Winners and losers on the urban fringe
Sydney’s rural-urban fringe is a site of winners and losers.
It is a landscape where dreams are fulfilled and memories are lost. The promises of land developers in master-planned suburban utopias meet the hope and expectations of newcomers.
At the same time, locals grasp at lost memories as the rural countryside is covered in a sea of tiled roofs and concrete driveways.
Conflict over a dream
As Sydney’s rural-urban fringe moves across the countryside, it becomes a contested site between locals and outsiders over their aspirations and dreams. The conflict revolves around displacement and dispossession.
Sydney’s rural-urban fringe is similar to the urban frontier of large cities in Australia and other countries. It is a dynamic landscape that makes and re-makes familiar places.
More than this the rural-urban fringe is a zone of transition where invasion and succession are constant themes for locals and newcomers alike.
Searching for the security of a lost past
As Sydney’s urban sprawl invades fringe communities, locals yearn for a lost past and hope for some safekeeping of their memories. They use nostalgia as a fortress and immerse themselves in community rituals and traditions drawn from their past. They are drawn to ever-popular festivals like the Camden Show and Campbelltown’s Fishers Ghost Festival, which celebrate the rural heritage of Sydney’s fringe.
Local communities respond by creating imaginary barriers to ward off the evils of Sydney’s urban growth that is about to run them over. One of the most important is the metaphorical moat created by the Hawkesbury-Nepean River floodplain around some of the fringe communities of Camden, Richmond and Windsor.
Fringe communities use their rural heritage to ward off the Sydney octopus’s tentacles that are about to strangle them. In one example, the Camden community has created an imaginary country town idyll. A cultural myth where rural traditions are supported by the church on the hill, the village green and the Englishness of the gentry’s colonial estates.
Hope and the creation of an illusion
Outsiders and ex-urbanites come to the new fringe suburbs looking for a new life in a semi-rural environment. As they escape the evils of their own suburbia, they seek to immerse themselves in the rurality of the fringe. They want to retreat to an authentic past when times were simpler. It is a perception that land developers are eager to exploit.
Ex-urbanites are drawn to the urban frontier by developer promises of their own piece of utopia and the hope of a better lifestyle. They seek a place where “the country still looks like the country”. These seek what the local fringe communities already possess – open spaces and rural countryside.
The imagination of new arrivals is set running by developer promises of suburban dreams in master-planned estates. They are drawn in by glossy brochures, pollie speak, media hype and recent subsidies on landscaping and other material benefits.
Manicured parks, picturesque vistas and restful water features add to the illusion of a paradise on the urban frontier. Developers commodify a dream in an idyllic semi-rural setting that new arrivals hope will protect their life savings in a house and land package.
Destruction of the dream
Dreams are also destroyed on Sydney’s urban frontier for many newcomers. Once developers of master-planned estates have made their profit, they withdraw. They no longer support the idyllic features that created the illusion of a suburban utopia.
The dreams of a generation of ex-urbanites have come crashing down in the suburbs like Harrington Park and Mount Annan. The absence of developer rent-seeking has meant that their dreams have evaporated and gone to dust. Manicured parks have become overgrown. Restful water features have turned into dried-up cesspools inhabited by vermin.
Paradoxically, the ex-urbanite invasion has displaced and dispossessed an earlier generation of diehard motor racing fans of their dreams. The destruction of the Oran Park Raceway created its own landscape of lost memories. Ironically new arrivals at Oran Park bask in the reflected glory of streets named after Australian motor racing legends and sculptures that pay tribute to the long-gone raceway.
The latest threat to the dreams of all fringe dwellers is the invasion of Sydney’s southwest urban frontier by the exploratory drilling of coal seam gas wells. Locals and new arrivals alike see their idyllic surroundings disappearing before their eyes. They are fearful of their semi-rural lifestyle.
So what of the dreams?
Sydney’s rural-urban fringe will continue to be a frontier where conflict is an ever-present theme in the story of the place. Invasion, dispossession, opportunity and hope are all part of the ongoing story of this zone of constant change.
Ian Willis 2012, Townies, ex-urbanites and aesthetics: issues of identity on Sydney’s rural-urban fringe.
Ian Willis 2013, Imaginings on Sydney’s Edge: Myth, Mourning and Memory in a Fringe Community (Sydney Journal)
Updated 10 May 2023. Originally posted 24 September 2015
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