Urban Change and Water


The family across the road left last week. Jane, her daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren moved out of their family home in inner Sydney.

Nothing surprising in that except that with their reluctant departure our neighbourhood lost its last link to the first European settlers in the district. From the outside Jane’s house looks like a typical 1880s boom-time mansion, but the grandiose late-Victorian shell covers an 1860s homestead. Her family always thought of this as the ‘new house’, as it was built on the rise of a hill overlooking old stone cottages, which had been built in about 1800. These in turn replaced the settlers’ wattle and daub huts. The cottages are long demolished but their convict-hewn sandstones formed the foundations of my own wooden house in 1916, and also received a new life in the park next door.

Jane’s family can no longer afford to live in Sydney, hence the move up near Gosford where land is cheap. It is all a part of the changing rhythms of life and settlement in a large city. Today’s gentrified suburb, newly populated by 4WDs and BMWs, was yesterday’s slum. Most of the grand houses, now renovated, were previously divided into flats or used as boarding houses. The poor, and even ordinary working people, are being squeezed out by the relentless march of market forces aided and abetted by heritage listing.

Thanks to Peter Nicholson

Thanks to Peter Nicholson

This area joined Sydney suburbia as a part of the aspirational class of the 1880s. When I was told that my great-grandparents had lived in Stanmore, my grandmother was at great pains to explain that it had once been ‘respectable’. My grandparents wished to forget that they were products of the inner city. They left the slums of Newtown in the 1920s because they wanted the children to experience the clean air and rural life style of Merrylands which is, of course, now a part of greater Sydney’s urban sprawl. Yet my great-great-grandparents had moved to Newtown when it was just that a popular new town, miles west of crowded Sussex Street.

I returned to this area over twenty five years ago. Then, my relatives expressed both fear and surprise that I had chosen to live in a slum although they did understand that it had some of the cheapest housing in Sydney. My first terrace house was about half the price of a fibro house in Hurstville. Now an equivalent inner city terrace would cost almost twice a Hurstville fibro. Real estate cannot be measured in absolutes, relativities are the only guide.

Cities are like this. They start out small, near sources of clean water, trade, and land to grow food, then expand. If their citizens are lucky, at some significant points in their development someone with vision imposes a structure, a strategy, on future growth. Adelaide had Colonel Light to oversee a utopian notion of what a city could be. Melbourne had Robert Hoddle to lay out its grid to give it shape. Sydney was lucky enough to have Lachlan Macquarie in the early 19th century, and foolish enough to discard most of his vision as soon as he left.

Growing cities have problems of urban sprawl, power and water. Because this country is so large, generations have assumed that there is space to spare, and our cities have spread so far that even devotees of suburban bliss have noticed the travelling time. But this is also a dry continent, and our urban sprawls have built over much of the best watered agricultural land.

Because my field is Australian art, I am familiar with artist’s visions of the landscape of the past. Sydney Long’s By Tranquil Waters (Art Gallery of New South Wales) is an 1894 vision of how Cook’s River looked, near Tempe station. There is no visual connection between Long’s idyll of beautiful boys in lush dappled waters and today’s arid zone. Conrad Martens’ painting of Tempe shows the picturesque history of that sorry river house.

Away from the west of Sydney, where neat rows of suburban houses now experience river fogs, Elioth Gruner painted Spring Frost Emu Plains (Art Gallery of New South Wales) one of the most exquisite of all Australian landscapes. Melbourne, too, has had its sacred rural sites turned to suburbs. Heidelberg would be unrecognisable by Roberts or Streeton [Arthur Streeton Near Heidelberg]. No wonder that old greenie, Sir Arthur Streeton retreated to the Dandenongs in his old age.

It is not just beauty that has suffered with urban growth. Lionel Lindsay lived in Wahroonga because it was good land to grow vegetables, and Grace Cossington Smith painted the rural life of Turramurra [Eastern Road at Turramurra c1926 ]. My own childhood memories include the dairy farm at Hurstville just before it turned into housing, and the Chinese vegetable gardens at Carrs Park. Even Marrickville had dairy farms until World War II led to the creation of factories. More recently, the land west of Sydney, the source of much of the city’s fruit and vegetables, has been turned to intensive housing which means that more food has to be imported.

The most immediate problem facing the cities is water. Sydney Water will announce that dams are down to record lows even as the rain is pelting down over the hills and valleys of the city. The new Basix building guidelines will rectify this for new developments but in the older suburbs the water keeps pouring down the drain. It is possible to give even inner city houses water supplies. Michael Mobbs’ sustainable house is in Chippendale, and the inner city doesn’t get more dense than that.

The old dairy farms of the inner city benefited from the marshy land and fresh water creeks which eventually flowed into Cook’s River. Over seventy years after my house was built on one of the early subdivisions of that land, we dug up the layers of concrete that buried the backyard. Much to my surprise, the newly liberated soil was receptive to whatever was planted. Native birds have ousted the pigeons and flock to the Banksias and Lillipilli. Fortunately, they ignore the other fruit and vegetables.

In her extreme old age, my mother moved to a granny flat at the back of my house. She remembered the big drought of the 1940s so asked for a water tank in case of emergency. The tank waters our garden and has never run dry. One night’s good rain has it filled to the brim. I would like to extend the tank system to the rest of the house, but that is a future cost.

Which leads me to wonder. The heaviest domestic users of water in my city are the houses in the large and leafy suburbs the ones that get the most rain. If governments are really serious about saving water, why not offer tax rebates on water tanks and recycling? Sydney Water offers a $650 rebate for 2000 litre tanks but that is only nibbling at the problem.

If the big cities continue to sprawl out over the best land, flushing good water down the toilet, there may come a time when it is no longer cost effective to feed and water most of the population. Big houses built on small blocks of land may no longer prove to be such good investments for their owners. Cities shrink as well as grow. We have not lived in this land long enough to fully understand its rhythms and patterns.

Tim Flannery The Future Eaters: An Ecological History of the Australian Lands and People Reed 1994

Peter Spearitt Sydney’s Century UNSW Press 2000

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.