Suburban Australia: you have to be kidding!

Old people are easily scared. So if you know an old person living alone in a freestanding house near the centre of town that could be knocked down and turned into affordable housing for 20 or 30 people, why not get down there with placards and encourage them to piss off into an old person’s home? My older male readers should be especially receptive to the idea, with reported ratios of one cyclist to every three widows, and access to all kinds of new knowledge via the web:

elderly-people-on-computer1Ever since I realised that every apartment block in a 19th century city like Barcelona or New York occupies less land than a freestanding house in suburbia, I’ve lost all interest in the “character” or memory of neighbourhoods defined by low density housing stock. Knock em’ all down. Or better still jack them all up:


Imagine if a preservationist attitude had prevailed a hundred years ago in Northern Manhattan, like the attitude exhibited toward leafy inner suburbs in Australian cities today. The Upper East Side would be home to a few dozen (now) billionaires obstructing everyones movement back into the city. Northern Manhattan would look as it did in the late 1800s:


While we insist on locking Australian cities in time capsules this way we are stopping this country from ever having a great creative and intellectual centre of the kind that New York became through densification. During the short time I lived there in 2006 I went along to a lot of meetup events. The most obscure special interest could pull a good crowd, something I understood more clearly after it was explained to me that 20 million people live within one hour of Grand Central Station. Another way of looking at it, is to think of New York as a city of 7 million people (plus another million or so in New Jersey) with average commute times of around half an hour.

Plus mobility is cheap in New York. The cost of attending that meetup event would be $2 if you went there by bus and/or train, even from the outer most borough. A trip into Sydney from city’s heartland is hardly so cheap. Unless you’re lucky enough to have destinations connected by train, you could easily shell out $20 just on parking and tolls. No wonder Sydney’s meetups are rubbish compared to New York’s, where even the actual rubbish group has 1000 members!


New York, through its density and intensive train system, provides the best value connections to the most people of any city in the world. And there I was thinking it thrived by its myths. There’s no mystery. New York connects the most people. It is a city with the collective power of the most brains. Hence its monopoly on new ideas.

New York’s only problem is it has only barely started harnessing bicycle mobility, which—in areas now served by bike infrastructure—is already showing itself to be the fastest and cheapest means of connecting large numbers of people. In the space coloured blue on our 15km diameter [re]cycle-space map of New York, there is room for bicycle highways and another one million people living in an environment totally unspoilt by motorised obstructions, all of them capable of meeting somewhere in Queens within half an hour, or a little longer for those in the East if they wanted to meet in Manhattan.


New York hasn’t got a patent on this idea. Any city with land left vacant by heavy industry can get started on a densely populated yet free-flowing bicycling layer. Obviously, a city like Sydney could transform its inner suburbs as well. You just need a local government elected with a mandate to permit five or six storey apartment development to the front and side boundaries of every land parcel, and to get rid of cars from the ground plane to free up movement by bike.

To remind you of the reason, it’s to give cities vibrant agoras. It is so you can meet with the most select group and have your own thinking quickened. Philosophy and reason are urban phenomena. Before Athens there was just dogma. After two and half years in denial, telling myself that life in a suburban house in a regional city would not take its toll on my happiness and indeed my intelligence, I’m personally convinced that the bigger and denser the city, and the faster and cheaper the transport (and by that I mean bikes) the more useful it will be as a centre of governance and the generation of knowledge.

Sydney is the Australian city with the best chance of evolving to become truly smart, but it has a long way to go. If you live there on a block of land with garaging and fewer than ten dwelling units, yet somehow believe you’re switched-on and mingling with the most select group of sharp minds, listen to what a New York author has to say of your pretensions:

“The true New Yorker secretly believes that people living anywhere else have to be, in some sense, kidding.” — John Updike

Or the same sentiment from a song writer there:



  1. Ian S says:

    Until our state governments extract themselves from the influence of land developers and real estate agents this vision will become a Tolkien dream.

  2. Nick zintilis says:

    Back to Le Corbusier!

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