The overwhelming feeling of industry professionals and the public at large is that the current planning and development system is not working. In order to fix it, the current trend seems to be to call for further control, further measurement, and a more cautious approach.
I would argue the opposite approach is necessary. We should be radical, we should be bold, we should experiment more, we should try different ways and we should lose our fears. Instead of being stuck trying to preserve what we have, let’s dream what we could become.
It is not about managing the city we have, it is about reimagining a new one. Reimagining the way we look at preservation and history, reimagining the planning system, reimagining our residential standards.
Great cities are made of bold visions and unique endeavors; the Harbour Bridge, the Opera House, the first Chicago skyscraper, Manhattan’s Central Park, Madrid’s Gran Via, a new grand avenue that cuts through the old town, the Paris boulevards from Haussmann or the Eiffel tower.
All those interventions (mainly from the late part of the XIX century, early XXth century) were fiercely opposed in their times and yet they transformed those cities into what they are today. They gave them character, modernized them and are the most admired elements in them.
They were disruptive and radical interventions that cost a lot of money and time, but it was proved worthwhile. Cities need to evolve, change, and reinvent themselves over time. We are at a time when we need to do that with Sydney.
Cities are a lot more resilient than we think they are, and they work in a much longer timeframe that we can apprehend. Trying to control the shape and look of the city is not the best way forward.
Even with all the different projects and transformations that are happening in the city, we are still trying to look at Sydney as a finished product, something we can design in shape and form.
Instead of micromanaging and obsessing with the shape, form or look of each individual building, or the overly detailed planning controls of each small area, we should focus on long term strategies and frameworks regarding infrastructure; density, livability, place, lifestyle, and sustainability and let the rest be what it may. We surely can cope with a bad building here and there, they will come and go, but we cannot cope with lack of long term vision or strategy.
Even if it has one of the best natural settings in the world, Sydney is an average urban environment at best. This is the result of a culture of cautiousness and fear. The motto seems to be, “let’s preserve what we have, let’s keep doing the same, let’s control things more”; as if we try to dare we might end up with something worse. It is a measured approach that ends in mediocrity.
Sydney is barely 200 years old and some people are treating it with more respect and soft touch than cities that are over 1000 years old. Sydney has not even reach puberty and we are trying to keep it as it is, as if it was finished. Sydney is homogenous, boring and poorly maintained, with a lot of buildings that are no longer fit for purpose. Sydney is not working.
Yet, the overwhelming cry is how dare we want to build more infrastructure? How dare we implement new metro lines that need excavation? How dare we propose a new motorway that would demolish some houses that are 100 years old? How dare we want to make the city work!
It is the NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) approach applied to the whole city. It is an approach that will stop us from evolving and will make the city obsolete and unlivable little by little.
Metropolitan Sydney is already one of the least dense cities of the developed world with a sprawl of over 50 kilometres (Watsons Bay to Penrith) and a population density less than a third of Manhattan’s. Yet, we keep expanding it when we should be reworking its core, reshaping it and densifying it.
We keep expanding because with our approach to preservation, measurement and caution, we are not allowing the city to be transformed to address the density, livability and amenity needs it has. We are too precious to change it and too keen on preserving it.
Can you image how Rome, Paris or Madrid would look like if the same preservationist approach we are trying to use here would have been used there for a 1000 years? What would be the extent of sprawl and ruins that we would have now? They would be completely unlivable environments.
Had we had the same consideration for the existing urban fabric, and the same ideas about preservation and conservation in the 1920’s that we have today, we would not have a Harbour Bridge; we wouldn’t have allowed for the necessary demolition of the properties that were there.
Projects like the light rail, the new metro line or WestConnex have been vehemently protested, although luckily they are moving forward and will help the city be better in the future. However, these projects are just tiny portion of what the city needs.
A city cannot be frozen in time or it will stagnate. A city needs to evolve as societies change. A city should always be a work in progress. We need the freedom try things, to see how they work, to tweak, to change. Stopping that process would kill the city; it will be completely obsolete in a very short period of time.
Given that the current approach is not working, and that the city is at a critical moment, let us try a different approach. Let us see if we can have a different relationship with the street; let us explore new funding models; let us explore new ways of using the harbour, even the whole city itself. Maybe it could be interesting.
Let’s aim for a truly integrated, truly three dimensional city. Let’s aim for a multi-centre city based on non-hierarchical networks. Let’s dream about an exciting high density environment with flexible patterns and bold large scale interventions. Let’s build a sustainable city that looks to the future and not to the past.
Let’s build a new CBD in Dover Heights, or artificial islands in the middle of Botany Bay. Let’s build ten new habitable bridges over the harbor and fill them with shopping malls, hotels, social housing and cinemas. Let’s build a continuous row of skyscrapers along the ocean foreshore so everybody gets a water view from their living room and let’s transform all the inland into a low density farming land.
Let’s be bold! Let’s dare to dream.
If the lack of a long term strategy to address our future needs and having no interest in creating a bold vision for Sydney’s future weren’t enough, the current planning system and legislation are also curtailing and preventing us from trying new things at a smaller scale.
The planning system is extremely detailed and prescriptive in an effort to control every aspect of any new urban intervention or development. This “Paint by numbers” approach results in a lack of adaptability, a lack of context response and a lack of new ideas. The system is telling us exactly what we should build, mediocrity en masse; because that is the only thing you can prescribe in so much detail.
Things like the Apartment Design Guideline or the State Environmental Planning Policy for Design Quality of Residential Flat Development (SEPP 65) are praised in public and demonized in private because they are contradictory, impossible to comply with and are impeding us to put forward innovative answers to the current situation.
Overall, it is a backward looking system. It is based on outdated knowledge no longer relevant. It is a system that cannot foresee or address new needs or new lifestyles. It is a system that does not trust us, the people, to make common sense choices, or even to have an opinion about what we like.
- What if I want an apartment without a balcony? Sorry that is not allowed
- What if I do not want sunlight entering my living room and prefer to face South?
Sorry that is not an option
- What if instead of having a front setback I could have an inner courtyard?
Sorry our front setbacks give character to the streets
- What if I do not want to have a car space? Sorry you must
- What if I want to cantilever my top floor and create a covered entry plaza?
Sorry but the top floor must be recessed and clad in a dark colour
- What if I want to provide every bedroom with the same window, so they are all the same? Sorry that is not articulated enough
The current planning framework has produced the environment we live in today, and the profession is calling for changes that will only see a tighter control of the city and a more cautious approach moving forward, but the current urban environment is far from ideal and the measured and controlling approach is the road map that brought us here.
Sydney is becoming an increasingly undesirable place to live. Maybe it is time to let go, to acknowledge that Sydney cannot be what it was, a city of two-storey suburbs and a few sandstone colonial buildings around the . We need to throw the rules out of the window and reinvent ourselves. Sydney needs radicals.
The underlying problem is that Sydney, and its architectural and design industry, is young and, like any teenager, believes that everything about them is precious, when in reality it is the scars that make us.
Let’s embrace our adolescence; take drugs, experiment a little, create some music, get some scars and see how we come up on the other side.
There are almost no remains of New Amsterdam in today’s New York, yet we love it. Paris today is very different from Paris 400 years ago and that’s ok. Same can be said of Tokyo or London.
Let the natural traces survive, let the outstanding shine, but let’s not over prescribe. Let’s embrace aging and evolution, and let’s get better and wiser in the process. Let’s not overprotect neither the city, nor us.