Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Turning a nightmare into a dream run
The Parramatta Road Project is warm and plausible if the traffic can be fixed, writes Elizabeth Farrelly.
Parramatta Road, above, and an artist’s impression of the Museum of Motoring Futures.
Photo: George Fetting
Of all the hard problems facing cities, few languish as far down society’s “to-tackle” basket as the car problem. And in Sydney, squashed and sclerotic as we know her to be, few car experiences are as dreaded as the trip down Parramatta Road.
There’s nothing like a business meeting at Auburn to render the grisly realities of video-conferencing suddenly attractive.
Why? What is it about that ditsy string-line between Sydney and not-quite Parramatta that has this “anything’s gotta be better” effect on the human psyche?
It isn’t just the congestion, though God knows that’s bad enough, especially east of Strathfield, where the M4 kicks in. It’s not just the visual aspect, although there remains, pop-art notwithstanding, something irredeemably scaleless about environments designed solely to catch the speeding eye.
It’s also the sense of a thinning cultural atmosphere, palpably inverting the temperature gradient with every metre west. And the noise, the dirt, the dereliction. Soon, though, if the Parramatta Road Project has its way, all this will start to change.
The project, run by IMROC (Inner Metropolitan Regional Organisation of Councils) with support from the NSW Department of Planning and the Roads and Traffic Authority, has cultural, environmental, economic and design aspects all intended to converge in a master plan.
To most architects, a job with a site measuring 23km by 26m and clientele comprising 11 (sometimes 10) local councils, sounds like the stuff of bad dreams.
But the boys at SydneyCentral, who won the job in a competition, are unfazed.
SydneyCentral is a team including Stanisic Associates, Choi Ropiha architects, VIM design and mcgregor + partners (landscape). Their winning scheme is as much polemic as proposition, entitled Can Sydney be More than a Harbour?
Its principal premise is that for Sydney to mature as a city, we must broaden the priority structure that blithely discounts everything more than five kilometres from the glittering seaboard, and recognise the value that nurture, in urban terms, can add to nature.
Great cities, the argument goes, are pleasured but not obsessed by their native virtues, placing equal or greater import on richness of human invention. Fifth Avenue, Trafalgar Square, the Champs Elysee, Barcelona’s Ramblas all rely on artifice before topography.
To redirect some of Sydney’s frenetically harbour-bound energy west along the Parramatta Road would not only reduce the pressure on the east, but start to redress the screaming imbalance of investment versus demography that is turning Sydney back into a class-map. Anything else is patently unfair, unreasonable, and un-Australian.
Yeah, right, you say. Parramatta Road. Clean, green and pulsing with creative gumption. Pull the other one.
Still, something has to happen.
It’s not like it’s impossible. Other cities do it. Other cities put freeways underground, upgrade public transport, clean the air. They take hard political decisions. Curtail individual freedoms for the public good.
But in Sydney, your sinking heart suggests, this seems a long shot, at best. The political journey alone would make the Parramatta Road trip look like a picnic.
Why? Cars. Traffic. What’s killing Parramatta Road is what should be keeping it alive.
If roads are for getting there and streets for being there, the Parramatta is quintessentially a road. As many as 80,000 vehicles a day struggle along that road, although west of the M4 junction the numbers are roughly halved.
Neither condition, though, is good for business.
As if the heat and dust weren’t sufficiently pedestrian-toxic, continuous clearways cull retail in favour of serious on-site parking, leaving only malls and those blank-eyed megastores.
Off-tarmac too, like some sort of mad Derridean mindscape, the road is dominated by the flags, billboards, and other votive signifiers of devout car culture.
And between Five Dock and Homebush, a staggering 67 per cent of the adjacent land use is devoted to motor retailing and services. (Residential use hovers between zero and 1 per cent for the entire 23 kilometres, except for Haberfield-Ashfield where it is 14 per cent, by floorspace).
Then there’s the gradient. The road literally may undulate, but spiritually it’s downhill from Broadway, with 42 per cent of employment and 93 per cent of heritage buildings as well as virtually all available good coffee east of Leichhardt.
Here, though, just around Strathfield, a nice little irony arises. If cars are the problem, taming them must be the answer. But because the car problem is much harder to solve without the M4, the eastern half of Parramatta Road looks like being underprivileged in perpetuity, compared with the western half.
No surprise then, that the winning scheme, as well as the runner-up (by Lacoste Stevenson architects) relied heavily on completing the M4 by supplying its missing link between Strathfield and Wattle Street at Broadway.
Halve the traffic and the rest of it with tree-planting, cycle lanes, light rail, even on-street parking is a short stroll to the shops. Even transplanting cultural magnets becomes comparatively easy.
(The scheme proposed moving the Museum of Contemporary Art to Granville, but they might want to choose something with real pulling power.)
So, good idea then. When does it all get under way? Well, quite. Because there it gets just a little bit tricky. Forty thousand vehicles is a lot to lose in a big city, especially when half of them are trucks.
Back in the 1930s, architect/madman/genius Le Corbusier argued that traffic should split into three levels: goods traffic goes underground, the long-distance stuff is elevated to leave only local traffic and bipeds on ground level.
It was one of Corbusier’s more lucid moments, however contingent on political will.
SydneyCentral’s winning scheme is a bit vague on this area of detail; the thinking, as development of the master plan begins, is that going underground is one option (options two, three and four being murkier still).
Again, good idea. Shame about that price tag.
It is true that other cities do it. And we managed the Olympics dollars, politics and all. But that was party time. This is for the long haul. In Sydney, running new roads beneath the inner-west’s latte belt spells only one thing: private tollway. Which drops us right back into the moral swamp underpinning the private provision of public services.
Lacoste Stevenson was more precise and more realistic, perhaps to its detriment, in proposing the M4’s missing link as an elevated expressway above the retail/commercial strip along the north side of the road.
It would be like an attenuated Cahill, only prettier.
Sounds scary, sure, but on second glance, it may be quite sensible, precluding as it does the expense of tunnelling (remember the Cahill fuss?) without massive property buy-ups.
Of course, all this presumes the traffic is here to stay. Which, under the circumstances (and given the ever more striking resemblance between the roads lobby here and the gun lobby in the United States), is probably the case.
Well and good to dream of a civilised Sydney, where we all live small, work close and travel green, but deep down, you know not to hold your breath.
The traffic stays, and has to go somewhere. This is a big ask, considering there’s no money and not a conspicuous quantum of political will.
So, the east remains clogged while the west, however derelict, prepares itself for redemption.
Fix the traffic, though, and SydneyCentral’s remaining vision is warm and plausible.
Parramatta Road could indeed become a conduit that joins rather than dividing; tram-fed and tree-lined, humming with shops large and small as well as bazaars, temples, markets and souks that burnish the character of each town and settlement along the way.
IMROC is even ready with its smog-dog, a laser-based owner-onus device that automatically tickets on-street polluters. It’s not impossible; there is hope. Parramatta Road needs all the energy it can get. Wish ’em luck.