The Creation of the Sun, Moon and Vegetation by Michelangelo

Bushfires are an angry God’s message to Australia for its support of same-sex marriage, according to Israel Folau. Presumably, the more ferocious conflagration near Sydney means its sin is greater. Felled by smoke and regret, its watery-eyed penitents must now kneel and beg forgiveness.

A secularist might point out the obvious incongruity – that a fundamentalist tripartite deity of ambiguous gender and non-traditional family relationship might more likely march in Sydney’s Mardi-Gras than singe its outer suburbs – but it remains compelling to characterise the fires as symbolic.

Not surprisingly, many environmentalists see it that way. Pointing to the end-of-days smoke haze, they remind us of the science that long ago drew a causal link between anthropogenic climate change and more intense drought and bushfires.

Conservative responses have been increasingly frantic. Narratives to reconcile policies and realities approach the ludicrous. Denouncements of demonstrators as “naughty children” seem petulantly offensive.

Chants of “now is not the time” sound as silly as when emitted by US gun lobbyists following mass shootings. Valorisation of belief over evidence has become almost medieval. What next; an Environment Inquisition to root out climate-denier non-believers?

Though wrong headed, Folau’s highlighting of a moral dimension in the symbolism of smoke haze has emphatically expressed in conservative terms the significance of climate change.

The issue is no longer partisan. Ordinary conservatives are increasingly united with environmentalists in pressing for action on what everyone now agrees is an existential threat to humanity. Individuals and nations that drag-the-chain on climate change action are increasingly pilloried.

The shift in public mood has been remarkably rapid and heated (pun intended).

Only a few days ago the premier observed a little evasively that the fires are probably a result of climate change along with many other factors; further conversations are needed.

A day later, her environment minister emphatically broke ranks with conservative orthodoxy; climate change is the cause; the conversation needs to start now, and the state will bring forward its climate change commitments.

The spell of carefully managed policy complacency has now broken.

Should fitness to govern be linked to policy settings?

If climate change has become a moral issue across the entire political spectrum, effective redress commensurate with the magnitude of the threat is now expected.

We are now entitled to press our political delegates on how they stand. It is reasonable to compare their response to other threats of overwhelming peril – think wartime, terrorism or more recently the hazards of foreign interference.

How long, we are entitled to ask, would a decision maker or party expect to continue in elected office if they publically supported fascism during World War II, spoke in support of Daesh more recently, or proudly endorsed the efforts of foreign powers to influence our elections?

Yet those who deny or fail to address the even greater threat posed by climate change are tolerated or even pandered to – up until now.

From now on, should we not regard any politician or party that fails to acknowledge and then act urgently on the climate emergency as being unfit to govern, with expectations that they should resign immediately?

Should Australia’s recent performance at the Madrid talks fall into this category and its perpetrators hounded out of office?

Yet in all this symbolic and scientific urgency, climate change and urban policy share at least two features.

The first is that the outcomes of urban policy are directly experienced by city dwellers, as commented on previously. Unlike remote policy writhings within the “Canberra bubble”, the consequences of bad urban policy directly affect daily lives, just like smoke haze.

The second is that this direct experience increasingly defeats attempts to confine its perception within politically acceptable limits.

In consequence, it is becoming increasingly difficult to manage voter disgruntlement. It’s shaping through sound bites, repetitive talking points, truncated news cycles, and the assumed short attention spans of the great unwashed no longer works like it used to.

Let’s look at a couple of recent urban policy examples and ask if there is potential in them for popular responses similar to those generated by Sydney’s smoke haze.

Pyrmont

The Star tower proposal triggered a review of Pyrmont’s planning controls. This in turn generated a mix of anticipation and concern about likely recommendations.

Development interests have already moved to shape the outcome. Though the planning effort will take a “breathtakingly quick” period of a year, according to the Minister for Planning, a $2 billion “vision” for the precinct emerged within weeks.

If realised, the Darling Harbour edge of Pyrmont would become a brand new “entertainment precinct”.

Spruiking the scheme, the vision’s author provided “…a taste of what we’re thinking about”. It included a food festival, harbour pools, stand-up paddleboarding, swimming with salmon in a tank (really), a “splash and dash” fun run, and a “synchronised” film event with 20 floating screens.  It would seem stimulus-deprived Sydney-siders are denied these temptations until the precinct is developed, post haste!

It doesn’t end there. Hilariously, the precinct might even be serviced by a cable car between Centrepoint Tower and new towers proposed within the precinct.

It seems those in government are keen on the idea, irrespective of the planning review. Speaking at the launch, the state treasurer enthused that it would unlock a potential $20 billion of investment and provide a context for 10,000 jobs.

However, any audience enthusiasm dissolved into puzzlement following the treasurer’s reported aside, “The government doesn’t do imagination very well, but the private sector does”.

Hmmmm… The announcement certainly did not display much private sector imagination. It looked a bit like an updated version of the existing now tired development from the 80s, right down to Monorail 2.0.

As for a lack of public sector imagination; those with longer memories will recall Pyrmont was and remains a spectacularly successful long term mixed use redevelopment led jointly by a federal Labour government, and a state Liberal government, which combined to attract significant subsequent private sector input over many years.

In all of this the City of Sydney Lord Mayor soberly urged that the review be taken as an “opportunity to look beyond the IPC (refusal) decision on The Star casino tower, and move away from site-based, ad-hoc planning proposals”.

She added, “bulldozing the Western Distributor would open up sites for development and remove the barriers to walkability”.

In contrast to the “entertainment precinct” razzle-dazzle, her suggestion is not ad hoc – it has been in the council’s Sustainable Sydney 2030 plan for many years.

Indeed, the council’s idea is fundamentally motivated by a concern for the city’s long-term economic vitality. The release of ill-used inner urban land is crucial to the relief of serious growth constraints, as also reviewed here, here and here.

On the one hand, the planning minister responsibly and responsively seeks to accelerate a considered whole-of-precinct review, and the Lord Mayor offers issues to consider.

However, others within government align themselves enthusiastically and pre-emptively with particular players and outcomes.

Overall, beneath a veneer of good urban management it makes government look like it exists primarily to serve those vested interests – surely not – and voters have a right to be very sceptical, perhaps even angry if all this persists.

Northern Beaches

Transport is another controversial and current urban policy topic.

Despite the state’s good record of investment in new rail projects, it is still planning to build more controversial motorways.

The Western Harbour Tunnel and Northern Beaches Link aims to bypass The Spit Bridge by linking the northern beaches to the Rozelle interchange of WestConnex.

The project is contentious both for its mode – another motorway of dubious benefit – and its cost, which is now expected to exceed the initially projected $14 billion.

Writing in The Fifth Estate, Tim Williams is one of many commentators to highlight the folly of combatting congestion by building more roads.

He points out that once built, initial travel-time savings diminish over time through “induced demand”; extra road capacity stimulates greater vehicle usage beyond that from normal growth and congestion soon reverts to pre-construction levels.

This means that if congestion-busting is the goal then the staggering amount of money spent is entirely wasted.

Where traffic “tidal flows” dominate – like rush-hour congestion – the generally accepted approach to its reduction is to take traffic off existing roads, by constructing rail networks of higher capacity to deal with that class of travel demand more efficiently.

Transport mode choices – road versus rail – are also linked to another urban policy issue; accommodating urban growth.

In this and other publications, Chris Johnson has pressed the case for increasing urban density, mainly with apartments (perhaps reflecting his former role as spokesperson for the Urban Taskforce).

He observes, “So my reading of Sydney’s future is that well designed apartments in the right locations close to public transport and amenities is the way forward to accommodate most of our growth and this will protect the suburbs”.

Though some disagree with him, Mr Johnson has a point. Notwithstanding current building industry scandals, it is certainly true that properly designed well-built high-density apartments make sense when built close to rail stations.

For example, though it too now suffers from road congestion following its enthusiastic embrace of the market economy, Moscow accommodates most of its 12.5 million residents – half the population of Australia – in apartments that are well served by an excellent Metro system.

Mr Johnson has also targeted barriers within the planning system as a further constraint to urban growth. Though there has been plenty of chat about it, urban policy implementation has failed to grapple effectively with the competing demands and expectations typical of all cities, including that of growth.

Serious questions emerge from the sum of these perspectives.

Here’s one: rather than the proposed Western Harbour Tunnel and Northern Beaches Link, wouldn’t it be better to spend $14 billion of taxpayer funds expanding the government’s metro rail initiative into the northern beaches and thereby provide the infrastructure essential to accommodate its fair share of Sydney’s future growth?

Here’s a shadier one: if so much of the state’s infrastructure budget is to be consumed on building a motorway to the northern beaches – a well known conservative heartland – would the low capacity of this infrastructure be grounds in future planning reviews for restricting further growth within the area, thereby preserving its existing low density character mainly for existing residents?

…just a thought…

Policy Integrity

As a result of direct exposure to the consequences of serious policy inaction on the environment, broad and deep anger is being directed at those decision makers held to be responsible.

Due to direct experience of urban shortcomings and increasing awareness of how they arise, are we also approaching a time when those that don’t manage our cities properly will provoke similar emotions?

Religious fundamentalist might see in the title image a representation of an angry deity. Those secularists who believe that gods are made in the image of humankind, will see the same thing – but that god is the angry voter.

Mike Brown has worked in NSW local and state government in planning, urban design, and strategic roles for 15 years. He is also a graduate of the Masters of Urban Policy and Strategy program at the University of NSW.