Urban nightmare: The restructuring of Melbourne

[Green Left Weekly, #189, May 31, 1995; based on a paper presented to the Marxist educational conference Campaigning for Democratic Socialism, held in Melbourne at Easter 1995.]

The view of a modern city from the window of a plane as it descends is often breathtakingly impressive. The panorama is truly a miracle of social and technical organisation. Taking in the endless pattern of roads, houses, buildings and the night-time latticework of street lights can be a moving experience. The spectacle seems to say: this amazingly complex artificial environment we have created, all this is what human beings are capable of.

However, once landed and actually living in the city, one's impressions are likely to be a lot more mixed. Melbourne, for instance, in common with cities in the rest of the world, is gripped by serious social and ecological problems which are presenting themselves ever more forcefully.

Melbourne is being changed; something new is happening which we should note. Of course, the city has always been changing, and many of the developments taking place today are also happening in other Australian capital cities. But the process has been radically stepped up since the Kennett Coalition government was elected at the end of 1992 and in its totality is quite distinctive.

First of all, it should be noted that Kennett has made drastic changes to the city's social environment. Big cuts in social outlays, massive public sector job losses, sell-offs and reactionary industrial legislation all add up to a serious decline in our standard of living. But that's another topic. Here we want to highlight the new vision of the city itself that is being implemented.

Mega-projects

Kennett has resurrected and is forcefully promoting the idea of a freeway system as the solution to the city's transport needs. Work is already under way on elements of it. The planned new road sections are very large-scale and will have big effects: on air quality and public health and on the lives of people who live near them. Inseparably linked to the government's unalloyed enthusiasm for freeways is the downgrading of the city's public transport system.

The government is promoting a series of mega-projects and associated developments in the inner city area (Southbank, Crown Casino, Swanston Walk). These are designed to lift Melbourne's tourist image and make a lot of money for certain business interests.

Taken in isolation, some aspects may be positive — e.g., freeing Swanston Street of its polluting river of cars — but overall these projects will do nothing to improve the basic quality of life of the city's millions of ordinary residents.

In the case of Albert Park, which is being sacrificed to the Grand Prix, they will do exactly the opposite. (The Grand Prix itself is an insane hymn to the automobile, a celebration of ecological madness at the very moment when the enormity of the danger threatening humanity is becoming ever more clear.)

The government's contentious VicCode 2 planning regulations are ostensibly aimed at countering the urban sprawl and consolidating the city's population. However, "market forces" — i.e., property developers thirsting for profits — have created the urban sprawl in the first place: their insatiable appetite for greenfields housing estates is spreading the city boundaries ever outwards. Now, a more relaxed planning code is meant to reverse this trend by making it easier for these same developers to build blocks of flats and townhouses in the inner and middle suburbs.

VicCode 2's likely effect on the urban sprawl is highly problematic. Apart from enriching developers, it will certainly bring about a deterioration in the quality of life of residents who face the prospect of living in the shadow of a block of units with little redress.

The other big change to the suburban planning regulations makes it vastly easier for fast food outlets to set up for business in residential areas and severely reduces the ability of residents to contest such developments.

Council restructuring

Capping Kennett's reactionary urban planning agenda has been the "reform" of the local council system. Through forced amalgamations, more than 200 councils across the state have been reduced to fewer than 80. Elected councillors have been replaced by appointed commissioners. Legislation has been enacted compelling councils to privatise most of their services and to achieve a 20% rate cut (i.e., cuts in services) in short order.

The aim of this forced restructuring is no secret: it is to slash council services and work forces and even further smooth the way for big business in the state. Opening a big wharf development in Geelong last year, Kennett publicly threatened that if a future elected council did not see the benefits of the project it would be sacked and replaced, yet again, by government-appointed commissioners!

Melbourne has always been subject to the dictates of big business — hardly surprising since we live in a capitalist society. But even from this brief survey, it should be clear that the framework is changing. What we are witnessing today is an intensifying assault on the city by big business in its drive for profits.

For ordinary Melbourne residents, life is becoming more stressful, more dangerous and a great deal more uncertain. Without in any way wishing to put a gloss on the situation before Kennett, we can definitely say that in an overall social and environmental sense our quality of life is declining.

Freeway madness

The most dramatic element of urban restructuring under the Coalition, the one with the greatest and most destructive impact on the lives of ordinary people, is undoubtedly its program of freeway construction and associated cuts to public transport.

It is worth stepping back a little to grasp the full insanity of the government's program of more freeways and less public transport.

The motor vehicle plays a central role in modern capitalist society, and a large part of all economic activity relates to it. But a few facts will illustrate the tremendous penalty our society pays for its rulers so heavily favouring private over public transport — cars and trucks over trains, trams and buses.

Since they were first introduced, cars and trucks have killed 17 million people worldwide. Currently, motor vehicle accidents kill more than a quarter of a million annually, maim half a million and injure 10 million.

In a 1991 article on "Transport, environment and energy", British researcher John Whitelegg cites some striking data from Germany:

1. Road transport is far more energy expensive than rail. It requires 4-5 times as much energy as rail to move a tonne of freight one kilometre. For moving one passenger over one kilometre, a car needs 4-5 times as much energy as a bus and 2-3 times as much energy as a light rail or tram system.

2. Road transport is massively more environmentally destructive than rail. The two tables show that road transport produces far more climate-relevant emissions than do rail or tram systems. Motor vehicles are major emitters of both greenhouse (carbon dioxide and methane) and acid rain gases (nitrous oxides) as well as pumping out a whole range of health-damaging substances (benzene, ozone, lead).

3. Road freight transport has an accident rate almost 25 times that of rail!

Modern cities are built to cater for cars and trucks rather than people, and our quality of life suffers massively as a result. Freeways, roads and car parks account for a large proportion of the total land area of Western cities — two thirds in the extreme case of Los Angeles. City dwellers live on islands surrounded by a sea of traffic, often subjected to stressful noise levels and breathing increasingly polluted air.

The pollution associated with cars is huge. A cartoon carried in the August 3, 1987 Sydney Morning Herald highlighted some of the principal annual inputs and outputs of Sydney's motor vehicles: some 21 million litres of exhaust gases, enough to fill 3.5 million human lungs; three billion litres of petrol, enough to fill 1700 Olympic pools; 15 million litres of oil consumed and at least 60,000 litres dripped onto the city's roads; three million used tyres: enough to build a 12-metre wall around Botany Bay. 4000 cubic metres of rubber worn off the tyres could bury the Sydney Cricket Ground!

Irrational

Any unprejudiced observer would have to conclude that persisting with a transportation system which carries such a heavy burden for society is irrational, especially in 1995, when the scope of the ecological crisis gripping the planet is now becoming so starkly clear and the future of the human race is at stake.

However, from the point of view of the capitalist magnates who own the construction, automobile, rubber, oil and plastics corporations, it all makes perfect sense. Their sole concern is short-term profit: they are incapable of responding in any real way to the social and environmental consequences of their activities. The shameful behaviour of Australia's delegation and its industry observers at the recent Berlin greenhouse conference is demonstration enough of this.

These corporate interests are the Kennett government's masters, the only “public opinion” it really cares about. The freeway program is for them, for their profit, not for the rest of us. Unfortunately, we are the ones most affected by its consequences.

Car dependence

The table comparing the per capita petrol use and public transport dependence of world cities reproduced here is extremely instructive. Some key facts about the capitalist world are made very clear.

Houston, sometimes cited as the developed world's most unlivable city — for ordinary people, that is, not millionaires — tops the table with the highest per capita petrol usage and an absolutely minimal public transport system. Overall, US cities are the most car dependent in the world.

The European cities in this study are far more compact than US cities and average less than a quarter of the per capita petrol consumption. On average, public transport accounts for almost a quarter of total passenger journeys (versus the US average of under 5%). Far more people walk or ride bicycles to work (20% compared to just over 5% in the US).

On the petrol consumption scale, Australian cities rank midway between US and European cities (with a per capita figure averaging half the US amount and twice the European). Overall, a derisory 7.5% of passenger journeys are made on public transport. Of course these averages are made worse by Perth, which seems, all proportions guarded, to be vying for the title of the Houston of Australia!

In debates on Melbourne's transport options, Toronto is often cited as a city broadly similar in area and population which has gone in a different and more positive direction. This may be true in some respects, but from this data Toronto's dependence on the motor car remains extremely high.

Perhaps a compact crowded city like Hong Kong has more to teach us: there over three quarters of total passenger travel is by public transport, and more than a third of all work journeys are by bike or foot. Whatever the precise reasons for this, the fact remains that this is the magnitude of shift away from dependence on the motor vehicle that we have to work towards if we are to seriously attempt to halt humanity's march to ecological catastrophe.

Free-fire zone

In late capitalism, rational planning of cities is impossible, a purely utopian aspiration. The modern city is just a free-fire zone for the big corporations.

In Melbourne the state government and the local councils have their urban planning departments, but it is arguable that there is no real planning, only the most minimal attempts to set out guidelines. So many of the key developments which set the character of the city are the result of purely commercial imperatives.

For instance, the large scale, super-scale and mega-scale shopping complexes which have developed over the last two decades have fundamentally altered the city and the way we all live: where we shop, how far we travel to do it, our transport needs and so on. Yet none of these were a result of a public discussion about the real needs of the community; they were built solely to generate a certain rate of return on the developer's investment.

The central city area, the focus of much of the Coalition government's attention, is another case in point. A look at the skyline says it all: buildings jostle for views, some not without appeal, most absolutely ugly. But, apart from some minimal requirements, each corporate owner is sovereign on their own plot of land and can erect what they like. The net effect lacks any overall harmony, any consideration for the city as a whole and the needs of the ordinary people who inhabit it.

The sole criterion of what gets built and what doesn't is profit. (However, in this regard it can't be said that the property speculators' commercial acumen is as well developed as their greed: at any given moment, a large proportion of city office space is vacant, unable to find paying tenants.)

In Melbourne today the major criterion of the overall planning regime is what big business demands. Under Kennett this situation is worsening rather than getting better. The axis of such planning guidelines as there are has massively tilted towards the needs of big business, and residents are increasingly powerless.

'World's most livable city'?

Melbourne is often hyped up in the media as "the world's most livable city". It has some great qualities, but the sordid reality is that it is rapidly turning into just another Western urban nightmare. Kennett's "can do", big-business government is fast-tracking this development and in the process is generating considerable, if localised and fragmented, resistance. Victories by residents and communities are certainly not impossible but can only be temporary and provisional. No respite can be permanent as long as the capitalist profit system remains in place.

It is enjoyable and stimulating to contemplate how Melbourne could be made more pleasant to live in, how it could be made more livable, more ecologically rational and so on. Who can doubt what a wonderful city could be created if there were a mechanism for democratic discussion and decision-making without the relentless pressure of the privately owned corporations? But precisely the precondition of creating such a framework for improving Melbourne (or any other Western city) is to remove this pressure in a radical way by tearing the big companies out of the hands of the private capitalist owners and bringing them under social ownership and democratic control.

Until this is done the capitalist restructuring of the city will continue at the expense of those who live in it.