Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
OUR CITY IS NOT GOING ACCORDING TO PLAN
E. M. FARRELLY
IN June 1991 the Central Sydney Planning Committee adopted “for exhibition purposes only” its new draft Local Environmental Plan and draft Development Control Plan (LEP and DCP). These documents, more than three years and$200,000 in the making, represent the culmination of Sydney’s first city planning review since the 1971 Strategy.
Now, after six months of public exhibition and submission, the committee regards its own documents as being so radically flawed that a public hearing is needed to sort things out.
What, then, went wrong to cause the city’s primary planning body to disown its own offspring? How should – how can – Sydney, a city shaped from the start more by financial exigency than by anybody’s good intentions, be brought within the purview of a plan?
It is widely believed, in our aesthetically bewildered times, that the best cities and the best buildings of history were not constrained by rule or design. Somehow, it is thought, magically, Siena, Chartres, Durham just happened. This forms the basis of the hands-off view of planning which clings possum-like to the retreating back of Friedmanism; the bestplanning-is-no-planning argument which would have Sydney, for one, erase the planning profession and simply let rip.
The reality is, though, in planning as in economics, that laissez-faire policies benefit only the powerful, and then only in the short term, producing an incoherent jumble of built form. London’s benighted Docklands provide a good example, where planning was abandoned as part of Thatcher’s developmental carrot; now, less than 10 years on, developers themselves are instituting planning codes again in a last-ditch attempt to preserve their precarious investments.
We know, in fact, that the Gothic cathedrals, far from being the unselfconscious creation of a thousand monkish hands unified in the magnification of the deity, were designed according to exacting principle and built according to precise working drawings. Likewise, 14th-century Siena was one of the most controlled towns in history, subject to hundreds of ordinances and regulations, with buildings regularly squabbled over and demolished for failure to comply.
So much for laissez faire. There is another school of thought, at first glance antithetical, which is also prevalent in Sydney, especially among its intellectuals. This view, known loosely as “urban design”, takes us from the ridiculous to the sublime – holding in essence that the general superiority of old towns over new makes traditional materials such as brick and stone inherently more “civic” than steel, glass or aluminium.
There is a little more to it than this, but not much, and because urban design in this imported, shrink-wrapped form is a new discipline with no serious body of theory behind it, the evident slimness of this causal link remains largely unexamined.
But that doesn’t stop it from being fashionable. On the contrary. Urban design is very “in” these days, with everyone from Mr Keating down. Or up. It means well, on the whole, but is persistently humbugged by a huge fundamental fallacy – namely, the assumption that what matters is surface, not content. This basic error manifests in myriad ways -in the view, for instance, that it is not only acceptable but positively virtuous to “conserve” a historic building by keeping its facade and stuffing the rest full of air-conditioning, pre-stressed concrete
and mirror glass (we still give bonuses for this sort of barbarism): or the view that a nine-millimetre veneer of stuck-on marble will somehow endow a standard 40-storey office tower with what the DCP genteelly calls a “masonry character”, a quality
comparable, for instance, with the splendid gravitas of the Martin Place banks.
These, and most current urban design tenets fall into a picturesque mode of thought, such as is reviled by Modernism – which in itself gives the picturesque a major reactionary boost. The central belief, drawn straight from the rediscovered 1897 writings of the rehabilitated German guru Camillo Sitte, is that to make a city look good you mould not the city (its spatial, financial, transport, environmental parameters), but its looks. Rightly appalled by the excesses of Modernism’s town and country planning, urban design has shrunk right back to become the tiny myopic science of wallpapering the street, doomed at best to self-trivialising failure, at worst to Michael Jackson-type grotesquerie.
In Sydney both of these approaches – the let rip and the cosmetic microsurgery – are enshrined in the draft DCP, giving on the one hand an allowable maximum floor space ratio (FSR) of 15:1 across most of the city(higher even than Manhattan), and on the other a carefully crocheted fabric of meaningless phrases like “acceptable void to solid ratio”, “unified paving and landscaping treatment”, “complementary development in the vicinity of a heritage item”, and so on. On the face of it this seems like a gross mismatch, but while it is true that the 15:1 was superimposed on the finical urban design work of seven separate consultants, both layers of thought are in fact”hands off” in so far as they steadfastly ignore
most of the real factors affecting the ordinary human.
FSR is a blunt instrument at the best of times. As a ratio it compares total floor area as built (not including, in this case, lift rooms, etc, which can be several extra storeys) to site area. It is clear that FSR does not control height, although we often speak as though it does: 4:1, in the hands of a master like Harry Seidler, can produce a 30 to 40-storey building. FSR is usually defended as a mechanism for controlling density of development, so that we don’t let more users into the city than the sewage or transport systems can cope with.
But in fact it is never linked with or derived from infrastructural data: the way FSR is used here is strictly as a mechanism for ensuring equity amongst developers – so that nobody gets more than anybody else.
In any case an FSR of 15:1 is indefensible. The 1988 Strategy, on which LEP/DCP are based, increased the maximum to 12.5:1, and argued strongly against exceeding that figure. It also asserted, however, that there was a”need” for a 2.25 million square metre increase in office space, on which 15:1 is putatively based. That was boom time. Things are different now, with major organisations moving out and 13 per cent of our existing office space empty even according to the real estate agents. Who says we need more?
One has to presume the documents are well intended. Even the 15:1, for instance, is meant to be achievable only where there has been substantial heritage conservation, and an extra “significant public benefit”, whatever that might mean. The 15:1 is meant – at least it is presented – as a mechanism for helping preserve historic buildings.
But what will happen, in fact – and is happening already, as the development industry well recognises – is that the allowable maximum becomes instantly a mandatory minimum, with every developer in town requiring his architect to find ways of reaching it. In a city where “hardship” because of”opportunity cost” is seen as a legitimate reason for demolishing even our grandest built history, this 20 per cent increase on the current maximum immediately increases the pressure on every heritage building in the city – a classic case of wolf dressed as lamb.
So. Can we plan Sydney? If so, how?
We can, and must. But it is important to recognise two things: first, that there is no mechanism known to man for turning a Sydney into a Venice; and second, bureaucratic attempts to enforce aesthetic rules for aesthetic reasons end in disaster. Things were different in the days of the Sienese dukes. Rules were made by patrons, not committees. But it is not the role of the CSPC or the council to act as society’s taste gestapo.
Taste is an individual matter and quite properly the province of fashion. Government at any level should deal with, and only with, whatever cannot be done by individuals. To this end it must make rules which, to be enforceable, must be simple, few and founded as far as possible in reason, not opinion. Environmental matters – such as parking restriction, energy audits, air-conditioning are obvious examples, but so are issues of pedestrian amenity- sunshine in parks, street wind speeds – and questions of community values, such as heritage, infrastructure, urban ecology and so on.
These evaluative questions become the sticking points. We care about old buildings, but do we care enough to pay? How much should the developer pay towards conservation of a building which is already curtailing his development opportunities? The current tendency is to have no rules – to write in vague, discretionary escape clauses so that everything in the end may be judged”according to merit”: according, that is, to criteria which remain safely locked inside the personal black box of the decision-maker(s).
The effect of this is to obviate accountability and concentrate power in the hands of a very few – in most cases, ultimately, the minister, with each case decided ad hoc and no mechanism for ensuring consistency. In the end, contrary to expectation, rigidity is far more equitable than flexibility. For the system truly to be open, intelligible and fair, there must be clear, stated policy. Rules should be few, but non-stretchable. Our chance to establish such rules is here: there is a convenient developmental lull, thanks to Mr Keating’s recession, and the CSPC has resolved to hold a public hearing, after submissions close on January 15. Let’s not blow it this time.
Illus: By Rocco Fazzari