• Depiction of the proposed Powerhouse Museum on the banks of the Parramatta River. (Twitter)Source: Twitter
Cities should balance the environment, culture, social cohesion and the economy. But Australian cities are getting it wrong, writes Osman Faruqi.
Osman Faruqi

5 May 2016 - 12:10 PM  UPDATED 5 May 2016 - 12:16 PM

I love Sydney. In fact, as sacrilegious as it is to say, I love Melbourne too. Australian cities are amongst the best in the world. They blend beautiful coastal scenery with a dynamic, diverse culture. Our cities are regularly ranked highly on annual “liveability” surveys

But what makes a city ‘liveable’? Good planning, affordable housing and convenient transport options? One of the most well known liveability surveys, run by The Economist, completely ignores housing costs in determining its rankings. What value is a city’s liveability score if only the wealthy can afford to live there?

The problem with trying to reduce a city’s value, and, indeed its  ‘liveability,’ to a simple score is that it inevitably requires an arbitrary judgement call on what factors are more sought after. And it can often neglect more intangible, harder to quantify factors altogether.

Architects argue that cities, through planning policies, building styles and modes can bring people together, or divide them. Ideally cities balance the environment, culture, social cohesion and the economy. Recently it seems like Australian cities are getting that mix very wrong.

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The NSW Government’s plan to sell the Powerhouse Museum to private developers and shift its collection to a new location in Parramatta has attracted substantial criticism. The Powerhouse is overdue for a renovation, but at its core it is a proposition that makes sense. Built on the site of an old power station and located in an easily accessible part of Sydney, minutes from Darling Harbour, it is a perfectly situated piece of cultural infrastructure. Local and international tourists in town to check out what Sydney has offer can enjoy a mixture of natural beauty, commercial attractions and culture and heritage, all within the CBD. Which is exactly how a well planned CBD should function, with a combination of environmental, social and economic infrastructure.

But the plan to privatise and develop the Powerhouse, as part of a growing trend that devalues culture, significantly upsets the balance of what makes Sydney liveable. Yes, Western Sydney deserve cultural infrastructure as well as the CBD, though there is no reason investment in Western Sydney needs to be contingent on turning an existing museum into luxury apartments. And yes, Sydney has a housing crisis, though it’s unlikely a new set of luxury apartments on the doorstep of Darling Harbour is likely to do much in terms of affordable housing.

The problem with trying to reduce a city’s value, and, indeed its  ‘liveability,’ to a simple score is that it inevitably requires an arbitrary judgement call on what factors are more sought after.

The plan to sell off the Powerhouse follows the decision to sell off valuable public land to James Packer for a new casino. Destroying cultural infrastructure, in order to grow the profits of private developers, doesn’t make cities more liveable. It does the opposite.

And before any Melbournians decide to rub it in, the trend isn’t isolated to Sydney, far from it.  The iconic Palace Theatre in Melbourne’s CBD has been approved for demolition in order to make way for a new hotel. If everything socially and culturally useful in a city, like museums and theatres, get replaced with apartments and hotels, what value do cities really have?

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It’s not just big-ticket cultural infrastructure feeling the squeeze at the moment. The Sydney Dogs and Cats Home has operated at a site in Carlton for more than 70 years. It rescues 3,000 dogs and cats each year. But now it’s being evicted so the building it operates out of can be bulldozed and turned into high-density apartments.

Valuable and important cultural and social infrastructure is being wiped out across our cities in order to facilitate private, commercial development.  The biggest fallacy is that it’s being done in order to improve housing affordability. The same state government that is selling off the Powerhouse is simultaneously selling off millions of dollars of public hosing. The private developers building swanky apartments or new hotels in the CBD aren’t motivated by a desire to make housing more affordable for the average Australian, they’re just in for the profit.

And our governments are all too eager to facilitate them, even if it means smashing the cultural and social fabric of our cities. Who wants to live in a city without museums, without public land and with no animal shelters?!

It’s possible, and not that difficult, the get the balance right between social and economic infrastructure. But it requires prioritising the needs of a city’s people over the needs of its developers.

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