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
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