At last month’s City Conversation, Graham Jahn AM, Director of City Planning, Development and Transport delivered an astute and rousing vision for Sydney. In case you missed it, you can watch online now. Otherwise, read on to revisit Sydney’s past and find out about its future.
They used to say in Sydney, “If you were really any good you would already be in London. And if you were good in Auckland or Adelaide, well then you would already be in Sydney.”
40 years ago, air and car pollution and heritage and environmental degradation began to be challenged.
With its little powers, since 1971, this council has been trying to recover the city for people, with freight and car interests as fierce opponents. We sense the tide is now turning and current plans to transform pieces of central Sydney are greater than ever.
How did we start?
In the 70s and 80s ferment, the city was undergoing structural transformations with the transport problem redefining in time.
The iconic Bridge’s magnetic attraction pulled commuters from the north and car use grew by 13% each year, while the largest tram system in the world was dismantled.
Container technology displaced wooden wharves, releasing the harbour edges and print technology and textiles moved out of the centre.
Early-start blue collars turned to office-hour white, and Bradfield’s creaking rail service absorbed more and more office commutes. The vast Eveleigh locomotive works were closed and the southern industrial tanneries, heavy manufacturers and produce markets moved out west, taking their freight with their flight.
City of freeways?
An argument for new freeways was deduced from Copenhagen Police data. What is this thing we have with the Danes? Road accident data in 1951 showed Sydney and Melbourne had the highest rate of road fatalities compared to a dozen global cities. So, the city centre was to be ‘protected’ by a ring of expressways linked to the Bridge.
The 1971 expressway zoning plan reveals the peak of intentions – the demolition of South Paddington, Chippendale and most of Alexandria and Glebe. This scheme was killed off by new politics at all levels, but in truth, it was legally stopped by Whitlam who authorised federal land acquisitions in their path. Yes, vale Gough.
Over the last ten years the City has been pursuing transformational change. A patch of 26 km2 has attracted 40 per cent of Sydney’s job growth over 5 years, with $25 billion worth of development being approved over 10 years.
Today, all projects in the City must achieve design excellence and major projects have to result from a competitive design process. A pioneering transferable heritage floor space system for conserving heritage buildings now has 30 years of results.
We extended competitive design processes to urban renewal areas – which is the only statutory pre-DA system for private land in the world. This has lifted the quality of architecture, public art and landscape design from 20th Century modern mundane.
Policies and what they mean
The tools of transformation are policies. They promote: design excellence, street level activities, fine grain frontages, new parks and plazas, residential diversity; high quality street finishes, furniture and signage; no minimum parking requirements, restricted on-street parking for new residents, car share and green travel plans for major developments.
The City has acquired the skills to engage with developers, where appropriate, guiding public benefits like child-care centres, creative arts and rehearsal spaces and cycle facilities. Almost all new office towers have end of trip facilities like bike racks and showers.
In city-owned projects, ageing infrastructure is replaced with more sustainable systems. We have rebuilt parks, pools, libraries, theatres, community centres, recreational centres, playgrounds and child care.
We also recognise that public art enriches urban life and as such, invest in its creation and require major development to follow suit. Selection is overseen by a distinguished public art advisory panel.
Where to next?
The game-changer will be the delivery of the George Street Pedestrian Boulevard with integrated light rail by the City and the state.
New public pedestrian spaces and plazas, which are not another forecourt to an office tower, are possible. For example, the plaza and embedded library centrepiece for the future Green Square Town Centre will be a village heart to 50,000 residents by 2018. This area will be lined with food, retail and entertainment and directly linked to a future park, child care and community services, and aquatic centre and sports fields. Traditionally swept aside by development, laneways in the city will be used to encourage interesting small businesses.
New ways of working in the knowledge economy are driving new work place investment by corporates, who will use accomplished designers to create spaces that will attract premium talent.
So far, the City’s competition system has produced the high-quality architecture seen in Lumiere, 200 George Street, 1 Bligh Street, 8 Chifley Place, ANZ Tower and the AMP Tower.
Yes, it is possible to exact a life for people between buildings, as Jan Gehl says.
Transformation of the city centre continues a 40-year advocacy for people; block by block, project by project with a very clear agenda on architectural quality, business growth, residential diversity, creative capacity and liveability.
How people feel, use and relate to places and the personality of the city is the transformational challenge.
To find out more about the City’s plans, head to cityofsydney.nsw.gov.au/vision/city-transformation.