The problem with ‘escaping from Sydney’

Is Sydney the worst city to live in Australia? This is the question set on fire in a recent op-ed published on the ABC – ‘The truth about living in Sydney: Everyone has an escape plan’ – where writer Andrew Street has tapped into the fertile soil of parochial mudslinging, population debate and our economic stagnation by declaring that he is seeking to escape the beautiful but torturous harbour city of Sydney.

In the piece, Street positions himself as one of among a growing trend of middle-class Sydneysider:

If you were at a party with 20 or 30-something Sydneysiders four years ago, the dominant conversational topic was getting into the property market… Now things have changed. People aren’t trading tips on how to buy in Sydney. They’re comparing notes on how to leave.

Leaving aside this generalisation by anecdote, it is true that the discussion around housing, cost of living and cities – while never far from the front page – has become recently politicised, with politicians at state and federal levels, past and present, making direct links between immigration, living cost and gridlocked traffic. I will also agree that anecdotally, some of my friends from Sydney have either left, or are considering heading elsewhere – partially for work, partially for adventure, definitely also for monetary reasons.

It’s at about this point that I should say that these people include me: I left Sydney over a year ago, but for the simple reason that my job was based in another city. While it might seem hypocritical for me to lecture another Sydney-leaver, I think it is actually appropriate – I can relate to Street and his experience, without necessarily agreeing. Perhaps many people do have ‘exit plans’ but it seems a stretch to say that everybody is considering going. Despite the drawbacks that Street mentions about beaches where you can’t park, imperfect public transport and railing against the lockout laws, Sydney isn’t exactly in the kind of crisis the article suggests.

Let’s start with the obvious: Sydney is a growing city of over 5 million people, and NSW a growing state, expected to hit 9.9 million by 2036. As our political leaders have referred to, Australia is dealing with a housing crisis across the board, with Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth all feeling the effects of Australia’s peculiar population concentration around its coastal cities.

As Australia’s biggest and most expensive city, Sydney is quite naturally the focus of discussion around the harsh realities of unaffordable housing, expensive living and long commutes. Yet while it represents the peak of this trend, Sydney is still only representative of an Australia-wide problem. Melbourne is Australia’s fastest-growing city, and on current trends is projected to eclipse Sydney in population at some point in the 2030s. The increase in homelessness in Melbourne is particularly striking, and indicative of a more general problem across the country.

The problem is that by trying to locate inequality and unaffordability within one city – no matter how huge, bloated or difficult to live in – Street actually de-contextualises the greater economic story of Australia over the last twenty years. Negative gearing, rising and entrenched economic inequality, and stagnating wages, have all contributed hugely to producing a country that is fine for existing homeowners, tolerable for the children of homeowners, and out of reach for anybody who isn’t upper-middle class. While Street makes some mention of flat-lining wages and the Faustian pact of the gig economy – you’ll get work quickly but not securely, nor well-paid – it’s not like these problems are going to go away in his new home of Adelaide. In short, as much as it’s Sydney’s geography, it’s also the economy and inequality.

Still, it’s brave of an author to attack the frankly ludicrous notion that a city like Sydney is ‘worth it’ because despite all of its issues, it has nice nightlife or has concerts and sporting events. Even if this were true, it’s not like these things don’t exist elsewhere (or that you can’t still enjoy Sydney over the weekends like many people in regional NSW or the ACT do). Nobody should donate their livelihood to the confected #events culture that cities will parade as a cost of quality of life. Satirist Dom Knight’s response to Street’s article, as poignant as it was tongue-in-cheek parochial, still relied on the appeal of the Manly Ferry, Opera Bar, and arts culture – things that appeal on a weekend out and to tourists, but are hardly the definition of the good life. FOMO is real, but it won’t blow your budget.

While Street’s concerns are understandable, his writing an article like this – effectively a ‘Sydneysiders of the world, unite (and evacuate)!’ – essentially encourages us to outsource our city problems to other places, or to retreat to the middle-class equivalent of permanent autonomous zones. It also misses what makes seemingly difficult metropolises like Sydney so vivid and full of life. It’s not the expensive cocktails or the overrated clubs. It’s the mercurial nature of a big city, with its fluid population and perpetual change, amidst timeless institutions that barely seem to age. The ever-changing storefronts, the random encounters with friends and acquaintances, the surprisingly cheap and diverse food that only locals really know about – these are just as much part of city life as the lengthy commutes and expensive house prices.

Then there’s the problem of what could be called reverse-NIMBYism, where people flee the difficult complexities that come with urban planning to the greener, less cluttered havens of towns that bear the hallmarks of urban life – pubs, cafés and parks – without the obvious complexities of homelessness, profiteering and long commutes. While never mentioned, there is also a worrying racial dimension to this. Leaving the more multicultural cities can be an unwitting (or perhaps subconsciously deliberate) way to whitewash one’s own existence, putting multicultural existence in the ‘too hard’ basket, along with the other great complexities of city living.

In these debates, the politics of geography are as important as history. I welcome critical thinking about our spatial differences, because the fact is that they are political, economic and social differences. And this kind of thinking is an important step towards embracing the more radical notions involved in the catch-all phrase ‘right to the city’. It involves going beyond the valorisation of the city as merely being a ‘good place to live’, and actually trying to frame our living conditions as political.

As much as avocado toast has now become a general meme representative of the absurd cost-of-living crisis that younger Australians face (not just millennials but also Generation X), if we limit ourselves to an individualist mode of reflection, we’ll be incapable of producing the critique necessary to radicalise people out of a middle-class complacency. We need to have a debate in which we aren’t simply condemning some places and valorising others, as if by spinning in circles we can somehow land in front of utopia. The question is not where should we move for a better life, but how can we start properly thinking about the spaces we’re in?


Image: Sydney sunrise / flickr

Angus Reoch

Angus Reoch is now a Canberra-based writer who actually likes his new home.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. Was with you most of the way until the bit starting…. ‘The ever changing storefronts….’
    You tagged yourself as less than a Sydneysider and more an insulated insider- and it almost sounded like you either haven’t lived here all that long or you have forgotten your roots – that is unless your mum and dad own a home here

    1. I think part of the interesting part of a city is the combination of change and permanence, no? The way that some things never quite change and yet you do see new things pop up all the time. Its not to glorify urban decay its just a real sign of what life is like as a resident, commuter and visitor. Recall how frozen yoghurt overtook king street and george street for two years until it died a sudden death. That’s interesting no?

      Regarding your latter comment I’ve lived in sydney all my life until about 20 where I’ve travelled and live in other places quite a lot. So Sydney is dear to me but i think i gained perspective living in other cities too, for whatever thats worth.

  2. How do you escape the high end of capital? Not necessarily by splitting from a big city like Sydney. I’ve just driven past huge avocado orchards where millions are being pocketed, as well as Truffle orchards, a well known mafia cryptocurrency. Both crops grown for a pure profit motive, with no respect for the land and an ecosystem in decline.

    1. Completely agree. This fictional dichotomy of city and country really belies how the two rely on each other.

      1. Hey Angus, found your article super thought provoking. I live 3 hours south of sydney in a small, coastal town and there is clearly an “escapist” middle class political dimension to the massive recent influx of Sydneysiders buying up property in the area. Class is important to the spatial dynamics because if you spend much of your time working (as me and my partner do) then you get less time at the beach. Fairly obvious. I found your racial aspect to the ‘escape to the great outdoors (away from Sydney)’ really pertinent. Its almost exclusively white in my area (aside from petrol station workers, and the local thai restaurant) and it seems to breed a kind of latent racism. I know this because I lived in Melbourne as a point of contrast (I am though, originally from Sydney, that particularly parochial white ethnohub known as ‘Cronulla’). Would be interested to know more about the politics of geography? Are you doing research in this area? Would like to find out!

        Thanks for the excellent article.


        1. Hey Dane, sorry for not replying earlier. I’m really interested in how your own experience bore out what I was saying here. From my own experience as a white Australia, I think that a lot of ‘enlightened’ Anglos don’t understand how they often displace their own discomfort with race and multiculturalism in our society, and how this can often be the backdoor into rather reactionary politics.

          I feel like these things are better understood within the US, where gentrification is a lot better understood as a racial dynamic, to the point where ‘urban’ is a race-baiting word that many conservative commentators use to describe black (and increasingly Muslim) Americans.

          Unfortunately I don’t have enough time to really do enough research in this field properly – asides from some vague urbanist ideas about mapping Sydney – but feel free to leave your email address if you want to discuss this further. Geography is super interesting and even a casual understanding of it can really enliven a lot of stale political analysis.

  3. Hi Angus,

    I lived in Sydney for ten years and would love to move back, but as a single gal on an average wage I’m not so sure I can. You’ve raised so many interesting points and I do agree that the spontaneity, variety and cosmopolitan aspects of a big city make it what it is. I miss all those things!

    However, would you agree that the ‘white flight’ occurs within Sydney itself? It’s a while since I’ve been there, but aren’t the North Shore beaches and Pittwater a fairly white area anyway? And let’s face it, most hippies and rejectors of middle class values are white in the first place. Most migrants have seen genuine poverty and aspire to the middle class life – they’re not rejecting it.

    Anyway, thanks for a very perceptive article that well captured the appeal of Sydney, as well as its problems.

    1. Hey Jo – replied to your comment but forgot to hit the actual ‘reply’ button. See below!

    2. And how much fun is the media in the past few weeks as the countdown to the election really starts to ramp up …

      the tsunami of scare-mongering bullshit grows more fecund and faecally outlandish by the day

      apparently, the latest advise from — ahem — property advisers (and their various ThinkTank lackeys and cronies) is that the ending of the Negative Gearing Ponzi Scheme engine by an incoming Labor government will cause every Australians’ dick to fall off, battery acid to leak from their vaginas, and botox and hair implants to spontaneously explode.

      Who’d have thunk it ?

      You almost pine for that old style pile of PR bullshit of property prices self correcting so need for policy change.

  4. Hey Jo, thanks for writing.

    I really miss Sydney too in many ways, though being Canberra-based with family up there I’m able to visit very often (a privilege not all share – having free rent in Sydney!)

    That said, while I do like these cosmopolitan aspects which I do miss here in Canberra, I don’t think it’s enough to justify living in a place per se. Dom Knight’s response to Street which I highlighted above really does just say ‘Sydney has problems, deal with it because it’s beautiful, which while tongue-in-cheek is also not really very helpful if you can’t afford the rent or don’t get paid enough to justify living there. You can link this to the general wage suppression this country’s been facing for the last twenty years or so too – it’s difficult to enjoy the benefits of our social economy when we’re excluded from them.

    White flight totally occurs internally – I’m from Mosman and it’s amazing how much more white it is than say Neutral Bay, two suburbs over, which at least has a lot more Asian businesses, schoolkids etc. There’s a reason why the Northern Beaches etc. and lower North Shore are ex-pat towns, full of British, Irish and Americans, etc., who move to Australia because of its beach lifestyle, surfing, etc. Or take a look at how the Western suburbs are categorised as increasingly ethnic until you hit the Blue Mountains where suddenly it becomes much more white again, due to that hippie effect.

    And you’re totally right about this being a discussion within mainly the white parts of Australian social life. As I commented above to Dane, you can see how ‘urban’ is often this loaded word for white people, where it either means ‘fear of ethnic gangs’ or ‘glamorous city living’, depending on whether the area in question is pre- or post-gentrification. These aren’t discussions that appear to happen as much in migrant communities, who perhaps deal with their built environment in this less commodified, overly-anxious way (though as a white man I can’t generalise here!).

    Glad you liked the article – I might continue more on this trend, it seems to have got a good response.

    1. A bit of a dated view of Canberra here, Angus! There’s lots of stuff to do; even if it’s not sanctified by that strange word ‘cosmopolitan’.

      The people who seem unhappiest here are those constantly escaping to Sydney or Melbourne, which is what I once did. They don’t really live here, or at least, won’t allow themselves to fully experience the ACT, and therefore continue to feel it as strange compared to another place.

      1. Hey Penelope,

        I don’t feel like there’s anything I said here which was really anti-Canberra – more that I (and others) miss some parts of Sydney that aren’t present here or in other smaller cities. I actually quite like it here.

        I agree that venerating the ‘cosmopolitan’ is a really weird attribute of modern consumerist culture, but also the anti-city ‘tree change’ perspective itself can have its own warped priorities (as argued in the article). It’s less of one thing being better than the other than both arguments distorting each other.

  5. hmmm …

    Not sure if you saw this article about Canberra …

    … but it reckons the top reason for moving to this city is — I’m not kidding — the bus shelters.

    Aside from the fact they are cold war concrete silos that nowhere else on the planet thinks fit to use, who the hell argues that bus shelters are a legitimate attraction.

    Wouldn’t want this writer to be my defense attorney !

    1. Hahaha yes I did see that article.

      Look, I actually like the bus shelters. Not only do they protect you from the rain (unlike so many others!) I do think they’re actually quite cool.

      Buuut as you indicate, this article is so trollable on so many levels (and is actually inspiring me to write a sequel, what with all this discussion on Canberra). Bus shelters are reason #1? Lonsdale street is somehow a ‘design district’, not just overpriced burgers? Canberra’s food amazing? Asian food is still marketed as ‘exotic’ and ‘exciting’ down here, and forget trying to find a good bakery. Sigh.

      I will give credit where credit’s due – Canberra’s ‘hipster revolution’ has been marketed incredibly well, giving off the air of Canberra as this inland capitalist paradise. In reality the 20% improvement in consumer choice (and boy do you pay for it) and the fact people are beginning to realise that there’s good produce in the area makes it sound like a second Melbourne. It’s fine, it’s actually kinda nice, but this superlative text is gross to read.

  6. If you want an indication of how completely fucked up the housing affordability conversation is in this country, just note the terminology news services blindly regurgitate from real estate press releases.

    According the ABC News website on 1 August 2018, “Melbourne SUFFERS its first annual price drop in almost six years, becoming the nation’s WORST-performing housing market.”

    Suffers ? Suffers ?!? SUFFERS ???

    How can a long overdue correction for artificially inflated housing market subsidised by idiotic policies like Negative Gearing be categorised as “suffering” ?

    (Assuming of course the claim is at all true and not just a desperate attempt by the real estate industry to stave off the inevitable end to their Negative Gearing meal ticket at the next election)

    But either way, at the very least the ABC could attribute such ridiculous biased weepy language to the real estate agent / Property Council sources … but I guess that’s too much to expect these days.

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