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City for Sale?

Professor Anna Yeatman

Talk to BPN Special Event – Parliamentary Forum,
6-8.30 pm, Tuesday 23 August 2016, Parliament House

I have just had the pleasure of hosting a visit of two friends from London and on Saturday morning we drove from my house in Hurlstone Park to the Everleigh Market. They were delighted because they saw a part of Sydney they would never have done as tourists, and they loved the character of the houses and the communities through which we drove. They saw the Sydney that has inspired passionate love in me. As we drove I kept on saying, as they admired the neighbourhoods through which we were passing, “this will be rezoned for development, all these houses are likely to go” and I sounded like a broken record. They asked, “but why are these areas not protected as conservation areas as in the city of London?”[1] Why indeed?  All I could say is that people will look back at this era of the destruction of an extraordinary vital and beautiful city, and ask how did this happen?

I don’t want to pickle Sydney in aspic.  It must grow and develop-the question is how? Is it to grow as a civic place where neighbourhoods and communities flourish, a place that being beautiful inspires love and care — a place that invites and supports creative and sustainable economic production? Or is it to be one more high-rise global city, carelessly built, with too many people, and most of its apartments designed as little boxes for worker mice who do the best they can to get along in a treadmill existence?

What is a city?  The etymology of the word tells us that ‘city’ is related to ‘citizenship’ – to the idea of a place-specific community of citizens.[2]  Historically it was associated as a place where free men lived as distinct from serfs who lived on feudal estates.  The idea of the city, then, has been intimately associated with the democratic conception of citizenship – the idea that as a citizen each individual counts as an equal, and the idea that as a member of a citizen community these individuals are duty-bound to support it. 

The idea of a city, then, is not just about urban space. It is about civic place and about the profound connection between civic place and democratic government. In this sense regional and rural areas can be a city too.

Civic place, civic status, civic community and civic participation go together. Attack one and you attack all.

We have plenty of evidence from the history of Sydney and New South Wales that exemplifies this set of relationships between civic place, civic status, civic community, and democratic government. I think of such things as: the civic pride expressed in the late 19th and early 20th century buildings on King Street Newtown with their beautiful and imaginative modes of etching out the sky in pediments, the ethnic mix of shops on Marrickville Road between Illawarra and Victoria Roads, and my own Federation garden suburb — Hurlstone Park. I also think of the green bans that came about through the visionary civic initiative of Jack Mundey and the BLF that saved important areas in the Rocks and Woollomoolloo among others. Of Woollomoolloo, Meredith and Verity Burgmann (2011) remark: ‘Thanks to a green ban placed in February 1973 on the entire suburb and not lifted until early 1975, 65 per cent of the area was retained by the Housing Commission for low-income earners, under a plan that entailed a genuine socio-economic mix of residents living in medium-density buildings with many trees and landscaped surroundings’.  Much of what is known as the Inner West of Sydney, they say, was saved ‘from being flattened by new freeway projects’, and green bans in ‘Waterloo, Earlwood, Cook Road near Centennial Park, Bankstown, Manly, Mascot, Matraville and South Sydney’ ‘were placed in support of urban resident groups resisting smaller-scale high-rise residential developments.’[3] 

I don’t have to tell you that we are witnessing a systemic assault on our historical inheritance of civic place in Sydney and New South Wales.  In the name of economic growth we are witnessing the conversion of our city into assets for sale to the highest bidder.  This is happening on a scale and at a pace that is designed to outrun the mobilization of civic movements against it.

The model of economic growth that is at work is the neoliberal one. This is a model that jettisons the idea of a mixed public and private economy in favour of the view that economic growth is driven by market competition, especially by big business. It is this model that leads to government to declare that the jurisdiction for which it is responsible is ‘open to business’.  In drawing attention to the neoliberal model of growth as the underlying driver of city for sale, my intention is to emphasize the systemic nature of this process, and to point out that the Baird Government is actually following policy that is imposed on the state governments by the federal government.[4]

The neoliberal reduction of an economy to market-based private for-profit enterprise brings with it an opposition to any genuine civic planning — an opposition indeed to all forms of public and democratic collectivism.  The neoliberal redesign of society as market society leads to the disaggregation of historically established civic and public forms of collectivism, and of the institutional order they have inscribed.  In adopting the mantra of ‘open for business’, the government disaggregates the challenge of government itself into a series of business enterprise initiatives designed to woo private investors.

This dynamic of disaggregation of established forms of public collectivism extends to the privatisation of public assets whether these are infrastructure or the public domain of the state thought of as a commonwealth.  The proposed single Crown Lands Management act is exemplary of the threat of neoliberal institutional design to the public domain of New South Wales.  Crown land occupies more than 40 per cent of the state and has a value of about $11billion.[5] Much of Crown land has social, cultural, environmental or heritage value. The effect of the act is to make it much easier to treat Crown land as an economic and tradeable asset.  Ecologically sustainable development is not proposed as an object of the act. Tellingly the act transforms the Crown Lands Division into a Public Trading Enterprise.  Also telling is the proposed transfer of the management of Crown land with primarily local use and values to local councils,[6] clearly a disaggregation of state responsibility and accountability, where there will be next to no constraint on local councils converting this form of community title into operational land that can be sold.

If a city is to grow and develop there must be a process of civic planning where the citizens are invited from the outset to participate in the design and implementation of a new city plan — where everyone understands the exciting opportunity of such a plan to open up the city to new kinds of community building and creative initiative. At this time of the urgent, collective-action problem of mitigating global warming, such an opportunity could invite a civic process of greening the city that would offer a model for the rest of the world.

As I have said, the neoliberal model is anti-planning of the kind that is associated with a civic process of inclusive deliberation and integrated consideration of environmental, social, cultural, economic and political objectives. Such planning as does occur is oriented to how private investors can make an adequate return on their investment. Because private capitalist investors are intent on minimizing costs in relation to profits, and rightly view any genuine community engagement as a hindrance to this end, this form of planning must be inherently undemocratic and anti-civic.

It is increasingly clear that the neoliberal model of economic development does not deliver even on its own terms – the increase of (private) wealth for everyone. We have weak business investment, increasing inequality, an alarmingly high rate of private household indebtedness, increased housing unaffordability, falling real wages, increasing part-time rather than full-time opportunities for employment, nearly 50% of the workforce without access to paid leave, and increasing precarious work. Add in the figure of 1 million workers being on temporary immigrant visas, without civic rights, and we have a pattern of economic development that produces insecurity and erodes civic standing, civic community, and civic place.

It is time to collectively say: stop, slow down, let us reconsider where we are, and let us embark on a genuine process of civic planning that takes the city of Sydney and the state of New South Wales into a future where wealth is not just private but also public, where all people feel included and valued, where work offers meaning, dignity and a living wage, where the role of unions is understood as a core component of the democratic institutional order, and where our economic exchange with the earth and the atmosphere is one that will sustain life on this planet.


[2] city (n.) (From Online Etymology Dictionary)--early 13c., in medieval usage a cathedral town, but originally "any settlement," regardless of size (distinction from town is 14c., though in English it always seems to have ranked above borough), from Old French cite "town, city" (10c., Modern French cité), from earlier citet, from Latin civitatem (nominative civitas; in Late Latin sometimes citatem) originally "citizenship, condition or rights of a citizen, membership in the community," later "community of citizens, state, commonwealth" (used, for instance of the Gaulish tribes), from civis "townsman," from PIE root *kei- "to lie; bed, couch; homestead; beloved, dear" (see cemetery).

The sense has been transferred from the inhabitants to the place. The Latin word for "city" was urbs, but a resident was civis. Civitas seems to have replaced urbs as Rome (the ultimate urbs) lost its prestige. Loss of Latin -v- is regular in French in some situations (compare alleger from alleviare; neige from nivea; jeune from juvenis. A different sound evolution from the Latin word yielded Italian citta, Catalan ciutat, Spanish ciudad, Portuguese cidade.

Replaced Old English burh (see borough). London is the city from 1550s. As an adjective from c. 1300. City hall first recorded 1670s to fight city hall is 1913, American English; city slicker first recorded 1916 (see slick); both American English. City limits is from 1825. The newspaper city desk attested from 1878. Inner city first attested 1968. City state (also city-state) is attested from 1877.

[3] Burgmann, M. and V. Burgmann ‘Green Bans Movement,’ (2011)—

[4] A key document here is Australia Infrastructure Plan: Priorities and Reforms for our Nation’s Future, February 2016  Here is explained the approach to big population and big cities with high rise and mid rise density.  Here also is explained the pressure placed on state governments which have to sell public assets if they are to get national government support for new major infrastructure, as in this paragraph from p. 16: ‘More recently, the Australian Government allocated $5 billion to establish the Asset Recycling Initiative, which provides incentive payments to state and territory governments that sell assets and reinvest the proceeds in productive infrastructure. Mirroring NCP payments, these can also be considered as a reward for meeting a national reform objective – but one where the reward is tied to infrastructure reinvestment by the jurisdiction’.

[5] Jacob Saulwick ‘Councils war over Crown Land act,’ SMH, Tuesday August 16, 2016, p 24.

[6] Andrew White and Jennifer Anderson ‘Crown Lands Legislation White Paper—how will it impact you? (2014)