Opinion

In a sunburned city, Northern lights make for a dim vision

March 17, 2009

Sydney has a rich intellectual, architectural and cultural base, but like everything here, it’s sprawling and distributed. It needs to be corralled together.

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On 3 December 2007, the Copenhagen-based firm Jan Gehl Architects released its plans for Sydney’s CBD, having been directly commissioned by the City of Sydney. Cue a flurry of intrigue and debate in the local and national media, as the headline-grabbing suggestions include the demolition of the Cahill Expressway, a largely-unloved chunk of elevated highway that snips the nose off Circular Quay, and the pedestrianisation of George Street to create one of the longest urban promenades in the world.

But behind the soon-forgotten headlines, Gehl’s report generally consisted of worthy approaches to an incremental re-knitting of urban fabric, many of which might actually need enacting – but are hardly the point. In themselves, they’re a little dull – Jonathan Glancey, architectural critic for The Guardian, recently described Gehl’s work as ‘piazzas, plazas, squares and other public spaces of unremitting blandness’. In total, they fail to really approach ‘the problem’ of Sydney. The work falls short in several areas, and I’ll go into a couple here, both of which would extend urban planning a little. First up, a particular question of sensing the contemporary city, and second, addressing the real problem of implementation, and Sydney itself.

There’s a new angle required when thinking about cities, due to this being 2008 and not 1988, and it’s absent here. There is no discussion whatsoever of the informational city, despite the emerging sensation that the way the street feels is beginning to be profoundly affected by its informational characteristics.

Gehl’s report mentions ‘networks’, ‘nodes’ and ‘connectivity’ frequently, yet they’re all the wrong ones, seen only through his prism of pedestrian and vehicular traffic flow. Instead holistic urban planning now needs to have some understanding of the relationship between the city and, say, GPS, WiFi, WIMAX, 3G, social software, APIs, FttN, RFIDs, BIM, mesh networks and a thousand other acronyms and neologisms. It’s confusing, complex and in constant flux, but as Reyner Banham once noted: when you’re running with technology, you’re in fast company, and you might have to discard the clothes by which you’re recognised as an architect. (Gehl, with his sombre garb and difficult glasses, gives no indication of usefully disrobing for us anytime soon.)

How will Sydney’s streets feel informationally? Will GPS detail for the city be sufficient such that trucks don’t back up alleys too narrow for them? Will street benches have power sockets and repeaters for WIMAX? Will The Rocks have carefully layered public data conveying its history, as markings in the paving do now? Will on-street wayfinding and public transport information relate to on-phone services, as the latter begins to be how people navigate? Will the CBD’s buildings communicate their energy efficiency in real-time, via LEDs embedded in the blades of wind turbines? Will changing working patterns necessitate free, open WiFi along selected streets, or do grass-roots movements like Sydney Free Wireless have to step in when the state’s plans stall? Equally, will the City ensure there are ‘quiet zones’ shielded from WiFi, for those who wish to be surrounded by open mouths rather than open laptops?

These are all basic questions in sensing the contemporary city. Victor Hugo said the sewer is the conscience of the city, and who could argue with that? But it’s also now in the informational traces left by people on the street, and in the buildings themselves. Technology reinforces the city, and for Gehl Architects not to consider this holistically as part of their brief – or even show any sign of perceiving it – seems thoroughly anachronistic. As an apparent advocate of ‘life between buildings’, Gehl should be on to this.

An even more fundamental problem for Sydney would appear to be in implementation. By focusing on the CBD, the City may have been trying to take on a bite-sized problem. Unfortunately, the problem of Sydney is deeper than Circular Quay, and the sight of external consultants on the scene could be taken as an indication that the problem is organisational rather than infrastructural.

Partly, this may be due to the essence of Sydney itself. As perhaps the most beautifully sited major city in the world, endless admiration of its obvious gifts may have led to a careless misplacing of the armature for change. The city’s networks are fragmented, amorphous and distributed – and not in the useful way envisaged by urban theory. Compare this to the drive and focus of second/third cities, Melbourne and Brisbane, both of which are now actually larger than they appear in Sydney’s rear view mirror. In realising that beauty alone will not be enough, Sydney existentially ponders what it is, a little like a fading society beauty who commissions a nose job to realign her handsome features, but secretly worries about what’s at the core.

Focusing on that aquiline nose, aka the CBD, actually misdirects from real problems of Sydney, such as the endless sprawl, driven by unaffordable housing in inner suburbs where significant amounts of reusable built fabric lies fallow. Thus, the city sprawls out to the point where it meets bushfire coming the other way.

This indicates that urban problems are interconnected, and need to be seen rather more holistically. Any high level consultancy worth its salt needs to actually reframe the question – to redesign the cultural and organisational environment in which the work is carried out, enabling subsequent implementation to thrive. Eliel Saarinen said: ‘Always design a thing by considering it in its next larger context – a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, an environment in a city plan.’

So what is this larger context? For any planner could’ve contributed most of Gehl’s plan. While it doesn’t exactly capture the thrill of the city, it’s often practical enough. But the issue here is not street furniture. The real contextual problems are a deeper malaise and, in particular, the awkward state/city split. It’s all very well for Gehl to say ‘implement an integrated ticketing system’, but $95 million of taxpayers’ money later, Sydney has made little progress with that. So ‘How?’ is the more pertinent question.

Compare this to London’s congestion charging or Oyster schemes, enabled by first unifying transport services in the city under a single body, Transport for London. Redesigning the operational environment around transport first would enable a TCard to swiftly follow. Similarly Barangaroo, a vast development site right on the CBD’s foreshore comparable to Manhattan’s Hudson River Park cannot be given full attention as it too is a separate development project run by the New South Wales state government.

Forget the Cahill Expressway – well, bury it, then forget it. Gehl really needed to address the internecine rivalry that is par for the course in Sydney politics. That’s the fundamental level that urban design starts at, and this work involves addressing and sometimes reconfiguring the surrounding context.

But following the brief with frustratingly Nordic good behaviour, Gehl’s plans cannot talk of cultural, informational ambition, of how Sydney should be shaped to fit into the knowledge economy it now finds itself in. Sydney needs alternative visions, just to imagine how it could be. People have little frame of reference for the city, other than the beach, the Opera House and the quarter-acre block. Pick your own cliché here, folks, but Melbourne now has a huge head-start in terms of being the cultural capital of Australia, and Brisbane seems to be easing into its role as Australia’s liveable business, technology and cultural hub for Asia. Perth is rolling in it, almost daring itself to conduct a series of urban experiments that would make it the Dubai of Australia. But where is Sydney in all this? Its ‘Sydney Global Arc’ of knowledge infrastructure – not mentioned by Gehl – is in danger of being side-stepped by these nimbler cities as if it were the Maginot Line, despite its potential heft.

We won’t learn that much from Gehl’s meisterwerk of Copenhagen either. Sydney has witnessed Indigenous Australian, British, Southern European, American and now distinctly Asian urban patterns, in relatively quick succession. What do distant Northern European vistas have to tell us about how to handle a deeply Southern, subtropical Australasian city? Being aware of best practice elsewhere is always useful, but how about a richer, more imaginative palette, drawn instead from other former cities of empire connected to the south? Barcelona, mentioned only briefly by Gehl, but functioning as a climactically-similar, formerly maritime ‘hinge’ between north and south, would be a far better model, not least due to its circumnavigation of a complex political set-up. (The social democratic backdrop in Denmark and Sweden is fundamentally alien to Australia.)

Jaime Lerner’s work in Curitiba and Enrique Penalosa’s in Bogota also provide useful case studies, yet are rarely invoked here. Even Hong Kong, Shanghai or Tokyo, with their complex mix of empire, modernity and beyond, would be more resonant and locally relevant counterpoints. One could borrow the high threshold for build quality and service design from the Nordic countries, but that too is surpassed in Japan.

Sydney has a rich intellectual, architectural and cultural base, but like everything here, it’s sprawling and distributed. It needs to be corralled together. Networks only exist if you perceive them and maintain them, and this is another overlay onto the city that Gehl didn’t really address, with only a few paragraphs on the political and civic structures required to enable change. The role of city government here is rich, powerful and rewarding: to truly generate momentum through an ongoing series of focused interventions into the city. These ‘urban acupunctures’, as Jaime Lerner called them, should be swift, tactical changes that the city can gather around – similar to the ‘projects versus planning’ approach in Barcelona – but always connected to new visions for the city itself.

Developers need to be part of this process of re-imagining Sydney, given the now intrinsic role of public-private partnerships in tailoring urban fabric, and this means a different imperative to wringing every possible dollar from each square metre of land. As Louis Sauer has suggested, financial innovation is required rather more than architectural. Small legislative changes can be significant – for instance, the City deserves credit for helping the grass-roots Raise The Bar campaign lead change in licensing laws for small bars in Sydney, likely to have a far more immediate effect on the CBD than Gehl’s plans.

Remodelling some aspects of the CBD, even if it needs it, will not begin to address Sydney’s vast potential. That particular work would’ve been best achieved by giving the incumbent planning teams some true agency to engage the city, creating focal points via those ‘urban acupunctures’.

But there’s another task here too, addressing the other cities of Sydney and ultimately, what the city is for. The current proposals, hugely limited, are all so much fiddling while Sydney sunburns.

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