The Unruly City

The Unruly City: Sydney in the 1960s and 1970s

Sydney has long been a city well-known for poor planning decisions, reflecting a historically laissez-faire approach to urban design. Planning advocate J.D. Fitzgerald lamented in 1917 that Sydney was “a city without a plan, save whatever planning was due to the errant goat”. “Wherever this animal made a track through the bush”, he observed, “there are the streets of today”. Sydney historian Paul Ashton has subsequently called Sydney an “accidental city”, because its planning history has been shaped by, at best, opportunistic development and disjointed or abortive attempts at holistic planning. As declared by one frustrated onlooker: “There is no such thing as planning [in the city of Sydney] – [ it is] all opportunism on the part of every agency.”

That can make for some fairly unruly spaces at times, as local residents and activists have intervened to protect their homes from speculative property development, then and now. A particularly notable period for citizen activism in Sydney was the 1960s and 1970s, when a colossal development boom utterly transformed the city. When developers capitalised on relaxed building height restrictions and relatively low interest rates, much of Sydney’s Victorian-era buildings within the CBD were demolished, replaced by commercial high-rise.

Residents, activists and builders’ labourers joined forces at this time demanding the right for greater consultation in planning decisions. In their heyday the BLF Green Bans were successful in holding up more than $300m worth of development across Sydney. They saved many buildings – most notably the Rocks, a tourist mecca today – but not all. They also encouraged the development of stronger participatory planning processes in Australia. But when residents dared to speak out against the loss of their homes, they encountered the darker side of Sydney’s criminal underbelly…

Victoria St, Potts Point

There are a number of sound recordings here clustered around Victoria St, dealing with the tumultuous period between 1973-4 when resident action forced delays to the construction of the Victoria Heights towers overlooking the city.

BLF Green Bans in The Rocks

Listen in to the sounds of the Rocks in 1973, when the BLF were fighting to save the historic Rocks precinct from redevelopment.

Victoria St Soundwalk

What’s so special about Victoria St?

Victoria St has long been one of Sydney’s most prized locations, described by the National Trust in the 1970s as the ‘Montmartre of Sydney’.

It was also the site of the first public housing campaign in Australia (Ashton 1993: 104). In 1971 first-time property developer Frank Theeman acquired whole rows of houses here through his company Victoria Point Pty Ltd, with plans to demolish the terrace houses and build a number of office and apartment towers. Theeman gained council approval for his plans in March 1973, when he began to issue eviction notices to tenants of these properties, many of which were boarding houses available for low rent.

Read on…


1. Soundwalk:’I built a city of green, the best you’ve ever seen’

2. 115 Victoria St: Mick Fowlerâ??s Funeral

3. 202 Victoria St: Juanita’s home

  1. Wendy’s speech outside 115 Victoria St

More Green Bans…

[1] This is the way Wendy Bacon described Sydney in her speech outside 115 Victoria St in 1974, featured in my Victoria St soundwalk.

[2] Accounts of what happened on Victoria St that day are available through a number of web resources, and are documented by Pat Fiske in Woolloomooloo (1979). References include Milliss (1974); Milliss and Brennan (1974); Rees (2004); Squatspace (2004); Burgmann and Burgmann (1993). The transcript of an interview with Mundey reflecting on the importance of the Green Bans to the development of Australian cities is available from the ABC at