into apartments; Miesian courtyard houses would look beautiful surrounded by gum trees, their starkness offset by the parrots eating seeds from their gutters.

A better Sydney is simultaneously possible and improbable. It’s the whole frustrating Barangaroo dynamic writ large — you can make every reasonable point in the world, offer rational alternatives to unreasonable plans, but to the powers that be anyone skeptical of “letting the market decide” what to build is a NiMBY. I don’t want to be lectured at by planners. I don’t want to hear about challenges and sacrifices borne out of an unimaginative and depressive misreading of the city. I want to love my city. I want to know what’s wrong with wanting a garden. Where are all the new train lines the city so obviously needs? How does it cost $176 million dollars to build 5.5 kilometers of light rail on train tracks which already exist? How exactly does a block of flats with two basement car spaces per unit encourage public transport use? What exactly is so green about fining apartment dwellers who hang out laundry on their balconies? What happens after we build the mythical 770,000 dwellings? Where do the next 770,000 go? Where will the birds go? How much seawater must we desalinate? Where will we grow food? Is Sydney supposed to grow infinitely? These and many more questions are never answered. This is a brave new world indeed, a big, irreversible, dangerous experiment conducted on our cites, the best of which have until now been constructed under the modest assumption that those who live in a place should help design it.

Everybody now —

I am a NiMBY: New infrastructure Magnificent Buildings — Yes!

[1]This calculation assumes 100 square meters of floor space per dwelling, 600 square meter lots for the McMansions and 18m depth for the floor plates of the 850km long five story apartment building.

[2]Average price for new strata units in Ku-ring-gai, from a talk by UNSW Professor Bill Randolph at the Friends of Ku-ring-gai Environment Public Forum, 11 May 2011.

About the author

Alan Miller

Alan Miller is a graduate of the Sydney University Faculty of Architecture and the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. A fanatical cyclist, he is a former Sydney Singlespeed Champion. He reports on cycling, film, architecture, politics, photography and various mixtures of the above.

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