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Barangaroo, Millers Point and the post-Green Ban city

For many international urban planners the Green Ban movement was Australian’s urban planning pièce de résistance.

Green Ban was a form of political action established in 1970s Sydney. The movement incorporated an eccentric mix of resident action groups, feminists, gay liberationists, Aboriginal activists, builders’ labourers and academics.

One of the coalition-building movement’s key resources was the suspension of unionised labour, which halted a range of developments in Sydney. Famously The Rocks, adjacent to Millers Point and Barangaroo, was to be razed by developers. A Green Ban saved the area in the early 1970s.

At the time the local resident action group “called for resident rehousing in the area, retention of historical buildings, infill development on vacant sites and public participation in the planning, and less emphasis on planning for profit with Australia’s heritage”.

Perhaps no other urban locality better represents the ongoing tensions between local place-making and globalising development forces than the area at the southern end of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. The Rocks, Millers Point and Barangaroo have been a site of repeated waves of displacement, resistance and redevelopment for almost 250 years.

Prior to their displacement by European settlers in the late 18th century the Gadigal people lived in rock shelters around the steep shoreline. But for most of the last 200 years the areas proximity to Sydney’s wharves and maritime industries saw it develop as a largely low-income working class area.

Following the Green Bans many dock workers tenancies and the ownership of their dwellings in Millers Point were converted to public housing. The NSW state government built the Sirius Building in The Rocks to house displaced families.

In 2003 the NSW state government announced that the suburb of Barangaroo, which sits adjacent to Millers Point, would be redeveloped from shipping and stevedoring facilities into commercial office space and recreational areas.

Millers Point and Barangaroo will be transformed from sheltering the retired labour supply for Sydney’s first working harbour into new developments that will provide upmarket residential amenity next to conserved heritage landscapes for global Sydney’s new middle class.

It would be a mistake to describe the eviction of the working class from this area as more of the same old urban inequality. Saskia Sassen, the renowned Dutch-American sociologist, argues that assessments like this miss the larger trend. It is a trend upon which the Green Bans can shine an illuminating light.

As the Green Ban movement faded into the urban planning history books a new form of political thinking reverberated around the industrialised world. Emerged from the 1980s it was characterised by the privatisation of public services, including housing, and the dismantling of unionised labour.

Jack Mundey, a union leader in the 1970s Green Ban movement, recently highlighted the contemporary human cost of the transformation from an industrial to a global Sydney. He says: “I think we owe it, to the people of Millers Point, and their forebears, who after all built this city; this is where the city was built from.”

Green Ban was much more than an anti-development coalition-building movement. It was about people with diverse interests coming together to create a fair and just city. It was about saving green space, protecting our heritage and looking out for fellow Australians. Today, the political landscape of Sydney is such that the retired dockworkers and other tenants cannot call on the unions to stop-work and withdraw labour supply like the 1970s.

On August 20 the Barangaroo Authority lost its Supreme Court appeal over $1 billion in developer contributions by the developer Lend Lease for the site. On the same day Millers Point residents were “holding a vigil” outside a Sydney real estate office that was reportedly selling off state-owned Millers Point properties.

Lend Lease has been in talks with not-government housing managers about meeting their affordable housing targets for the Barangaroo development off-site. Fairfax media reports the developer has considered nearby Millers Point as a potential site.

The post-Green Ban city has been shaped by three decades of anti-union political rhetoric and a move away from public housing. The people who built this city are being evicted from it to make way for the new middle class. Lend Lease will provide a limited amount of “key worker housing” in Barangaroo, Millers Point or elsewhere. These “working-class” properties are unlikely to house those who have lived in the area for decades. Green Ban history in The Rocks and Millers Point shows that what is saved is not always safe. Will the Central to Eveleigh Corridor be next?


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