High-rise has always had its NIMBYs

According to the Oxford Dictionary, the phrase ‘NIMBY’ – meaning a ‘Not in My Backyard’ resident activist – first appeared in the early 1980s. For this reason, many people assume that neighbourhood action groups – who fight development in their street or suburb – are a relatively recent phenomenon.

It’s an assumption which is wrong. For instance, in 1925, the war historian Charles Bean warned of “the danger lying in the areas of flats which are fast springing up in some suburbs…which will almost become slums in present lifetimes”. Even worse, according to Bean, flats meant children would be weaker because they would not enjoy a backyard for fitness and play and therefore, when the children grow up, “the ‘Anzac’ stamp will pass from among us.” A heavy message indeed from the main who helped create the Anzac legend.

Or how about this rude statement from a former Ku-ring-gai mayor, Alderman McFayden. He claimed in 1929 that “the flat dweller belongs to the floating population of the big cities and is of no value to the community as a flat is not a home”. So that’s it then – if you live in an apartment you’ve no benefit to society.

NIMBYs have been back in the news lately, having been accused of derailing the NSW Government’s planning reforms. Whether you agree with them, or not, it pays to recognise that anti-development sentiments have existed in Sydney right back to at least the very early 21st century, particularly in regard to high-rise development.

There is no point thinking NIMBYism is a recent fad which will pass. It’s in the city’s bones. It needs to be acknowledged.

This means that strong and robust consultation and communication strategies are required for any major planning issue. The power of the local resident action group must be respected and understood and they must be part of the conversation. Developers will increasingly need to clear about the potential benefits of proposed projects (such as new parkland, cafes, housing choice, retail facilities or local employment) in these conversations, as local residents will also be very clear about they see as the potential downsides.

At the same time, of course, consultation must increasingly spread way beyond people who would traditionally be part of action groups. This includes important deliberative panels and citizen juries to spread the decision-making load to people other than those who volunteer to take part.

However, at the same time, don’t ignore the NIMBYs. As a former government media manager, I know all too well that resident action groups have the most potential to derail planning outcomes through quenching the media’s thirst for conflict and therefore need to be engaged.

So let’s have a look at Sydney’s history of resident and political activism, particularly in regard to high-rise development.

For starters, it is a common misconception that the imposition of 45m building height limits across Sydney in 1912 was because of concerns that fire-fighters’ hoses were ineffective above this level. It wasn’t. A quick reading of the parliamentary debate on this issue shows that the real issue was opposition to the physical form of skyscrapers for any number of “reasons” – including loss of street sunlight, road congestion, the hatching of disease among tenants and the fact that Australia should follow the low-rise path of European, not the high-rise path of American cities. There was also a religious overtone to the debate. One MP said skyscrapers would stop God’s ‘heavenly light’ from hitting the street, another called them ‘evil’. Not surprisingly, church steeples were exempt from the height limit.

While New York was building the Empire State Building to 381m in the 1930s, Sydney was limiting itself to buildings eight times smaller than this. It took until 1957 for NSW Parliament to pass a law revoking the height limit. Melbourne City Council had resolved to do the same some ten years earlier.

It would be fair to say that the late 1950s and early 1960s were a time of strong overall support for high-rise development, particularly to eradicate inner-city “slums” and to build new offices in the city’s CBD.  During this time, our high-rise towers at Darling Point, Blues Point and Mosman were constructed. However, as inner-Sydney suburbs once again became desirable places to live, it didn’t take long for resident activists to make their presence felt.

By the end of the decade, Warringah and Mosman councils had put in place three-storey height limits. Darling Point’s era as a high-rise sanctuary was over due to resident pressure. Grand redevelopment schemes for Woolwich and McMahon’s Point were no more. Resident action groups were growing like topsy across North Sydney. And that was even before the rise and fall of skyscraper schemes for The Rocks, Waterloo and Woolloomooloo in the 1970s – killed off in part because of green bans but also resident activism.

By the early 1980s, the NSW Government formalised its support for urban consolidation and the resident activist versus NSW Government/council debate began a familiar tone. For instance, Manly residents rose-up to strike down high-rise development on the beachfront. At the same time, other communities made a decision to support urban consolidation – in particular the City of Sydney Council (and before this South Sydney Council).

In short, resident and development activism regarding high-rise development has been part of Sydney’s DNA for at least a century. Don’t expect it to disappear any time soon.

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