Reading Sydney’s various cities through contemporary lenses, measuring life in the networked city
Ed. This piece was first published in Architectural Review Australia in 2008, and then republished with the following preface at cityofsound.com on January 1st 2009. Some of the external links may no longer work.
Earlier this year I wrote an article for Architectural Review Australia, addressing the late-2007 report on Sydney’s central business district (CBD) produced by Danish urban design firm Jan Gehl Architects. Gehl is a one-man force for good in terms of reawakening cities to the promise of walkable — and bike-able — urbanism. Yet in the article I suggest there are flaws in their approach when it came to addressing several other real problems in contemporary Sydney. While I agree with much of what Gehl’s team suggested, it seemed to miss several of the wider issues, as well as the newer area of urban design I’m pursuing, around urban informatics. However, please note also that it was written for the end-piece of AR, a traditionally opinionated section of the magazine, and this context shows a little in the eventual piece too. I’m actually more of a fan of Gehl’s work as an advocate for cycling and walkable urbanism than it sounds.
I’m posting a slightly extended mix of the article below — partly for the record but also to spur a few related entries on urban strategies.
While it’s a specific piece, focused on Sydney in late 2007, it also betrays some of my thoughts on contemporary cities at the time. I have to say, eight months on, I wouldn’t write the same piece in the same way, which I hope indicates some development in my thinking, as well as almost a year wrestling with Sydney in the ‘day job’. The problems in this wonderful city are complex. Indeed, it’s all too easy to develop a love-hate relationship with Sydney — although casual indifference is the dangerous mode most citizens are in, as the city’s obvious natural charms lull people — including politicians — into accepting poor quality of thinking and execution in too many aspects of everyday life.
Sydney certainly can live up to the well-known image of the global city bejewelled with beaches, ocean pools and a glittering harbour, as seen in these beguiling little tilt-shift-like movies by Keith Loutit:
It benefits from a thrusting, ambitious CBD (albeit overly-focused on the ‘B’) and the many wonderful inner suburbs surrounding, most built around diverse ethnic mixes, the ghosts of former industries in Redfern, Waterloo, Pyrmont or Paddington or the finely grained streets of Potts Point and Rushcutters Bay, often threaded with compact rows of reusable terraces with numerous pockets of startling greenery, and much more besides. These inner suburbs are perhaps a little overly-residential, rather than more usefully mixed up, but each have their own character and promise. The basic ‘natural’ qualities of life — climate, terrain, food, and good-humoured, bright people (in the main) — are all enviably rich along Australia’s immense coastline, and Sydney benefits from all of them.
But Sydney is also the following, often overwhelming all of the above:
These extremes set up an interesting counterpoint, more so than most. Sydney has perhaps the most effortlessly beautiful urban mis-en-scéne imaginable, but its built fabric is often truly, breathtakingly awful. Most of Sydney, of course, is somewhere in-between. At a basic, almost topographical level, the tension that results from this may contribute to the city often being fractured and knotted in a peculiar stasis.
Yet creative tension is at the heart of all cities — cities are not things which tend towards equilibrium — so this is really no excuse for consistently stuffing up infrastructure projects, over-gearing towards shopping malls, or the internecine squabbling that often characterises city-state relationships. Analysis of that means swimming in deeper undercurrents again, as even a cursory glance at the first sections of Norman Abjorensen’s excellent article at Inside Story will make clear, indicating the ideological backdrop to liberal city hall politics in Sydney (though even this is muddied by the varying contenders for a ‘city hall-like’ function amongst the three tiers of government overlaid onto New South Wales.)
The Gehl report — which is available for download via the City of Sydney — was a precursor to the major strategy for the city unveiled only a few months later, Sustainable Sydney 2030. Note that all this concerns the local authority, the City of Sydney, rather than the actual city of Sydney itself, which is composed of 40-odd other local authorities and sprawls over one of the largest metropolitan regions in the world. Therein lies a problem, as I indicate below. Despite this focus, and while it’s not a bad strategy as far as it goes, the other danger of such initiatives is that they don’t deliver genuine change in the city and can be too easily sidetracked — cf. Melbourne, a very successful site of Gehl Architects’ work years ago, but whose Melbourne 2030 strategy (no relation) appears to be increasingly ignored, with particularly egregious decisions occurring all too regularly now.
Further, these strategies rarely get at more productive strategies for the city, instead focusing on the thin (though important in its own way) veneer of urban design and planning. I hint at this in the following piece — what is Sydney for? — but a much sharper critique of Sustainable Sydney 2030 was made a few months later in Monument magazine, by Ingo Kumic and Gerard Reinmuth. Excuse the lengthy quote but it’s worth it, as they outline alternative, productive approaches to urban strategy:
The result is a document concerned with designing the city — its image — rather than empowering it to exist. So, while it is rich on images of happy people on bicycles, it falls short of anything we may call a productive strategy. The city is redesigned rather than empowered to produce and re-produce itself. The task of empowering the city requires a serious analysis of the many varied yet interdependent economies that comprise ‘Glocal’ Sydney. This is a different project to the one the City of Sydney has championed, as it is fundamentally based on understanding the impediments to building capacity in the city to exist in a highly competitive world and therefore the capacity of its people to make their place. Having established the limitations and strengths of myriad economies, we can begin to innovate the systems of production, distribution and consumption that define them. We can temper them with new and emerging social and environmental agendas and we can introduce new ideas concerning governance and inclusion, such as corporate social responsibility. This project will then ensure that the economies that define Sydney are grounded in our unique proposition and thereby exploit the increasing importance of cultural capital … The current emphasis of strategic plans on designing cities, rather than empowering them, stems from the fact that the design economy revolves entirely around the capitalisation of the experience of a designed object … Mature cities — such as Barcelona, with its Metropolitan Strategic Plan of Barcelona and London via the the London Plan — demonstrate that the consumptive experience of the city is a consequence and not a driver of a city’s capacity to make its own place … The Sustainable Sydney 2030 vision simply delivers design images of creative capacity rather than the productive strategies that may enable creative capacity to emerge … This city, like any city, is its society — not its bricks and mortar. If we fail to build capacity for the city to make and re-make itself, we fail to underscore the fundamental reason for its existence. [‘(Re)Making Sydney: Image, form and crisis of vision’, Ingo Kumic & Gerard Reinmuth, Monument magazine #87, October/November 2008]
(Actually, while I agree with much of their article, I’d quibble with the idea that design only concerns image — good design also includes the re-framing of questions like what is Sydney for, and image is only one aspect of its output. But that’s a designer talking. I’d also quibble with the idea that London doesn’t partake in the kind of ‘design economy’ practises that their critique focuses on. Much of this ideology stems from London directly, for good or ill. Finally, there is a more subtle interplay between urban infrastructure (including urban form and the quality of urban design) and the productive practises that emerge there. It’s not quite one leading the other, as they make out, but rather more symbiotic. However, their article reinforced my perennial interest in the soft infrastructure of a city — people, networks, culture, society, civic relationships — and its interplay with the hard stuff, expanding on a few points I’d tried to make below.)
(Ed. Within years, Ingo and Gerard would become good friends. I’ve never bothered to ask whether they forgave me this quibbling.)
Either way, such strategies do provide a forum for debate about what flavour of urbanism is appropriate for the city, and that is of immense value. It’s somewhat ironic that one of the world’s most urbanised nations needs to kick-start debate about its major cities, but that remains the case. So in that spirit, I offer this piece up as constructive criticism, an attempt to take a good report and make it better. And apologies for wheeling out the Saarinen quote yet again, but as usual I can’t resist it.
On 3 December 2007, the Copenhagen-based firm Jan Gehl Architects released their 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 sharp approaches to an incremental re-knitting of urban fabric, many of which might actually need enacting — but often miss the point nonetheless. 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 secondly, 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 those concepts are 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 said: “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”.
In a detailed and useful appendix, Gehl’s team lists activity on the street, in terms of movement and behaviour. Page after page of pedestrian traffic data and stationary behaviour (indeed, there would be better ways of conveying this data, through real-time informational models) but it doesn’t indicate the real grain of activity in the city — what people are doing. There is no category for ‘informationally active’, say noting whether they’re making a call, briefly working on a laptop or BlackBerry, lost and using Google Maps on their phone etc. Apparently ‘sitting on folding chairs’ is a more telling category. This missing element would’ve been full of diagrams of wireless coverage, a cityscape in terms of data emitted from street to street, flocking patterns of mobile phone activity, or spaces where those with laptops congregate for work or leisure. Case studies of how public information displays can be connected to ‘the cloud’ of systems now enveloping peoples’ patterns of behaviour. This is the contemporary city right now, never mind the next decade. It’s a city to be tuned, or tempered even, by public and private bodies, and fundamental to Sydney’s future. Why so invisible?
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 whom 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 core.
Focusing on that aquiline nose, a.k.a. 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 that the work is carried out in, 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 $95m 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 NSW 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 alternate 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, almost sub-tropical 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 far more immediate effect on the CBD than Gehl’s plans.
So Peter Myers’s ‘Three Cities of Sydney’ now needs extending to at least a fourth — the sprawling Sydney — and fifth city — the informational Sydney. Beyond these, the people of the city itself can build further urban visions. 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, worthy but hugely limited, are all so much fiddling while Sydney sunburns.
Ed. This piece was first published in Architectural Review Australia in 2008, and then republished with the accompanying preface at cityofsound.com on January 1st 2009. Some of the external links may no longer work.
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