Sydney’s famous Green Bans movement was an example of environmental activism to save open spaces and valued buildings – and to give communities a say in the urban planning changes that would affect their lives.

What were the Green Bans?

Back in the 1970s, Sydney locals – particularly those in the eastern suburbs and on the city fringes – went to extraordinary lengths to have a say in urban planning.

This unique form of environmental activism, known as the ‘green bans movement’, was apparently the first of its kind in the world. It ran from 1971 to 1974, and had an impact in Potts Point and its surrounding areas. The movement was initiated by builders labourers, who’d been hired to construct office-block skyscrapers, shopping precincts and luxury apartments.

These newer buildings were fast encroaching upon the city’s green spaces and often replacing older style buildings – and locals didn’t like it.

Three main objectives dominated the green bans movement. The first was to defend open spaces from undesirable development. The second was to protect existing housing from demolition in order to make way for high-rises or freeways. And the third was to preserve older-style buildings from being replaced by contemporary office blocks or shopping centres.

Why did the Green Bans happen?

The movement was spearheaded by the NSW Builders Labourers Federation (NSWBLF), which had been making rumblings about town planning and the construction boom in office-block development. The NSWBLF thought it was an issue and made it clear they wanted to construct socially useful projects instead.

By May 1970, the BLF had resolved to develop a new concept of unionism, enabling workers to insist their labour not be used in harmful ways – and, if necessary, refuse to work on projects that were ‘environmentally and socially undesirable’. Three key players and outstanding union leaders championed the movement in Sydney: Jack Mundey, Joe Owens and Bob Pringle.

In a letter to the Sydney Morning Herald in 1972, Mundey said that the NSWBLF felt, as a progressive union, it had an important social role to play in the citizens’ interest. “We want to build,” he wrote. “However, we prefer to build urgently-required hospitals, schools, other public utilities, high-quality flats, units and houses, than to build ugly unimaginative architecturally-bankrupt blocks of concrete and glass offices… Though we want all our members employed, we will not just become robots directed by developer-builders who value the dollar at the expense of the environment.”

Imaginative tactics were used to ensure the green ban campaigns gathered support – from posters and exhibitions to sit-ins, picnics, demonstrations and Green Ban Balls. Some activists even dressed up as high society guests and gate-crashed the parties of developers. There are still Green Bans street murals today which you can see in Cathedral Street, Woolloomooloo.

What did the activists do?

Lots. Their influence was large and as more labourers got on board, developers found themselves struggling to find workers for their construction projects.

The first green ban got underway when a developer wanted to build luxury houses on Kelly’s Bush, a green space on the harbour foreshore in Hunters Hill. An unlikely cohort of middle-class women and union leaders joined forces to impose the green ban – and were so successful the developer abandoned their plans, saving Kelly’s Bush to remain the open public reserve it is today.

The union worked with a number of local resident action groups, environmental organisations and occasionally professional organisations such as architectural firms. They managed to ward off the development of a car park underneath the Royal Botanic Gardens – and saved the area’s ancient fig trees as a result. They also campaigned – with the help of local resident and Nobel Laureate Patrick White – to stop a large part of Centennial Park becoming a concrete sports stadium. They helped save heritage buildings from demolition such as the Theatre Royal, the Regent Theatre, the Royal Australasian College of Physicians and even the State Theatre.

One of the most significant urban areas saved by the movement was in The Rocks, where some of the city’s oldest buildings were earmarked for demolition to make way for office blocks. The BLF imposed a green ban and called for new plans to be drawn up, saying they’d only lift the ban when the residents were satisfied with the plans submitted. The campaign, which went on for 4 years, prompted a reporter to call the union ‘the most powerful town planning agency operating in NSW at the moment’.

The green bans in Potts Point

Our local area of Potts Point was famously caught up in the green bans movement when the NSWBLF placed a green ban on Victoria Street in April 1973. It was an attempt to preserve the streetscape and retain a larger proportion of low-income housing stock in what was then an inner-city, working-class residential area. However, the ban was not well received by developers, some of whom were alleged to have links to the criminal underworld.

Buildings which were set to be demolished were reportedly vandalised and the residents terrorised. One green ban activist apparently disappeared and returned too scared to report what had happened to him, and another – publisher Juanita Nielsen – disappeared on July 4, 1975, presumed murdered. Her body was never found.

But her role in the movement has not been forgotten: in 1976, many of the facades on Victoria Street became heritage listed and were ordered to be restored rather than demolished. Today, they’re some of the most coveted residences in Sydney. Just one – which dates back to 1882 – was not heritage listed and has now been approved for re-development.

Bans on other nearby areas such as Woolloomooloo, Darlinghurst and Kings Cross – which were often threatened by freeway projects – enabled residents to have a real say in how their communities were developed. Ultimo, Pyrmont, Glebe, Annandale, Rozelle and Leichhardt were also saved from freeway construction, thanks to consistent opposition from NSWBLF officials.

Are the green bans relevant today?

The green bans movement collapsed in 1974 when developers, frustrated by the BLF’s power, bribed other unionists to break the bans.

However, the movement was a hugely powerful one that transformed the culture of urban planning, instilled an appreciation of heritage buildings, and led to more sensitivity in regards to environmental and social concerns.

It also led to better recognition of the need to be transparent about proposed developments and community consultation.

If you’d like to find out more about our area don’t hesitate to get in touch.

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Article by Jason Boon

In a real estate market that is the focus of Australian, and indeed worldwide attention, Jason Boon's results in the Sydney scene make him a highly significant figure within the industry. A long-term specialist in the Potts Point and inner eastern suburbs area, he is uniquely placed to leverage his skills and local knowledge as the area undergoes significant change and diversification. Jason ha…