Single poppy in wheat field

A tale of several cities

In Business and Environment, Environment, Ethical and Eco Agriculture by David ScheelLeave a Comment

In his landmark book, Small is Beautiful, published in 1971, the economist-turned philosopher, E. F. Schumacher, made the point that (in his view) the ideal size for a city was 500,000.

Cities with populations much below that figure, he argued, would not be able to supply a range of goods and services sufficient to satisfy public expectations. On the other hand, cities whose populations blew out would experience all the ills we come to associate with crowding too many people into too small a space: infrastructural breakdowns, elevated crime rates and drug abuse, housing shortages, increased unemployment and poverty, and so on.

Under Schumacher’s ideal scenario, therefore, cities such as Ipoh, on the Malay Peninsula, Kuching in Sarawak, Leeds and Sacramento are – like Goldilocks’ porridge – ‘just right’.

Unfortunately, across the planet, Schumacher’s warnings have gone unheeded, as our major cities continue to grow and grow, and those with truly unworkable numbers, known as megalopolises, admit new members to their club every year. A confounding factor is the arbitrary nature of defining a city’s boundaries. Officially, for example, Cairo has a population of just over eight million, Mexico City just under nine million, and Manila just over 10 million. The reality is that when we take into account the sprawling suburbia which surrounds these places, all three exceed the 20 million mark, the majority of those living in dire poverty.

We see the same confusion in respect of modern, western cities. The gazetted figure for Los Angeles places it at 3.9 million (smaller than Sydney!), whilse, on paper, San Francisco is marginally below neighbouring San Jose. But if we factor in LA’s huge commuter belt, that city suddenly doubles in size, and likewise for San Francisco, if we consider that city to be part of a wider urban ring, which includes not only San Jose, but also Santa Clara, Oakland and Berkeley.

A comparison of the environments of a few selected inner cities with the parallel environments of their suburban extensions, sees the inner cities fare rather well. All major cities are, to a greater or lesser degree, overcrowded. They are the economic and administrative hubs of their regions, and many people choose to live as close as possible to the CBD for precisely this reason. The quality of life in these cities is primarily dictated by one factor – the availability of open space. In other words, is there any place in the city where people can ‘get away from it all’? The answer, most often, is yes.

If we take Paris as an example, it may have all the traffic, noise and stress that we would expect from a national capital, but – its wonderful architecture aside – it also has many parks and gardens in which Parisians can feel ‘human’ again, the Jardins du Luxembourg, Tuileries, Bois de Boulogne and Fontainebleau, to name just four.

The West End of London is even more impressive. With the exception of the odd pedestrian crossing, where a road cuts through, it is possible to walk around the city on nothing but grass. The five main parks, Hyde Park, Kensington Gardens, Green Park, St James Park and Regents Park, entirely encircle the metropolis, and it is from these parks that we derive the term ‘green belt’.

The smallest of New York’s five boroughs, Manhattan, resolves the open-air question altogether differently. Manhattan cannot have a green belt, being an island. However, as early as 1858, two visionaries, Olmsted and Vaux, realised that Manhattan was destined to be a major commercial and residential centre, and the only way to build was upwards. Their forecast proved correct, and the Manhattan skyline must surely be one of the seven wonders of the modern world. Olmsted and Vaux decided to build a park from scratch, and one which could act as ‘the lungs’ of the growing city. Even though development of the island had only reached 38th Street at that time, they set aside upwards of 40 blocks, starting at what is now 59th Street, and Central Park was born.

Similar developments can be seen in other cities worldwide, even dysfunctional ones such as Lima (which has the Parque las Leyendas), and intensely overcrowded ones in Asia. Singapore, for example, has a population of over four million, and a density of 6425 people per square kilometre, but it has still set aside the western portion of the island (about one third of the total land area) as parkland, and the Jurong Bird Park, located there, is one of the world’s leading breeding centres for endangered species.

The pattern is repeated in Australia. Adelaide has an architect-designed green belt (built into the original city plan by Colonel William Light), Perth has Kings Park, Sydney the Domain, and so on.

From the foregoing it is clear that most of the world’s major cities (or at least a goodly proportion of them) have an environmentally friendly ‘breathing space’ as part of their overall infrastructure.

But what happens when a city begins to expand, especially if that city cannot grow uniformly in all four directions? Denver, Colorado, affords a good example. Here again, is a city which – officially – only has a population of between one and two million, but the greater metropolitan district is closer to four million, and Denver cannot expand any further westwards, because the Rocky Mountains are at their highest here, with peaks of over 4000 metres only 30 kilometres from the CBD. There are similar constraints to the south, which means that Denver’s suburbia is a seemingly endless array of utterly identical housing estates, occupying all available land to the north and east. And hardly a tree in sight, let alone a proper park. Denver’s suburbs are in fact nothing more than designer-built ghettos, characterless, featureless, and – one must assume – mind-bogglingly boring for the residents.

Closer to home, the scenario in Sydney is even worse, and our largest city is a classic case of how not to green a city.

Sydney cannot grow very much to the north or south, and not at all to the east, so all the expansion has been in the western suburbs. When I first moved to the Blue Mountains a dozen years ago, a drive into Sydney would have taken me through Richmond, Windsor, McGrath’s Hill and Kellyville before suburbia set in.

What has happened during those dozen years has been a complete dumbing down of any sensible notion of residential planning. Every week, it seems, a new estate is opened, always with an alluringly romantic name: Harrington Gardens, Glenmore Park, and so on. The romance stops with the nomenclature. All of these estates have been built on acquired farmland, and as many houses as possible are crammed into each. The houses, typically, are two-storey, mock-Palladian, and they take up the entire ground space of the building block. Gone, it appears, are the days of the Aussie dream of a house on a quarter acre patch. One sixth, even one eighth of an acre, seem to be the norm, and what remains as garden is little more than a nature strip not much wider than the lawnmower which will cut it. (Try being a self-sufficient organic farmer on one of these!)

Kellyville is now all houses, no more farms. So too McGraths Hill; Vineyard is shrinking daily, and when a theme park near Blacktown recently closed, developers rushed in like vultures, gobbled up all the parkland (and I mean all) and built another half dozen estates. Once again, clones of each other.

In the light of this it is worth noting what Sydney is losing. I have sourced the statistical information from a leaflet recently issued by three concerned NSW state politicians, Jocelyn Howden, Dominika Rajewiski, and Ian Cohen MLC.

Fact: the Sydney Basin is one of the most fertile and productive farming areas in the entire country. Sydney’s 8000 farmers inject a billion dollars a year into the economy. Taking up just 2.5% of NSW land, Sydney farms account for 15% of all agricultural produce, 20% of all vegetables, almost half the poultry, and 100% each of mushrooms and Asian vegetables.

With the north western farms (including the afore-mentioned McGraths Hill, Kellyville, plus Parklea and others) all but gone, the state government is now proposing to attack the last remaining farm area, to the southwest, and re-zone it for housing developments. This area, centred around Bringelly and Luddenham, is prime vegetable growing territory, and the market gardens there are among the best in the country. In particular, this is the most productive region for Asian vegetables and herbs, such as bok choy and coriander.

If the housing proposal is allowed to go through, not only will the farmers be displaced; they would be forced to relocate to areas with a less reliable water supply, the fuel required to get their goods to market would drive costs up (and profits down), and the food itself would not be able to be delivered to market, fresh, on the same day as it is picked (as is the case at present.).

This is urban environmental planning at its worst, and it is based purely on short term self interest and overnight profits. An overnight profit can only happen once, but when a sustainable rural economy is destroyed, so close to the heart of a major city, it is lost forever.

Moreover, if this can happen in Sydney, it can easily be replicated in our other capitals. I am sure that many readers of LivingNow will be outraged at the way in which Sydney’s farmland is effectively being raped. If so, the politicians who are campaigning against the housing proposal can be contacted respectively at (02) 9203 2603 (Jocelyn Howden) or (02) 9230 2204 (Dominika Rajewiski). The NSW Planning Minister, Frank Sartor, can also be lobbied at:

After all, while most of us live contentedly in suburbia, I am sure we would not want to have environmental degradation on our conscience, as the price we paid for our little back yard.


David Scheel is a concert pianist, composer and humourist. Away from live performance he is also a respected writer and broadcaster on environmental issues. He lives in the Blue Mountains, N.S.W.

Share this post

Leave a Comment