In our latest article, Emeritus Professor Graeme Davison reviews Elizabeth Farrelly’s, Killing Sydney: The Fight for a City’s Soul.



Elizabeth Farrelly is Sydney’s resident prophetess, its staunchest champion and fiercest critic. She is its eyes and ears, its questioning mind, tender heart and steely public conscience. For thirty years, as a columnist in the Sydney Morning Herald and a member of the Sydney City Council, she has been showing Sydney-siders how to look at their city, to discern what is beautiful about it and what is not, and to exercise their minds and votes accordingly. At her best, she is a brilliant writer, with the rare ability to make us see familiar places from a fresh angle; to reveal Sydney, not as its boosters project it, all glitz and glamour, but as it discloses itself from its side streets and secret corners.

Well before the summer of 2019-20, when the bushfires and pandemic capsized so many assumptions about the good city, Farrelly had reached a dismal conclusion. Sydney, her beloved, was dying. Worse, it was being killed, often by bad intentions and sometimes by good. The fires and pandemic only reinforced her fears. This book–a cri de coeur, a bill of indictment and a call to arms–promises to diagnose Sydney’s ills, arraign its assassins and inspire a last-ditch effort to save it. It is a kind of contemporary history, although –Farrelly being more philosopher-architect than philosopher-ruler– its best insights are moral and aesthetic rather than political and historical.

Sydney, she argues, has been progressively killed through the operation of seven deadly dialectics. In successive chapters, she analyses the recent history of the city from aesthetic, kinetic, political, ecological, historical, gendered and spiritual points of view. Modernist architects and property developers, she argues, have erased the subtle interplay of ‘solid and void’ that was the charm of an older Sydney. Through the malign influence of ‘that destructive species the road engineer’ and the relentless pursuit of speed and efficiency, Sydney has all but lost the social and ecological benefits of walkable communities. Tollroads like WestConnex exemplify another of Farrelly’s bêtes noir–the subordination of public interests, assets, spaces, housing and institutions to private and corporate ones. She celebrates the subtle and surprising interplay of nature and culture in some of the city’s most built-up neighborhoods while denouncing the ‘fake’ naturalism of her old friend Paul Keating’s pet project, the Barangaroo headland park. Great cities, she insists, must maintain a delicate balance between the old and the new, a lesson recklessly ignored by the Berejiklian government in its ill-conceived plan to remove the Powerhouse Museum from its home on Darling Harbour to a flood-prone site in Parramatta. Shifting her lens again, Farrelly invites us to view the city from a gendered perspective, by contrasting the ‘male’ fixation on hard, shiny, erectile ‘exteriors’ with the ‘female’ focus on soft and seductive ‘interiors’. In a final chapter, she turns to the moral and spiritual dimension of city life. What rules should the city live by? And how should it reconcile the tension between regulation and spontaneity, conformity and dissent? The book concludes apocalyptically with a post-Covid catalogue of the ‘seven deadly sins’ of Sydney’s urban planners.   

What binds these chapters and imparts the book’s rhetorical force is Farrelly’s distinctive combination of love, anger, visual acuity and political passion. The Sydney that she fears is dying is her Sydney: the ‘quirky’, ‘charming’, ‘buzzing’ and ‘intricate’ historic core of old Sydney she fell in love with in the late 1980s and where she still lives. For her, it is a city ‘like no other on earth’, a walking city second to none. Its only peers in her eyes are other world cities–Barcelona, Paris, London, New York, Istanbul– not its unmentioned closer relatives – the seaport cities of the Pacific rim, such as Auckland, Melbourne and Vancouver. As a historian of one of them, I occasionally wondered whether some of the questions that most interest her – how to ‘retrofit’ our cities to avoid the perils of climate change, for example – could be answered better by reference to their experience rather than far-fetched comparisons with a city like Barcelona with a history five times as long and a population forty times as dense.

Farrelly’s vantage point is essentially that of a flaneuse, a connoisseur of the pleasures of the inner city, rather than a curious inquirer into the workplaces, houses and suburbs where nine-tenths of Sydney-siders actually live. For the suburb, especially, she has only pity and contempt. Early suburbia, she says, was ‘a form of built socialism’ but today’s, she maintains, is just a deplorable manifestation of ‘the core neo-liberal solipsism that there is no such thing as society’. Here as elsewhere in the book Farrelly argues dialectically, juxtaposing ideal types of urban living. On her own patch, the inner city, her perceptions are sharpened by intimate knowledge of the terrain, but beyond, in the suburbs, her critique veers towards caricature. There are surely more interesting gradations and variations in the history of Sydney’s suburbs than can be collapsed into a Manichean slide from Garden City to McMansion.

If Sydney is being killed, who are its assassins? Farrelly arraigns a long list of culprits from Adam Smith and William Wilberforce to Frank Sartor, Tony Shepherd, Amanda Chadwick, and a long line of ‘white, male, bone-headed Christian-dominated liberal governments’. They act out a bewildering mix of ideologies from neo-liberalism and modernism to postmodern relativism and Sydney Anglicanism. Inevitably there are some cases of mistaken identity: William Wilberforce, the anti-slavery campaigner, is mistaken for his distant cousin MP William Wilberforce Bird and Victoria’s Consort Prince Alfred, who died in 1861, is supposed to have ‘instigated’ the 1879 Garden Palace exhibition.  Adam Smith, accused of having reduced morality to the market, might wish to remind the court of his Theory of Moral Sentiments. Almost no-one, except her guru Jane Jacobs and her political ally Clover Moore, escape Farrelly’s scorn.

Although most of her book was written pre-Covid, the pandemic has not shaken Farrelly’s view of what’s killing Sydney and what might yet save it. Along with a majority of architects and planners she believes that for our cities to become more sustainable, economically and environmentally, they must become more compact; more like the bits of inner Sydney she is fighting to save. ‘You could stamp out the plan of Surrey Hills in Campbelltown or Lakemba and it would be very bit as sought after’, she suggests. But I wonder if that’s all you’d need to stamp out. The idea that one can re-create the qualities of the historic city by simply replicating its form in another place and time is an architectural illusion. Farrelly provides a telling illustration of the point in her brilliant analysis of the CBD and South East Light Rail Project, Sydney’s disastrous attempt to ‘retrofit’ the inner city with the public transport it lost in the 1960s when its tram network, once the world’s biggest, was ripped up and replaced by buses. At about the same time as Sydney was ripping up its tramlines, the Chief Commissioner of Melbourne’s smaller network Major-General Risson, was future-proofing it by encasing the lines in concrete, with benefits Melburnians still enjoy. But, as Farrelly shows, the benefits lost at one moment in the city’s history cannot be regained by reversing the decision seventy years later.

As much as she loves the compact city, Farrelly is no uncritical densifier. ‘Not all density is good density, ecologically speaking’, she writes, but what makes density good rather than bad, apart from ‘good design’ she never quite shows. ‘Density can be thrilling’, she concludes, ‘but only if it grows incrementally’. But if you can densify only slowly, how much help will it be in meeting the imminent threat of climate change?

Meanwhile, a more imminent threat, Covid-19, is driving our cities in an almost opposite direction. The Victorian government’s slogan ‘staying apart keeps us together’ revives an old public health message and questions the case for density. The theory that density causes disease and death, first propounded by the nineteenth century statistician William Farr, was one of the ideological pillars of the modern suburb. In a new form it’s quietly changing our perceptions of amenity, safety and vulnerability in the city. I am writing this review in the middle of Melbourne’s fourth lockdown as people once again flee the city streets and retreat to the safety of their private homes and automobiles. Even before the virus returned, city apartment towers had emptied out and public transport patronage had returned to barely half its pre-Covid levels.

It’s far from certain, of course, that density – at least the density between houses if not the density within them–is to blame for the the spread of the disease. And, as many densifiers hope, our inner cities could yet return to their previous popularity and vibrancy. Some of the problems that the compact city was designed to address– climate change and housing affordability, for example– will remain with us, Covid or not. But, as we are gradually beginning to realise, so may the threat of viral contagion. In the meantime it would be rash to assume that our cities will not be significantly reshaped by the encounter with it.  

Killing Sydney is a book for Sydney-siders, an invitation to love and defend their city. ‘Get engaged, get your local hero elected’, Farrelly urges them. ‘Civilised dissent’, she insists, is our best defence against the dangers of creeping bureaucracy and mob rule. While politely dissenting from some of her arguments I salute her passionate defence of grassroots democracy and civic engagement. Sydney is lucky to have such an honest, perceptive and steadfast friend.

Graeme Davison
Graeme Davison

Graeme Davison is Emeritus Sir John Monash Distinguished Professor of History at Monash University. His research focuses especially on the history, heritage and culture of Australian cities . His recent publications include Trendyville The Battle for Australia’s Inner Cities (with Renate Howe and David Nichols) (2014), Lost Relations: Fortunes of my family in Australia’s Golden Age (2015), City Dreamers: The Urban Imagination in Australia (2016) and, as editor, Hugh Stretton: Selected Writings (2018).