Pub: SYDNEY MORNING HERALD
Section: NEWS AND FEATURES
Time for the city to plan a reality check
SYDNEY has a new city plan – its second ever. Will it make any difference? In 1988, when the Central Sydney Planning Committee was breathed into life to oversee the planning activities of the newly shrunk City Council, it was charged not only with all serious planning decisions (over $50 million), but also with making a City Plan. Now, after eight years and many hundreds of thousands of dollars, it has finally done so.
Eight years is no record. The first official plan for Sydney took three times as long to cook, from 1945 (the year of NSW’s first planning act) to 1971. During those plan-free decades, the place metamorphosed from the old 150-foot city of handsome street buildings with nasty, squinty internal light wells into a glittering sorority of skyscrapers, with nasty windy spaces at street level but all the view and sunlight you could wish for – upstairs.
There are those who fondly believe the change might not have happened this way, or at all, had there been a city plan at the time, that Sydney 2000 could have been more like Barcelona and less like Atlanta.
But this was never really on. Sydney’s swing to skyscrapers was the result of huge commercial, ideological and aesthetic pressure, led by architects and developers (in that order) but resisted by few. It was a major cultural shift of consenting adults. That stuff’s well beyond planning.
Goodness knows, it’s hard enough to discern any tangible effect that planning has had on Sydney, without ascribing to it powers of cultural change.
Much of the time, planning, far from leading real-world change, follows meekly along behind, describing events as they happen. Thus, the recent regional plan proposed the Newcastle-Sydney-Wollongong megalopolis 10 years after it happened. Many would say this is just as well: that modernism amply demonstrated the impoverishment of a world shaped by experts; that the best cities predate planning and the next-best confound it.
Much of what planners have done this century is land-use zoning; colouring maps to show what can go where, separating working from living, dispersing development and, as the American commentator F. J. Popper puts it, “keeping Them where They belonged – Out” (“They” included blacks, Latinos, Catholics, Jews, Orientals and the poor).
This may sound a little far-fetched, until you read Professor Denis Winston, Sydney’s first town planning academic, who warned a 1951 congress that if we failed to zone urban development for dispersal over the entire continent, “the whole moral basis
of the White Australia policy would be undermined”.
These days, of course, planning has about-faced. These days we want to revitalise city centres, remix land-use and remake streets that reward the pedestrian (shops, shelter, planting, cafes) as well as the driver. Planning is expected to facilitate these changes.
The new city plan has all the right keywords. It talks of a “vibrant, culturally diverse, multi-use city centre” with a permanent residential population. It talks of protecting the city’s heritage and its “intricate urban fabric”. It talks of acknowledging the “traditional land owners/managers of central Sydney” (but doesn’t say whether this means Kooris, or the Building Owners and Managers Association); of encouraging public transport, providing a high-quality pedestrian environment, nurturing retail and developing the city centre according to ecologically sustainable development principles.
Good stuff, you might think. But keywords ain’t action. How, exactly, is the new city plan expected to achieve these things? Residential life, beyond the wealthy pied-a’-terre niche market, is inhibited by land values which mirror building heights. Statutory heritage protection is weak to non-existent. Transport, public or otherwise, is controlled by half a dozen waning government agencies. Australia’s “pre-eminent retail centre” has been in decline since 1957. The development lobby mouths sustainability but starts to froth the moment phrases such as “energy audit” hit the table. And the “traditional owners/managers” are like hens’ teeth in downtown Sydney.
ANY attempt, furthermore, to constrain development in the interests of the above lands straight in the courts, where issues of quality are assessed according strictly to principles of law. Anything can happen.
Even an optimist would concede that this one’s uphill. Recognising same, the new plan began strongly by jettisoning subjective argument (such as building height limits based on aesthetics), and defending only the defensible – or quantifiable. The obvious parameter was sunlight – a good which can be measured and predicted.
Protecting sunlight access to streets was about 50 years too late, so the committee settled on parks and squares. From a given rule – in this case that there should be no further overshadowing between noon and 2 pm in winter – a series of “sun-planes” can be generated for each park and square. Stitched together, these planes form an undulating height blanket over the central city.
So far, so plausible. In theory, the sun blanket sets a clear height limit for each city site – knowable, communicable and defensible in a court of law. But this is where it started to fall apart.
One of the main purposes of the city plan as a document is to convey clearly to owners, purchasers, developers, valuers, architects, lawyers and other players in the property game exactly what the development potential of each site is. If it takes an intelligent reader more than an hour to figure the constraints – height, density, heritage, set-backs, site coverage – which determine whether or not a site is worth buying, the document is too complicated.
THE height blanket could have been clearly presented on a single map. Instead, there are special diagrams to explain the sun gradients, a special table setting out the horizontal and vertical bearing (in degrees) of the sun-planes, and 13 special areas (covering some 20 per cent of the city) which impose special height
and set-back regulations not only on the really protectable spots such as Martin Place, Millers Point and Macquarie Street, but also Wentworth Avenue east, Railway “Square” traffic intersection, and the whole of Chinatown – much of which, you’d have
to concede, is pretty darn ornery.
When it comes to density, same story. There are set density limits which cover most of the city centre (with bonuses for residential) – except for 24 identified “opportunity sites”, where an unidentified amount of extra floor space may be allowed, as generated by filling in unwanted colonnades, etc.
The theory is that this will help obviate some of the nasty little streetfront spaces generated by similar bonus provisions in the 1971 Sydney plan and that when major redevelopment happens, the building will revert to the main rules without the extra floor space.
Trouble is, the first rule of Sydney planning is “You can’t down-zone”. Once money is at stake and the land is bought and sold on the presumption of certain achievable floor space, the limits cannot be lowered. This has been proved time and time again, not only in Sydney but in many American cities as well.
Wanting to protect the city’s heritage and laneways is terrific, but it’s not enough. To achieve it you have to be smart. You have to start from where we’re at, not somewhere else. Reality check: the city plan needs to deal with real life and talk – as in communicate – with real people (not planners). Sydney needs a plan. It shouldn’t be so hard.