Matt Gollan is an Urban Planner and live music advocate based in Surry Hills who is all about building communities, improving city life and making Sydney liveable again. 

…said my mind last weekend as a bouncer told me I couldn’t stand outside a pub unless I had a meal or was smoking.

How on earth did we, Sydney siders, become so bloody conservative? How did we become so fearful of breaking rules, challenging social norms, and being innovative? When did we decide that politicians should decide what ‘fun’ is and that it should be legislated? When did we lose all common sense and decide to be told how to live in our cities? There’s been a lot of discussion recently, particularly around highlighting Sydney’s deteriorating night time economy, that I find depressingly true – Megalomaniac politicians, overregulation and our subsequent fear of consequence has culminated in a big grey shitstorm that has drowned out any cultural vibrancy, innovation, or sense of community that this city, I’ve been informed, once had.

You only have to set foot outside of a popular Sydney pub with a wine glass in hand to be reminded that rules and restrictions are suffocating Sydney more than ever. Whilst it‘s easy to point the finger at our governments for the excessive ‘do’s’ and ‘don’ts’, I think that we are part of the problem. Fair’s fair - Rules exist for a reason, and we’ve arrived at this point because we’ve given reason for them to be established. Simple minded, liquored up animals coward punch innocent bystanders and we get lock out laws. Combine that kneejerk reaction with excessive noise complaints from residents living in the inner city and you’ll see an exodus of live music venues in Sydney. If you’re a food lover or dining enthusiast, be prepared to sit inside, as Al fresco seating within the inner city is on a tight leash as it may cause an “adverse impact to the amenity of the neighbourhood.” Oh my lord.

We don’t make the laws, but we have accepted them as if we were sheep being herded into a grassier paddock. Last weekend, I felt like I was that sheep and the pub was the grassier paddock. But honestly, the pub wasn’t that grassy, it’s very expensive grass, it’s packed to the rafters, and the grass tasted like shit. Now, of course, the roided up shepherd will allow you to step outside of the paddock, but only on the condition that you’re eating or smoking. However, you may have had too much grass by that stage and may not be allowed back into the paddock.

The insanity! Baaaahhhh!!!

Still, we’re all just like - “This is crap, but rules is rules, and we’ll just keep on keepin’ on.”
I mean, who wants to purchase a bottle of wine past 10pm these days anyway? And why would you want to celebrate your 30th birthday in a Sydney establishment past 1.30am?

Then the collective voice of anyone in Sydney who enjoys a tipple or a social life speaks up: “Ok so we fucked up… we can’t have nice things. Can we perhaps do fun things outside of pubs and clubs? We’re gonna make our own fun. Is that cool? Ok. Cool.”

The response has generally been: “Yeah, nah, be quiet/shut it down/ please move back inside… or there’s a fine.” But we still try.

Last week, Commune put on their second daytime ‘Block Party’ in Erskineville and over 9,000 people clicked “attending” on the Facebook event page. But then good old fashioned Sydney fear kicked in – the ‘Block Party’ was, at the last minute, changed to a designer market – ‘Locally Made’. It seems that in a panicked effort to reduce numbers, the event organisers asked attendees to then register for the event to obtain the address. Emails and posts to attendees made it very clear that ‘Locally Made’ was “DEFINITELY NOT A RAVE”. I’m reliably informed that significantly less than 2000 people actually attended. And that sucks for Commune – who are essentially building a community and promoting local talent.

So great is the fear of consequence (severe fines in this case) in Sydney that even organisers of fully sanctioned events can get cold feet. A smart government would look at an event like this, acknowledge the sheer volume of people it attracts, see the potential benefits that such an event could bring to the neighbourhood and local businesses, and clear any bureaucratic impediments for similar events occurring in the future. But in Sydney… nope. Too loud, too dangerous, too fun. Shut it down.

Then a few weeks back, a Berlin inspired, shifting underground night-party of no fixed address “Number 56” came to Sydney. Showcasing the very best of music, art and culture inspired by the German capital's zeitgeist, Number 56 had its first secret party in Hibernian House – an iconic, creative, heritage listed residential building in Surry Hills. The event was shut down at 10pm due to noise complaints. Noise complaints in venue that already has live music several nights of the week, and in this case, where event organisers had jumped through every hoop required to undertake the event lawfully. What a bunch of unfair crapola!

The next secret party was a week later in a warehouse in Erskinville, but to avoid any early closures, organisers moved the party to a popular Surry Hills Pub – Hotel Harrys – where, ironically, lockout laws would apply. Yeah. That’s so Berlin.

Another attempt to breathe some life into the city came last week when Melbourne placemaking company “Co-design Studios”, in collaboration with New York-based urban planner, Mike Lydon, hosted a workshop in Sydney on ‘Tactical Urbanism’. Tactical Urbanism is the umbrella term used to describe a collection of low-cost, temporary changes to the built environment, usually in cities, intended to improve local neighbourhoods and city gathering places. The practical exercise of the workshop was for the organisers and attendees to create four “pop-up parklets” contained within four sidewalk car parking spaces in Surry Hills’ Holt Street.

Within 30 minutes, a bunch of cheap and cheerful materials such as AstroTurf, bunting, coloured chalk, and dissolvable surveyors spray paint had completely transformed Holt Street – Retailers moved their furniture into the small parklets, there was a natural slowing of traffic, local business employees came out to observe the rapidly increasing foot traffic, and several curious onlookers stopped and sat down in the small parklets.

It all seemed like a positive initiative and we all felt great about what we’d achieved – and then the Sydney reality kicked back in – The Daily Telegraph, who initially seemed to be covering the event in a positive light, called the police. Within 5 minutes, to the journalists and photographers delight, the red and blue lights pulled up and shut the event down. The headlines in the tele the next day read “Park Raving Mad” and the article went on to state that “all they [co-design studios] proved was that the fine officers of NSW thought their ideas a little juvenile”. So even when Alcohol is not involved, we can still see the emergence of a culture between police, governments, and politicians to stamp out anything that does not adhere to the status quo.

In this case the status quo is a car parking space. The ‘non-adherence’ was a small seating area with plants, AstroTurf, and chalk edging out 1 metre past the curb contained within that carparking space.

Oh the horror.

Not to mention the health and safety issues. Heaven forbid cars should slow down on a quiet street and people sit down in small parks and socialise.

After the cringe worthy read in the Telegraph, I asked myself two questions –
1. How badly do we want to kill anything progressive or innovative in this city?
2. How deeply engrained is the nanny state culture in this city that even the press want to exacerbate it? (Yeah, I know, it’s The Daily Telegraph).

But then I felt quite inspired and excited, because it made me think that idiocy, at an authoritative and political level, is at an all-time high in Sydney at the moment. With this in mind, every progressive, innovative, community driven idea aimed at improving city life that is struck down by the law, and publicised, will serve to highlight to the public just how far we’re setting ourselves back in the global climate.

What can come out of that? Action… surely. But when?

AND ANOTHER THING…..

If it’s not alcohol, or a gathering of a community, it’s noise.

So to people who buy and move into inner city suburbs in search of peace and quiet, I’d just like to ask you a question… “Why?”

Sure, you’re a baby boomer, can afford it, and have another 3 properties in Sydney, but perhaps live in one that isn’t next to the Annandale? Or if not, maybe don’t raise your kids there? Or if not even that, maybe come back down to planet earth and chill the fuck out with the complaints? Cool? Cities should be places of noise. That is what gives them life. It is what makes them interesting, layered, and attracts tourism, which leads to vibrant and diverse places. It’s what people fall in love with in cities!

Isn’t that what Destination NSW is feeding the rest of the world right now about Sydney? To “Love Every Second”? Phhht! More like “Love every second between 9am and midnight and then be quiet please.”

I recently went to a talk by Monocle Magazine’s Editor in Chief, Tyler Brule, who made headlines by stating that Australia was on track to becoming the “dumbest nation on earth” based on its nanny state culture, lockout laws, and outdoor activity restrictions. Maybe that’s a little severe, but he is right in saying that great cities need to relax planning laws and accept that noise is part in parcel of any great city… and that the centre of a city should be a place that’s full of life, buzz and excitement.

Now come back to your local pub on a Friday night at 11pm – “Last drinks guys…please finish your drinks and move inside, we have to respect our neighbours”.

Fuck. Seriously? I just sat down and purchased the cheapest ($10) craft beer I could find.

What I actually feel like doing is leaving the pub, finding the closest residence, knocking on their door, and giving them a heads up:

“Last whinge guys. Sorry, just going to have to ask you to start putting your house on the market and begin moving back to the suburbs. Yeah we’ve got to respect the patrons of our local drinking establishments and live music venues that were here long before this neighbourhood was gentrified, became unaffordable, and attracted pissant whingers like you. Sorry, yeah, finish your whinge and then move to Pymble.”

For me, there is no better evidence of the inherent nanny-state culture in Sydney residents than when you have to show around a friend from another state or country for a weekend. There’s always that pressure not to botch up a night for a visiting friend, so we, as Sydneysiders, have learnt how to prevent disappointment – Give them the old fail safe “Sydney rules and regulations anti-fuck up a night out” speech/ conversation.

Friend: “What a beautiful day in Sydney. Let’s hit up a roof top bar - Where are all the rooftop bars in Sydney?”
You: “Ah…There’s not many mate, What with the noise restrictions, health and safety issues, etc. There are a few balconies in nightclubs, but we’d have to line up to get in.”
Friend: “Ah ok no worries man, I’m easy, let’s just find a nice old pub where we can sit outside and have a beer.”
You: “Um… yeah, I know a place where we can stand….against the wall, might be hard to get a seat at this hour on a Saturday though mate. Plus we’ll get ushered inside at that pub at 10pm. “
Friend: “So there’s no place with outdoor areas we can sit at?”
You: “Well… yeah there’s a few…but we have to order a meal.”
Friend: “Ah ok… and if we’re standing?”
You: “Um… it’s about to change soon, but for now you’ll have to be smoking.”
Friend: “Why do they usher you inside?”
You: “Because… well… it’s the inner city mate – we have to respect the neighbours.”
Friend: “Ok… well why don’t we just have a few drinks at yours and then maybe we’ll head to a gig later on. You’re still living in Surry Hills right?”
You: “Yeah, but look, my neighbours are a bit sensitive about noise… and we’ve got to maintain a good relationship with them. So we’d have to move inside the house before 10pm. But what gig were you thinking?”
Friend: “Anything man… they still do live music at the Flinders?”
You: “Um… Na the Flinders has closed down actually…”
Friend: “Ah ok. Hopetoun?”
You: “Closed down years ago.”
Friend: “I See. Excelsior?”
You: “It’s now a taco joint.”
Friend: “Oh. What about The Standard.”
You: “It’s now The Standard Bowl. It’s about a quarter of what it used. Bands play there but people are usually just bowling. Kind of shit really.”
Friend: “Oxford Arts?”
You: “Yes. It’s great, but XYZ are playing tonight and it’s sold out.”

Whether we realise it or not, we are a walking, talking nanny-state advocates, thoughtlessly regurgitating tripe we’re fed by politicians, consent authorities, and police on a daily basis. This city is due for a major overhaul culturally and politically. I don’t know the answer - Enter entrepreneurs, urban planners, economists, business owners, promoters, artists, musicians, and above all – people who live, work or play in Sydney.

What do you want as a Sydney resident? Do you want to live in a neighbourhood where there is activity, excitement, and community participation, innovation and new and interesting public spaces and events? Or are we comfortable with how things are going? I heard a rumour that following on from Gold Coast trials, Police in Sydney will soon have the power to breath test patrons inside licensed venues and issue fines based on their level of intoxication. Good God, this is starting to feel like Demolition Man or Brave New World..

I want to live in a neighbourhood where you can take a pint out of a pub and not be harassed by bouncers or police to move back inside. I want to be able to have a bottle of wine with my neighbours on the curb of our street. I want to be able to utilise the outdoor tables of a pub to enjoy the weather without ordering a meal. I’m not talking about a fantasy world here, I’m sort of describing London, New York, San Sebastian, and other cities who have figured it out.

Sydney, can you pretty please, with a cherry on top… chill the fuck out?

Follow the post on his Facebook here or on his personal Twitter here to join the conversation. You can also follow a new initiative 'Chillout Sydney', a place to exchange thoughts and ideas with the aim to improve Sydneys nightlife.

Matt works for Re-activate, a multi-disciplinary urban consultancy specialising in the activation of under-performing or under-utilised space. Follow them on Twitter here.

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