Talking (up) the City

The culture of debate emerging strongly in Sydney informed the free community discussion held on the 20 June at the City Recital Hall. Titled ‘Urban Conversations: Triumph of the City’, the discussion was a three part event, prompted by Harvard University Professor Edward Glaeser’s talk on the city (based on his recent book, Triumph of the City, Penguin Press 2012) followed by panel discussion and questions from the audience. The panel consisted of NSW Government Architect Peter Poulet, and the Department of Planning & Infrastructure’s Giovanni Cirillo and Norma Shankie-Williams, and Sarah Hill, President, Planning Institute of Australia NSW Division, mediated by ABC’s James O’Loghlin. The event is underpinned by the premise that Sydney’s 4.2 million population is expected to rise to more than 5.6 million by 2031, which will necessitate creative thinking around the provision of social, cultural, physical and economic infrastructure.

Urban Conversations Talk, Professor Edward Glaeser, Image courtesy NSW Department of Planning & Infrastructure, Photographer: Paul Wright.

Through a historical survey of American cities in the twentieth century, Glaeser explains that infrastructure needs are crucial because every historical city was linked to ports, harbours, waterways, railways, and roads. Glaeser argues the following: cities are humanity’s greatest invention; density is related to income productivity; density fosters proximity, and adjacency which in turn makes possible the collaborative knowledge economy; knowledge economy is the basis of wealth and prosperity; and increasing wealth of cities prompts the questioning of liveability and the benchmarking of liveable cities. Glaeser notes that cities support entrepreneurship and diminish unemployment, providing an antidote to financial crisis (historically and currently) but failure of infrastructure is also what makes cities fail. His talk is interesting because it not only talks up the city, but it also demonstrates the city as simultaneously being the site of failures and successes.

The key topics and instances of city making in the panel discussion included Urban renewal at Green Square, as providing jobs and amenities, and the Eastern Distributor as having re-energized Surry Hills (Cirillo); Revitalization of Darling Harbour (Poulet); Developing Penrith, Parramatta, and Liverpool as mature regional cities distinct from the city along the Harbour (Williams); Need for Leadership in city making and emphasizing the idea of active places and spaces in the city as creating a market to invest in (Hill); Systemic thinking and future planning to design sustainable cities (Glaeser); Engaging the voice of the community for successful urban renewal (Williams); and Greening cities to reduce the heat island effect, increase well being, and tackle urban food production (Poulet).

Urban Conversations Panel, Image courtesy NSW Department of Planning & Infrastructure, Photographer: Paul Wright.

The panel discussion was a bit haphazard but it was inspiring to see the panel members place emphasis on newness and optimism, and open channels of communication as the fundamentals to addressing urban challenges. The questions from the audience were many and pertinent, with one member in particular questioning the relationship between erosion of psychological wellbeing and cities. Glaeser responded by citing the frequency of youth suicides in country towns as a counterpoint. What was slightly disappointing was the American voice to Australian issues. Whilst Glaeser’s talk was insightful, a complementary insight into Australian cities and/or Sydney was not available.

It is surprising that the event failed to call upon urban sociologists, economists, and thinkers who are able to reveal incisive thinking about Sydney and emerging Australian cities. Also, Glaeser’s raison d’etre of the city is almost too narrowly focused on economy (and not culture, history, or tradition), which is apparent from the sub-title of his book, How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Healthier, and Happier. It privileges a narrow, materialist point of view. Nevertheless, ‘Urban Conversations’ was a valuable and a well attended event, and hopefully not just a one off.

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