Thinking: Suicide Towers

19 Jan

Suicide Towers, originally uploaded by traffman.

I’ve been following the troubles at the ‘Three M’s’ estate in Rosemeadow, on Sydney’s outskirts, with great interest over the past couple of weeks. It always fascinates me whether people are a product of their environment, or whether the environment is actually a product of the people.

This photo was taken in the centre of Redfern, where 41.6% of residents live in public housing, according to the 2006 census. Most live in high-density buildings with deceptively quaint names such as James Cook, Joseph Banks, Marton and Turanga.

These buildings, along with Northcott Towers in nearby Surry Hills, were bold social experiments from the 60s, where slums were cleared and residents were moved into new, affordable housing close to work opportunities in Sydney’s CBD. Poorly resourced, with inadequate police and community facilities, these grand plans soon turned into a hotbed of violent crime, mental illness and illicit drugs. But in 2006, Northcott became first public housing estate in the world to be recognised as a “safe community” by the World Health Organisation. Brendan Fletcher’s excellent documentary 900 Neighbours profiles the huge effort between residents and the wider community that resulted in their building being turned around.

The Three M’s estate was developed about 15 years after the Surry Hills and Redfern projects, and was based on the idealistic Radburn Plan, first implemented in Fair Lawn, New Jersey. The concept was to separate traffic and pedestrians by flipping houses so garages face the street and the main house faces a communal parkland at the back, which in turn pioneered the cul-de-sac, that universally adopted symbol of suburbia. What it has meant in Three M’s, however, has been isolation and a lack of security and privacy.

Yet other Radburn-based developments, such as Milgate Park Estate in Doncaster East, Melbourne, many parts of Canberra, and even Thurgoona, where I grew up, have not experienced the same social ills as Rosemeadow. So what went wrong at Three M’s? Surely if a huge building like Northcott Towers can reinvent itself, it can’t be too hard for three suburban streets?

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Posted by on January 19, 2009 in thinking, urban design


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