On today’s Scratching Sydney’s Surface, Laila will take a look at how public housing in Sydney has evolved.

Does the built environment shape our behaviour? This is a question probably being asked of some of the large housing estates on Sydney’s outskirts which have been the scene of riots in recent times: Macquarie Fields in 2005 and at Rosemeadow in January this year.

The provision of public housing is very much a twentieth century phenomena. Two of the earliest examples of public housing in Sydney can be seen at Dacey Gardens Estate at Daceyville and at Millers Point. Dacey Gardens Estate, which was designed by John Sulman and J F Hennnessy, was intended to provide well-built, affordable housing in a garden city setting. Built between 1913 and 1918, it lays the claim of being Australia’s first planned public housing scheme.

Since 1942, when the NSW Housing Commission was established, a range of public housing types have proliferated throughout Sydney. Most notorious and newsworthy of late have been the so-called ‘suicide towers’, think the 1960s Northcott Place in Waterloo, and the large planned estates which sprang up on the city fringes from the late 1950s onwards. The designs of the housing estates, in particular, have been blamed for high incidences of crime and violence.

One of the key criticisms levelled towards them is the way they have been planned. Both the Rosemeadow and Macquarie Fields estates were built in the 1970s and 80s but were based on the American Radburn Plan, devised in the 1920s as a ‘city for the motor age’. The basic principal of the Radburn Plan was to encourage the separation of pedestrians and cars. To do this, the fronts of the houses faced each other over a network of common yards and pathways, while the backs of the houses faced a street, usually a short cul-de-sac, which provided vehicular access.

Public housing is created with the best of intentions; implicit is the idea of equity and for all people to live in well-constructed, affordable accommodation.  So went wrong in the planning of these estates?