There goes the neighbourhood. John Menadue

Nov 28, 2013

It used to be thought that the intrusion of new ethnic communities into established Anglo-areas was destroying the neighbourhood.

Now it is increasingly the excesses of wealth that are doing the damage.

James Packer spent millions to buy and then bulldoze three houses to make room for his Sydney fortress. In the three year process, he inflicted noise, congestion and dust over the local residents whilst he lived quietly elsewhere.

But it didn’t make for happiness and wellbeing. The marriage lasted only three months in the new $50 million pile which Erica Packer described as ‘like living in a shopping centre’. Family relations are not helped if one has to communicate by intercom.

But in varying degrees this opulence and excess is destroying many neighbourhoods. Data commissioned by the Australian Bureau of Statistics by CommSec shows that the average floor area of new homes stood at 214.1 m2. in the 9 months to March 2011. The average floor area of new freestanding houses stood at 243.6 m2.

The US has traditionally had the biggest homes in the world. But new homes in Australia are now around 10% bigger than in the US.

Not just in James Packer’s area has it become increasingly common for two or more houses to be flattened to make room for a mega-pile. Even on these larger blocks, major excavation is necessary to accommodate 3 or 4 cars. A home theatre, sauna room, cabana gymnasium and lifts are musts. And of course – nanny rooms. A private swimming pool, sometimes underground, is desirable, even if there is one of the best beaches in the world within a few minutes walk.  Roller doors are essential to avoid eye-contact with other residents. Will draw bridges be next! The result is sterile streets where human contact is the exception.  In waterfront mansions the attractive front faces the water. The ugly rear is reserved for the neighbours.Any problem with pesky neighbours is handled by a member of staff or a lawyer.

Wealthy newcomers are attracted to the neighborliness and village nature of many areas but then proceed to methodically destroy what initially attracted them.

Some councils try to oppose this grandiosity but they don’t have the resources to combat a phalanx of celebrity architects, lawyers and “public relations” people. Some are also obviously concerned that if they reject gross over development it will lead to expensive legal appeals.

Why is it that people indulge themselves in such fantasy at the expense of others? As Elizabeth Farrelly in the SMH put it ‘no-one can make excess look good’. Boris Pasternak hit the nail on the head when he commented in respect of pre-Soviet Russia that ‘only the superfluous is vulgar’.

A great deal of what we are building is destroying human relationships. The more ostentatious and vulgar the built environment, the more it destroys neighborhoods.

And one in two hundred people in Australia are homeless every night.

Wealth doesn’t necessarily bring vulgarity and bad taste, but we are getting more and more of it.  Perhaps an inheritance and wealth tax would help curb this excess. I am not confident that an improvement in taste is likely.



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