In recent months the emotive language of war and destruction has been blazed across Sydney’s media as ‘battles wage in nearly every suburb’ and there will be ‘bulldozers in every street’.
Journalists and politicians are whipping up a scare campaign about new development in Sydney in the form of medium-rise and high-rise apartment buildings. An outsider reading the daily Sydney news would think the equivalent of the factional battles of Syria have arrived in Sydney. The new developments are seen as being ‘reckless’ and having ‘blighted’ many suburbs, ‘completely destroying the family-friendly environment’, neighbourhoods being ‘ruined’ with communities becoming ‘socially isolated’ and ‘economically isolated’.
The descriptions of the supporters of the swing to more urban living in Sydney are described in very negative terms. Luke Foley, the NSW Opposition leader says the NSW Government has ‘blighted many suburbs with over-development’, David Shoebridge, the Greens spokesperson on planning says our neighbourhoods are ‘being ruined to make profits for a greedy few.’ ‘Greed gone mad’ is another quote and Inner West Mayor, Darcy Byrne, wants to keep the existing character by making sure his suburb is ‘not downtown Hong Kong’ while federal opposition spokesperson on Cities, Anthony Albanese criticises the Sydenham to Bankstown strategy as a catalyst for ’the worst kind of developer imposed rezoning proposals.’
Alan Jones on his morning radio program refers to apartment buildings as being fit for ‘battery hens’ and Deputy Leader of the NSW Opposition, Michael Daley says the government has ‘let them get away with murder’ in referring to projects he sees as being over development, ‘a massive over development on a grand scale’ he says. Ryde Liberal member of the NSW Parliament, Victor Dominello, says he has been ‘advocating against overdevelopment since I got elected about 10 years ago’. Labor member for Macquarie Fields, Anoulack Chanthivong, in fighting ‘greedy developers’ tells his voters that the electorate has ‘Development out of control’.
In March this year the Sydney Morning Herald presented the result of an ‘exclusive’ poll that found that 60 percent of NSW voters said that ‘Overdevelopment is harming the character of Sydney’s suburbs’ but clearly the word ‘over’ when linked to development skews the result to a negative just as a measure of support for ‘over eating’ would.
In 2015 two academic researchers undertook a review of how the Queensland media used language to describe urban development. Katrina Raynor and Tony Matthews found that mostly negative imagery was used in the media that referenced war, death and disease and that increased density was associated with ‘towering buildings’, ‘faceless residents’, ‘floods of development’. ‘city under siege’ and ‘ripping the heart out of its suburbs’.
Raynor and Matthews found that local politicians opposed to consolidation were characterised as ‘saviours of the people’ and ‘the white knights standing strong, benignly offering constituents protection from the destruction of over-development.’ Their research found that high density apartments were characterised as ‘chocking the city’ or ‘ripping the heart out of its suburbs’, ‘shoeboxes’, ‘rabbit hutches’ and ‘charmless chunks of brick’. The people who live in them are portrayed as ‘outsiders’. Anthony Albanese in an Opinion in the Daily Telegraph in April 2018 clearly preferred those living in a house over apartment dwellers when he said, ‘One of the great things about living in a house with a yard in the suburbs is that you tend to mix with your neighbours. Apartments are different. You can live in an apartment and seldom see your neighbours.’
Journalists often give a bias to an article on development through the choice of quotes from residents. Recent examples include ‘The intensity of developments will completely destroy the the family-friendly, green environment that currently exists’ , or ‘There’s the constant sound of babies when people are at home and dogs barking on cold, lonely balconies.’ But a number of journalists from the more left wing media often have an anti-development tone to their articles. Aiden Anderson in writing for the Sydney Morning Herald on 5 July 2018 wrote, ‘Look around Sydney and you’ll see battles being waged in nearly every suburb between residents’ action groups and the state government.’ ‘All across Sydney people feel under serviced, overcrowded, dwarfed by high-rises, squashed into train carriages, smothered by streets flooded with cars and crammed onto toll roads.’ So Sydney-siders are dwarfed, squashed, smothered and crammed so it is no wonder there is a negative attitude to Sydney’s development.
The worry with the rhetoric that is being conveyed by politicians and journalists is that the people who live in the growing number of apartments are being marginalised. Yet at the 2016 census 30 percent of Sydney’s homes were apartments and projections are that this could reach 50 percent in 40 years time. So as the apartment dwellers grow from a third to a half of Sydney’s voters I suspect the politicians will begin to see these people in a different light. They will probably be seen as building new co-operative communities more focused on public transport than car usage and making Australia more sustainable with their shared way of life. But I think the anti-growth media coverage will continue for some time particularly in the lead up to the NSW election next March as politicians run fear campaigns about over development and then promote themselves as the fighters against this on behalf of their voters.