On the Death of Australia's Jane Jacobs

Jack Mundey with megaphone

The life of trade union leader Jack Mundey, who died this week, is being celebrated across the Australian media. He undoubtedly had a long lasting impact on Sydney, but perhaps in ways most commentators fail to acknowledge. As secretary of the communist controlled NSW Builders Labourers’ Federation from 1968 to 1975, Mundey pioneered a boycott tactic which came to be known as ‘the green ban’. In short, if the union disapproved of a property development on heritage or environmental grounds, BLF members would be withheld from the site. The BLF’s share of the construction workforce was such that this type of strike effectively killed the project.  

Mundey came on the scene at a crucial time in Sydney’s post-war history. Cost-efficient developments in transportation technology like motorisation, particularly trucking, and containerization ended the industrial sector’s need for proximity to maritime facilities, which had been the case since settlement, and rail junctions, which had emerged in the mid-19th century. This led to a dramatic transformation in Sydney’s industrial geography, including a process of inner-city deindustrialization. The traditional light industrial ring surrounding the CBD and extending westward along the harbour foreshores began to disappear. Transport hubs which had serviced the ring like Darling Harbour wharves and rail yards became redundant. As factory, workshop and warehouse owners moved their operations to cheaper sites in the western suburbs, industrial workers left the inner-city in droves for the prospect of a quarter acre block. Until now, the cost of housing across inner suburbs was suppressed by low amenity associated with noisy and dirty industry. The departure of these activities combined with locational advantages created the potential for a rapid escalation of land and property values.

However, before property prices took off, another demographic trend was underway. Just as working class residents were leaving, they were replaced by a new class of high-paid professionals, flowing out of the expansion of tertiary education in the 1960s and 1970s. For this young cohort employed in fields like public administration, academia, media, advertising, architecture, design, and the arts, these charming 19th century streetscapes lined with workingmen’s cottages and terraces, close to the city centre’s office jobs and rich cultural attractions, were ideal ‘lifestyle’ locations. Former industrial precincts like Surry Hills, Chippendale, Woolloomooloo, Millers Point, Ultimo, Glebe, Annandale, Leichhardt, Rozelle, Lilyfield and Balmain soon sprouted amenities catering to more affluent and sophisticated tastes. This process intensified as the residual working class population aged and passed on. ‘Yuppies’ felt entitled to protect their lifestyle havens from broader metropolitan priorities, turning to environmental and ‘resident’ activism at the local level. They were adept at dressing up their self-interest in the language of idealism.

There was, after all, reason for concern. In the normal course of events, sudden arrival on the market of an extensive supply of centrally located land with escalating value would lead to wave of more intensive development, usually consolidating more than one lot and higher than street level. There would be sound opportunities for property investors and developers on the condition that they were permitted to construct larger multi-storey residential and commercial buildings. In other world cities like New York, high-rise residential was always common in neighbourhoods at the centre. That it wasn’t a feature of Sydney CBD is probably due to space constraints. Such developments would have delivered social benefits in the supply of lower priced dwelling units close to the heart of the city. Sydney’s inner-south and inner-west would not be as exclusive or closed off to lower to middle income earners as the eastern suburbs and north shore. But the politically savvy young professionals saw large-scale developments, and proposed expressway links to the western suburbs, as a threat to the street-level amenity in their cherished lifestyle havens.

In the case of planning approvals under local government control, they could form action groups and support councillors committed to ‘environmental protection’. Planning instruments and processes under state government control, less local in scope, presented a larger challenge. This is where Mundey came in. Ultimately the wave of inner-city residential construction and expressways to the blue-collar jobs out west never materialized and the moment was lost. The chance of a more socio-economically diverse, less gentrified, inner Sydney was killed − preservation of social housing stock was not enough – by hard nosed yuppies backed up by the arbitrary threat of Mundey’s veto. For this he was celebrated as an urban hero equivalent to Jane Jacobs and awarded the title “father of urban environmentalism in Australia”. Perhaps Mundey’s true class loyalties are found in his reference to “the first time the enlightened working class teamed with the enlightened middle class to fight for the environment anywhere in the world”. There was little benefit to the working class, however, who had largely evacuated the inner-city, and few of them considered Mundey’s hard leftism ‘enlightened’ (incidentally, he joined the Communist Party of Australia in 1957, just a year after the Soviet Union crushed the Hungarian Uprising). On the other hand, there was much gain to the upper middle class, who saw property values in their idyllic urban villages appreciate by several orders of magnitude. No wonder they are celebrating his life.

- John Muscat

This article was republished on On Line Opinion:
https://www.onlineopinion.com.au/view.asp?article=20909

This article featured on the US urban site New Geography:
https://www.newgeography.com/content/006646-on-death-australias-jane-jacobs

The New City's main website is here: www.thenewcityjournal.net

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