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Book Review: Ideas for Australian Cities, by Hugh Stretton

When Hugh Stretton, one of Australia’s great public intellectuals, died last month aged 91, I was moved to re-read one of the first books he wrote* – Ideas for Australian Cities. This book, published in 1970 was so unusual that he couldn’t find an academic publisher for it, so he published it himself. At the time, I found it one of the most important books I’d read, one that changed my way of looking at cities. So what do I think of it forty-five years later?

Most of the book is about the history of the cities Canberra, Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney, and the town planning arrangements that were operating in them in the late 1960s. Most space is given to Canberra, then still a relatively new city, offering options for planned development not open to older cities. Adelaide gets the next most space, in particular the work of the SA Housing Trust, which was then still a major player in the housing market as a provider of low cost housing for workers, rather than welfare housing, centrally planned, but built through private contractors. Melbourne and Sydney get less space as established cities unlikely, though for different reasons, to be amenable to a planned response to such problems as underinvestment, sprawl and overcrowding which already characterising them.

In 1970 there was considerable novelty in a book about cities. Stretton refers to the existence of some rather more technical urban research and publications, but for most students of Australian history, it was the impact of the bush that defined Australia. Cities were still the ‘five teeming sores’, the parasites on the countryside of A.D. Hope’s bitter poem Australia. Stretton’s book marked a sea change in attitudes to the centrality not only of cities, but also of the suburbs in assessments of national life. Rather than seeing it as deadening, Stretton saw the quarter acre block as a site with potential for freedom and creativity for families.

It’s true that the planning regime of each of these cities as described by Stretton is now out of date; since 1970 there has been both a wave of political interest in cities and a retreat into neo-liberal reliance on the market to shape them. Nothing has come, other than a few false starts, of his hope that new cities would be created, so as to reproduce the amenities and freedoms of the old ones. The problems he identified then have only got worse now: unaffordable house prices in Sydney and Melbourne, long journeys to work for those forced out to the margins, traffic congestion, destruction of parts of cities to build freeways and parking lots, inadequate public transport, well-meaning but ultimately destructive creation of public housing ghettos which breed crime and violence, or, more likely, very little public housing at all, and long waiting lists for the most vulnerable.

But Stretton has nevertheless left a major legacy – or at least he has left me one. This is the understanding that urban development is a site of power. He makes it very clear in his book that urban growth, and the planning – however much or how little – that shapes it, is essentially the result of political choices. In fact he calls the book a ‘political tract’. By this he means that planning choices – even the choice to do nothing – have differential effects on the rich and the poor. It is nearly always, he says, the rich that benefit when development is left to the market, but proactive planning can also have a bias in favour of the rich if it results in ghettos for the poor. His ideal is for as little social segregation as possible, as mixed neighbourhoods generate better schools, because there are parents with the resources to defend and improve them, better facilities because there are more people able to argue for them, and more diversity and interest to leaven the mixture. Unfortunately segregation is becoming more common, and is a major factor in both creating and sustaining inequality in Australian society.

Stretton also has a major concern about planning which focuses on the needs of men as workers and commuters, and ignores the needs of women and children at home in the suburbs. Planners, he felt, often privileged cars over pedestrians, made routes to schools and shops unduly dangerous, and favoured high rise living even though it was quite unsuitable for young children. This is an area where much has changed, with many more women now in the workforce, so that fewer journeys are made on foot (making traffic congestion worse), and unsupervised play in neighbourhood backyards is relatively rare (children without this freedom now play computer games alone inside). Many families live in medium density housing because they can’t afford a house with a backyard or aren’t prepared to drive the long distances to get to one – which they would have little time to enjoy anyway. But I don’t think these changes negate Stretton’s basic concerns about the importance of the needs of children for suburban safety and freedoms.

In an interview in 2007, Stretton was asked how he thought Australia’s cities were going. His main concerns remained the need to develop alternative city centres, with the full range of employment, government services and cultural pursuits, though he thought it unlikely that the political will existed to do that. He also re-iterated the need for public housing that was more than simply for welfare purposes, as that almost always resulted in ghettos for the poor: public housing should be built ‘to sell into the middle and bottom of the housing market to keep it effective for everybody…I would love all that back and I don’t think there is ever any good reason for being rid of it.’ He rather confounded his conservative interviewer by his concluding remark: ‘I think part of the problem is governments have decided that they must buy votes by cutting taxes at election time, not revealing that this means that house prices are anything up to twice what they need be for lack of that public supply into the housing markets.’ An unfashionable view, maybe, but I think it’s as true now as it was in 1970.

Hugh Stretton’s voice in defence of equality will be sadly missed.

There isn’t much about him on the internet; here is the barest outline of his career and work. There is far more to it than I can cover here, but you might like to read two other posts I wrote about his 2005 book Australia Fair here and here.

*The Political Sciences, his major academic work to that time, was published in 1969 by Routledge & K. Paul, respectable academic publishers.

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