By Siri Gamage –
In the last couple of decades, modern day cities like Sydney and Melbourne have been going through a boom time in terms of construction. Construction of infrastructure such as roads, metro lines, bridges, tunnels, schools, hospitals as well as shopping centres, houses and apartments. Cranes, bobby cats, concrete mixers, and helmeted engineers plus workers can be spotted at various points throughout these cities. In a matter of weeks low level buildings being constructed become high level structures as such ventures utilise modern construction technology for high rises. In these cities the influx of immigrants-permanent and temporary-keep the demand for housing, transport, consumer goods, and services such as education and health intact.
In this mad rush to build, the value and demand for empty land have become intensely contested. Developers look to buy or lease every available vacant lot for high rise buildings to accommodate office and living space, i.e. apartments and hotels for hungry buyers and those who want to rent. Thus, various streets that used to inhabit buildings with different architectural designs with diverse aesthetic value are being transformed into uniformity with square shaped concrete structures like enlarged boxes while blocking the natural sunshine to pedestrians. Developers who desire to build housing complexes purchase large blocks of farm land in outlying areas, block them and develop infrastructure to be sold at a higher price for would be buyers. On average a block of land suitable for housing costs over A$ 500000 in outer Sydney. When the house is completed the price tag comes closer to one million if not more. Here I am talking about places more than 30-40kms away from the Sydney city centre.
Governments -both state and federal-are slow to cope with this increase in construction activity and influx of immigrants to the cities in terms of social impact. Nonetheless, they have committed to building necessary infrastructure to address what they call congestion. Even in the budget announced last week by the federal government for the year 2019-20, several congestion busting infrastructure projects were announced involving several billions of dollars. The New South Wales and Victorian governments have put in place some infrastructure programs such as the building of metro lines between outlying population centres and the city. They have also invested significantly in hospital and school building programs as well as early childhood education.
Amidst this effort of governments to address issues of transport, education and health, community groups in various parts of these cities who are unhappy about the congestion, clogging of roads, time taken to travel for daily needs with delays, and even road accidents are complaining about the decreasing public space due to the expansion of construction activities of the government and the private sector. In particular, spaces such as public grounds, recreational facilities, foot paths and cycle ways, trees and grassland, swimming pools, community centres, upgraded libraries are among these. The mantra being used by political leaders and bureaucrats who want to push the ‘development agenda’ is to say ‘more is better’. This means more population, more businesses, more buildings and what is perceived as development. The cry of the community or the residents in these cities who notice the speed of construction and disappearance of their cities as they had known them is to say ‘less is better’. Surely there must be a middle ground between these extreme positions.
Those who live in rural and regional cities and towns as well as farm land seem to view these developments in major cities with an ‘I told you so’ attitude. One can’t blame them. The open space, lack of traffic jams, easiness with which one can get from one point to another, community and neighbourly feeling, less stress that one can find in country/rural areas are positives by any measure. One could also argue that family values and networks are stronger in these places compared to big cities under stress. However, from a planning perspective where the governments have failed is in bridging this city-country gap even by utilising the same construction logic. For example, until now they have not focused on building fast trains either between major cities such as Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane or such major cities and outlying areas to facilitate movement of people and goods. New South Wales State government recently promised to build high speed rail between Sydney, New Castle, and Wollongong. In country towns, there is a high demand for more population, businesses and industry. (there is one project to build an inland freight line between Melbourne and Brisbane which is under construction).
To address the population congestion in cities, the federal government announced a reduction of annual skilled immigrant intake from 190,000 to 160,000. However, informed sources have indicated that even with such reduction, the net immigration will be around 230,000 a year when those who come on student and temporary visas and succeed in obtaining permanent residence is taken into account. The government has also increased the number of visas issued to those who like to reside in rural and regional areas for a period of time. These measures coupled with congestion busting infrastructure initiatives announced recently and those underway may not be the nirvana that average citizens who are consumed by the growing capitalist enterprises cum user pay systems aspire for. Those who have to utilise tunnels and motorways built on private-public partnerships charge fees from motorists. It is said that for some, one quarter of their income is spent on such fees monthly. In addition to taxes, there are a plethora of indirect taxes charged by State governments and local government by way of levis and charges e.g. insurance and fire charges. Modern technology that has facilitated circulation of money easier via ATMs, online transactions etc. ultimately serve the interests of private sector companies who charge fees for utilities and other services.
Amidst all these trends, people are asking one major question. It is about the deteriorating quality of life. Ideally, when a society progresses the citizens ought to enjoy a better quality of life. However, the evidence on the ground is a different story. Those who consume super market foods, particularly manufactured ones, complain about various health issues including allergies due to the additives included in them. There is a growing preference for organically produced food – though they are expensive. Western medicine cannot address some ailments though everyone desires to get an MRI and catscan these days as they have become trendy. More and more people are looking to alternative medicine. Many mums with young children are stressed at work and at home. Some seek counselling for their conditions. Some seek spiritual help. Me time available for working population has become less and less. Even weekends are consumed by work issues for many. Travel time between home and work is considerable. It is no wonder that people are asking for more public green space, more public transport instead of more tunnels and highways, more hospital facilities, more alternative energy facilities such as solar and wind.
If the influx of peasants to cities in Europe during the industrial revolution and associated social problems are any guide, contemporary problems that have been created as a result of high immigration and resulting congestion in Australia’s major cities should serve as a contemporary case study of social problems arising from so-called development. Political leaders who did not prioritise congestion busting measures during their terms of office are only too happy to come up with various proposals closer to the elections. The federal election is due in May 2019. We can only hope that Australian politicians will pay more attention this time to the voices of people who experience low quality of life and other challenges of living including measures to break down existing geographical barriers between the cities and regions.