Australia’s greatest urbanist: Hugh Stretton

A portrait of Stretton by Robert Hannaford, which won the Peoples Choice Award in the 1991 Archibald Prize.
A portrait of Stretton by Robert Hannaford, which won the Peoples Choice Award in the 1991 Archibald Prize.

The Australian City in History has yet to be written. If it were, there is one person that would loom large: Hugh Stretton. He died on 15 July 2015 after a long battle with illness, three days past his ninety-first birthday. There was a short obituary in the Adelaide Advertiser and his personal friend economist Geoff Harcourt wrote a touching tribute: ‘I doubt that we shall see his like again.’

I paraphrased Lewis Mumford’s The City in History in order to elicit the significance of Stretton’s work. When we think of the key intellectuals in urban thought, this conjures names like historians Mumford and H.J. Dyos, intellectuals Henri Lefebvre and David Harvey, and activist Jane Jacobs. Stetton is arguably Australia’s greatest urbanist.

Ideas for Australian Cities

Better known as a radical economist, Stretton also trained in and taught history over his career. This historical consciousness also informed his work, especially his most influential book Ideas for Australian Cities, published in 1970. This book was a popular success. Stretton takes the reader on a whirlwind journey through Canberra, Adelaide, Sydney and Melbourne. It reads as a manifesto, a call to action, to combat the crisis facing the Australian city.

What were these urban crisis? The overriding issue was increasing social inequality. For Stretton, this inequality was inherently tied to cities, where poor planning, design and coordination were producing uneven social outcomes. For instance, established suburbs had better access to schools, hospitals, public transport and other essential services, leading to greater neighbourhood amenity. Meanwhile, a sizeable number of Australian households lacked sewage. Other concerns included unaffordable property prices, the dislocation caused by inner-city gentrification or trendyfication – though he didn’t use those terms – and the processes by which public land was being sold to private developers.

Contents of Ideas for Australian Cities

The Australian city, and so people’s lives, were under threat. The failure of governments to adequately address the city was a factor in this urban decline. As I argue in my current work: ‘The crisis of the Australian city was portrayed by Hugh Stretton in Ideas for Australian Cities (1971), a rousing book in which he sought to awaken a hitherto dormant urban consciousness.’ Of course these issues resonate today (as Stretton explained to ABC listeners in 2007).

Those following my work, particularly on Twitter, would be aware that I’m currently researching the Australian city of the 1970s. Whilst the national estate is my focus, it is impossible to understand the national estate, historic building preservation and in turn urban heritage without reference to the state of the Australian city as portrayed by Stretton. His fundamental concern for the overlapping issues of cities and social justice are just as relevant today.

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