Now that Sydney has reached a population of four million, the minimum number for joining the world’s metropolis club, the New South Wales premier, Bob Carr, has taken to expressing alarm about its getting larger. We didn’t want to turn it into a concrete jungle, he said the other day. However, the better metropolises are a world removed from the jungle. As a residential choice, I’d take Chicago over the Amazon basin any day.

One has to suspect that the deep green premier is afraid that more than four million people in Sydney will diminish the room for trees. He definitely refuses to accept the lesson of history that when cities grow, forests retreat. When was the last bear clubbed to death in Essex? Carr's vision of a city in a forest may be utopian rather than crackpot, but it shouldn't be allowed just to creep up on people.

Arboreal hubris and the passion of authoritarian councils for appearing trendy are in the process of surrendering our great urb to more trees than we know what to do with. Cumberland County, the original townsite, which now comprises nearly all the Sydney metropolitan area, gives 35 to 40 per cent of itself to bush. Adding parks and privately grown trees raises this figure by a conservative 10 per cent. Thus Sydney has around 50 per cent tree cover. Chicago, Los Angeles and New York, all pleasant places to live, content themselves with 11, 15 and 17 per cent respectively.

One of the grisliest illustrations of how Sydney is being eaten by trees can be found in Magney Street, Woollahra, on the south side of the harbour. It is a short, dead-end street down the centre of which marches a line of immense camphor laurels. This is the tree that Jack mistook for a beanstalk; once planted it never stops growing.

The gigantic roots of Magney Street’s camphors writhe like varicose veins from side to side and end to end of the street. Some of their protuberances project close to a metre above what can be vaguely discerned as the original road surface. In between the gargantuan varicosities are deep, steep-walled pits that look as if they could devour a Corolla whole. Residents’ cars creep along the still intact sidewalks. It’s anybody’s guess how long they will remain in place and only God knows what is happening to the foundations of the houses.

Scant hyperbole has been employed in this description of the devouring of Magney Street. The sight is grisly beyond imagining, a warning against tree idolatry, and worth a tourist visit. Truly.

The residents of Magney Street have pleaded for the removal of the trees. The Woollahra council refuses to act. Maybe it is afraid that cutting down the camphors and excavating their anchoring roots will cause a significant part of Woollahra to break loose and slide downhill in the next big rain, with great loss of ratepayers.

More probably, Woollahra is cowed, like many other Sydney councils, by the knowledge that any assault on a large, established tree will—especially if the tree is visibly pestilential—bring out in anger hordes of protesting tree-worshippers.

On the other side of the harbour, North Sydney council is frozen by this sort of timidity over the notorious Moreton Bay fig trees of Broughton Street, Kirribilli. (The enormous, Jabba-the-Hutt-like Moreton Bay fig is accorded near-sacred status by Sydney tree lovers, possibly because of its capacity to make a nuisance of itself; in a Saudi Arabian display of wasteful extravagance, developers in an inner suburb were recently forced by the local council to spend $150,000 relocating a fig.)

From their harbourside slope, residents of the neighbourhood on the western side of Broughton Street watched the construction of the Opera House with interest and growing pleasure. Finally, one of the most beautiful buildings on earth gleamed before their eyes, across a span of sparkling blue water.

But suddenly (more or less) Broughton Street’s viewing amenities began to deteriorate. What was this green fog rising between them and their magical view, forcing them to stand on tiptoe in the bathroom even to glimpse the Opera House? That was no green fog … that was a line of Moreton Bay figs. Nearing full growth, they now create an impenetrable screen between the Broughton Street neighbourhood and its formerly fabulous view.

Nobody seems to remember why the North Sydney council engaged in this particular planting. It’s not impossible, given the scant attention voters pay to who gets onto councils and the number of ideologues and witches who consequently make it to powerful office, that the Moreton Bay figs were placed where they are specifically to deny the Broughton Street neighbourhood its elitist viewing privileges.

Today’s council is sensitive to resentment of its unwanted fig trees and even a bit sheepish. But cut down a Moreton Bay fig forest? All of Kirribilli might, in passing, be put to the torch as enraged tree-worshippers marched on the council chambers.

Taking out the fig trees would also be against council by-laws. Like several other Sydney councils, North Sydney now takes into account, when granting permission for new developments, neighbours’ demands for a limitation on tree heights, numbers and positioning. But that’s only to prevent things like trees blocking sunshine and root systems devouring gardens.

Forbidding a tree on grounds of its obscuring a view—of harbour, ocean, river, city skyline, handsome bridge, grand building or pleasant district—is not on the agenda of any council. All have surrendered to Sydney zeitgeist which holds that a tree provides the ultimate viewing pleasure, and that intrusion into a green monotone by the multitude of colours and shapes of a living city is somehow sacrilegious.

Three or four years ago, at McMahon’s Point, also on the northern side of the harbour, neighbourhood snouts (or maybe the word is grasses) turned in to the law householders near the water’s edge who were attempting by artificial means to ruin the health of a line of casuarinas officially planted between them and their harbour view. Vigilantes then erected a placard gloating over the fact that these “selfish” people had been prosecuted for attempted tree murder. The grove of casuarinas had been saved for the “enjoyment” of all.

Enjoyment! Even as you drive past you wish you had brought your chainsaw along to clear away the charmless green fuzz that inhibits sight of the lovely bay. (The placard seems to have gone, probably on the advice of a defamation lawyer rather than, alas, any change in the zeitgeist.)

The two finest residential views I have enjoyed in my lifetime were devoid of tree interference. The first was from the sixth floor of a rented flat on the tip of Point Piper, on the south side of Sydney Harbour. It was a straight sighting up the harbour almost to its entrance. On racing days, on many if not most courses, every competing yacht needed to raise its spinnaker directly under my balcony. I spent many a Saturday and Sunday afternoon in an ecstatic trance.

The second magical view was from the sixty-first floor of an apartment building in Chicago, too high to be at risk even from camphor laurels. With windows more than halfway around my apartment I gazed out upon a staggeringly beautiful vista of—other skyscrapers. (And, of course, the sky.)

Two sophisticated young friends live in a flat on the edge of King’s Cross and cherish what they call their “Rear Window” view. They haven’t yet spotted Raymond Burr murdering his wife but revel in the vibrant balcony life of their advanced urban environment. They have nothing against trees. They just don’t miss them, or even notice they are not there. Cities—especially grand metropolises in the making—are not meant to be bosky dells. They are pulsating centres of human, not vegetable, activity.

Signs accumulate, in fact, that tree-mad local government is thrusting foliage upon increasingly unwelcoming clients. Countless public places suitable for harbour viewing (keeping in mind that, with the help of the Hawkesbury River, Sydney Harbour consists of a myriad beautiful waterways) are closed off by opaque tree barricades. Children from outer suburbs may be growing up convinced, as a result of occasional visits to its tree-shrouded vicinity, that Sydney Harbour is a myth.

According to Councillor Jilly Gibson, of North Sydney, conflict over trees and views is turning nasty. Not occasionally, but constantly, people plant large trees specifically to block the views of neighbours with whom they are feuding. Sometimes the threat of plantings is used as blackmail to force favours or concessions. Though councils impose fines of hundreds of dollars for removing a tree without a permit, arboricide is now common in the leafy suburbs. Slow poisoning is a popular method. Councillor Gibson notes as endemic the increased frailty of trees between the first failed application for a permit to remove them and the second application.

Compounding the various problems of having too many trees and far too many fanatic tree-worshippers is a chauvinism that has jampacked Sydney with native eucalypts and declared a fatwa on alien species. This attitude condemns Sydney, with all its potential for stylish metropolitanism, to dozy provincialism. The great purpose of the metropolis is to draw from the hinterland a vast variety of people, talent, loot, flora and the rest. Heterogeneity is an essential element of metropolitan chic.

As well as that, a serious, systemic problem with eucalypts is that, not being deciduous, they don’t know when to stop providing shade. A couple of large eucalypts in the garden of your neighbour to the immediate north (not to mention groves of them in parks) can turn your house into an igloo during winter, compelling excessive consumption of fossil fuels.

Moreover, H.E. Hayward, of the leafy suburb of Turramurra, pointed out in a recent letter to the Sydney Morning Herald,
gum trees cast their leaves, bark, dead branches and seed pods in a year-round avalanche. This debris dents car roofs, smashes tiles, blocks drains and gutters, and infiltrates ventilation systems. Their brittle branches foul power lines … Their leaves are highly flammable, don’t decay easily and acidify the soil from which their roots suck all trace of moisture. In the wrong place [eucalypt] trees are highly unstable and easily toppled … Our gum trees are fine in the forests where they belong, not in urban yards.

Society pays an enormous price for its precious treatment of these trees.

On top of this, eucalypts may be directly hazardous to our health. A widely distributed but narrowly publicised CSIRO report of November 2001 pointed out that “Australia’s native plants release in large quantities highly reactive hydrocarbons that can add to photochemical smog [in cities].” Dr Peter Nelson, a senior CSIRO scientist involved in the research project, said the eucalypt fumes reacted with sunlight to produce pollution in exactly the same way as chemical compounds emitted by industry and car exhausts.

Other arguments against forcing eucalypts into the city are cultural and aesthetic. Dragging them from their wide open spaces into captivity is akin to the American scandal of driving Comanches and other Plains Indians on to reservations.

Used as street trees, as they increasingly are in Sydney, eucalypts, whether gnarled and twisted or defiantly upright, look like Dad and Dave come to town. They were never meant to be engulfed in bitumen. “Poor things,” you find yourself thinking, as you eye their dejected bearing. You may not even notice the early signs of buckling sidewalks as the country bumpkins exact their subterranean revenge. With handsome, sophisticated and obligingly deciduous immigrants such as London plane trees, jacarandas and golden robinias available to adorn our streets, it is cruel and perverse to press eucalypts into labour for which they are ill suited.

In small neighbourhood parks, urban eucalypts have room to breathe. But set amidst tree species with whom they are not accustomed to keeping company they often have the appearance of scruffy decline that distinguishes many zoo animals.

They flourish of course in the great wilderness parks that weave through the metropolitan area of Sydney. But these are far from being exemplars of sound forest management, and an unmanaged wilderness forest can be a weapon of mass destruction. Most summers Sydney’s catch fire, sometimes in a big way. They are blazing  menacingly as I write and may still, or again, be doing so as you read.

Rightly praised as carbon sinks and air fresheners (helping Sydney’s four million people to many times the 230 kilograms of oxygen each of them consumes in a year), the wilderness parks undo a good deal of this pro bono service by the vast quantities of smoke, soot and ashes they pour into the atmosphere when on fire, not to mention the toxic emissions detected by CSIRO.

As they stand their ground stubbornly, and are even encouraged to expand, the urban wildernesses make the wrong political statement: tree rights never take precedence over human rights.

There’s a strong case to be made for Sydney’s getting a good pruning. Councillor Gibson is contemplating a proposal that everyone wanting to plant a major new tree should require a council permit, just like anybody wishing to fell a tree. Even if a prohibitive fee were placed on a permit to plant a eucalypt, this doesn’t go far enough, in my opinion. What Sydney needs is a version of the carbon trading system proposed at the Kyoto environmental conference. Before anybody can apply for permission to plant, he or she must have purchased from its owner—private or official—the right to knock one over, preferably a eucalypt. A multiple planting permit might be given without fee to anybody scoring a Moreton Bay fig or camphor laurel.

The Trees That Ate Sydney
the Rathouse
Frank Devine