GRAEME DAVISON City Dreamers: The urban imagination in Australia. Reviewed by Bernard Whimpress
Graeme Davison’s City Dreamers celebrates the visionaries of urban planning and looks at how their dreams have evolved.
Historian Graeme Davison has spent much of his academic life thinking about cities, as is evident from his many essays, and especially from such important works as his books The Rise and Fall of Marvellous Melbourne (1978) and Car Wars (2004). City Dreamers certainly conveys his passion for his subject.
The introductory chapter ‘The View from the Palisade Hotel’, reworked from an essay in Meanjin in 2006, sets the tone splendidly. The opening paragraph reads:
Like many Melburnians, I long for a harbour. If you were unkind you might call it harbour envy. The Yarra, Melbourne’s river, is a fine stretch of water, but not to be compared with Port Jackson, hailed since the foundation of British settlement as ‘the finest harbour in the world’. So when I visit Sydney, I always try to catch a little of its magic.
Davison continues that for many years he stayed ‘at the same little waterfront hotel’ that ‘sticks up, like a carbuncle on the big toe of Millers Point’. Davison doesn’t choose the Palisade for its facilities – his favourite room (number 14) has ‘no bathroom, no television, no telephone, no internet – just a pine wardrobe, a sagging double bed, and two faded Heidelberg prints’. What it does have is:
… one of the best and cheapest views in Sydney, a 250-degree panorama stretching from McMahons Point to the north, across the coat-hanger hoops of the Bridge, and south towards the pleasure domes of Darling Harbour.
It’s a brilliant start to the day, watching the sun rise before buying a newspaper and eating ‘eggs and bacon in the caf at the corner’.
Davison then explains that the view that brought him back year after year to the Palisade was historical rather than geographical. And we come to understand that all cities, not only Sydney, are layered with meaning.
A glance at the contents page is enticing, with 14 chapters bearing single word titles – ‘Artists’, ‘Scientists’, ‘Slummers’, ‘Snobs’, ‘Suburbanites’, ‘Anti-suburbans’, ‘Poets’, ‘Pessimists’, ‘Exodists’, ‘Motorists’, ‘Moderns’, ‘Planners’, ‘Nationalists’ and ‘Cosmopolitans’ – to ‘illustrate the dialectical character’ of those who dream of making and remaking cities.
To give an idea of changing ideologies, Davison’s chapters on the suburban ideal and its opponents make for a thought-provoking comparison.
Arguments in favour of suburbs were the creation of the idea of a ‘home’ in healthy, beautiful and spacious domains at affordable prices. Initially Australian suburbs were also much more democratic than those in English cities, where the aim was ‘to enable the rich to avoid the poor’, although this would change later:
[The suburb’s] popularity derived from its broad appeal to diverse sections of the British diaspora. English colonists prized the detached house and garden; Scots longed for the privacy of their own front door; while the Irish cared less about the features of the house and more about freedom from an oppressive landlord. Sometimes the dream was defined defensively, by the logic of avoidance; sometimes more positively around the lure of the countryside or the promise of independence.
‘The most serious strike against the suburb,’ Davison writes, ‘is now environmental: its profligate consumption of land, energy and water.’ And yet our cities keep getting bigger and bigger. In recent years Melbourne has won the title of ‘world’s most liveable city’, though how that is measured is curious. The city’s current population is 4.8 million and it has proponents pushing for a figure of 8 million by 2050. Contrast that view with one expressed in The Argus newspaper in 1952 when the population was 1.3 million:
With its ever-increasing sprawl Melbourne has grown too big for its economy. To save our city and ourselves from bankruptcy we must call a halt to the sprawl before it can run us into bigger bills.
The pessimistic Argus would close down within five years. However, it wasn’t alone in its disdain: AD Hope’s poem ‘Australia’ referred to the nation’s five cities as ‘teeming sores’ populated by ‘second-hand Europeans’, an attitude that stuck in Davison’s craw: ‘I became an urban historian because I believed our cities deserved more of our curiosity and idealism,’ he writes.
‘Planning is the most ambitious kind of city dreaming,’ Davison tells us, and thus it should be no surprise that of his book’s many heroes, the one who stands out above all others is Adelaide historian Hugh Stretton, the subject of Chapter 12, ‘Planners’. Stretton’s book Ideas for Australian Cities was published 50 years ago, first by the author, before being republished due to its great appeal to Australian intellectuals. Stretton argued in favour of the growth of middle-sized cities like Adelaide and Canberra instead of the super-swelling of Sydney and Melbourne, and for decentralisation and the creation of new cities – remember Gough Whitlam’s aims for expanding Albury-Wodonga and Don Dunstan’s plans for Monarto – which fell victim to ‘economic and political conditions that were destined to pass’.
Of Stretton’s book, Davison writes:
Some will view it as a signpost on a road to nowhere, a monument to the catastrophic overreach of government at the high noon of Keynesianism. Others will recall it nostalgically, as a reminder of a noble dream of social betterment that was destined, alas, to die in the chill winds of economic realism.
He quotes Stretton that planning ‘should be concrete, flexible, grounded in the experience of everyday life’, and on his own ideal living at 61 Tynte Street, North Adelaide:
I want what I’ve got. A home of my own where I can sit under a vine in my own backyard; a park somewhere near where the kids can kick a football; a short walk to Tom the Cheap and a local pub; half an hour’s drive maybe to a beach, or some open country.
Cities of 3 million, 5 million, 8 million people hinder the possibility of such ideals. Stretton was a dreamer ‘if dreaming is the willingness to think beyond conventional wisdom’, Davison concludes, but the need to think and dream about where and how we live is more important than ever.
‘Sustainability’ is a word that has been bandied around a lot over the past half-century to the point of becoming a cliché, but it must be heeded in order for us to face the challenges that lie ahead. Australian cities cannot continue their geographical expansion ever-outwards, but neither is ever-upwards necessarily the answer. The outbreak of the coronavirus and the probability of similar viruses to come puts closer living at risk and may send us back to building cities with greater space and grace. And climate change, ‘the great moral challenge of our generation’, as Kevin Rudd put it in 2007, has not gone away.
The strength of City Dreamers is the multiple perspectives it offers from the past. In the late nineteenth century leading writers of bush stories for the Sydney Bulletin such as Henry Lawson, Bernard O’Dowd, Edward Dyson, AG Stephens and the Lindsay brothers were young men in a hurry who emigrated from declining country towns to embrace the intellectual stimulus of Sydney and Melbourne. Snobs built houses on high ground; two generations later their descendants, longing to be louche, converted abandoned inner-city factories and warehouses into funky bars, restaurants and apartments.
All of us have our dreams and memories: the elegant bluestone chapel that became a pharmacy; the three-storey brick warehouse that became a nightclub and now survives as a carpark; the petrol station turned into a fundamentalist church; the football stadium that is now a site of multiple apartment blocks. Davison reminds us that cities are contested spaces. Local councils and state governments quake before the financial power of rampant developers who thrust yet another cheapjack high-rise apartment block or sprawling shopping centre upon us.
Most of us live in cities, but do we admire endless cranes atop city skyscrapers as signs of progress while disregarding the scale and placement of such structures? How much time do we spend thinking about them and their impact on our environment?
City Dreamers is urban history at its best, and very much a book for our time.
Graeme Davison City Dreamers: The urban imagination in Australia NewSouth 2016 PB 314pp $34.99
Bernard Whimpress is a historian who usually writes on sport. His most recent book is The Towns: 100 Years of Glory 1919-2018.
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