Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
City of larrikins loops the loop
The essay Books & Ideas
The time for consumer choice is over, warns Elizabeth Farrelly. Sydney needs to change tack to survive.
Relax. It’s OK. The future is fashionable again, in a retro kind of way. And assured of a constituency, if last month’s 2000-strong showing at the SuperStudio Vision 20:20 is anything to go by. After initial skirmishes undergrad teams from the four eastern seaboard architecture schools (UTS, University of Sydney, University of NSW and Newcastle University) gathered at Town Hall for the showdown. Their site was the entire megalopolis, Newcastle to the ‘Gong, and their challenge was this: how, given the pressures our city faces, will Sydneysiders live, work and play in 2020? How indeed.
The place was packed. The Mayor exhorted us to hear our young people. And never did a pun (2020 vision, get it?) seem more wistful.
The facts – the given pressures – are grim. A million more people over the next 20 years. Dwindling bushland. Water shortages. Energy shortages. Rising temperatures. Helpless addiction to suburbia. Air pollution. Scary streets. Arrogant malls. Obesity epidemics. Social alienation. And cars. More, and more, and more cars.
And yet, despite the evidence, I find myself unreasonably optimistic about the future of cities. Sydney, in particular. It may be that this kind of optimism is hardwired, causing us to see the future as lucent and the past as shadowy, although the past is known, while the future remains mysterious.
Let’s go back a step. The essential difference between late Western cities such as Sydney and the cities we tend to admire is necessity. But we don’t see this. Won’t, or can’t. Because we are addicted to the idea of choice. Choice is the essence of consumerism. We presume choice is good, and more choice is better. But it is choice that makes our cities and suburbs ugly; and necessity, broadly speaking, that gives traditional towns and cities not just their physical beauty, but also their cultural and economic vivacity.
We have assumed, hope against hope, that we could actually have it all: limitless water, cheap land, clean air, endless car travel, huge houses, vast freeways, and clean waterways, functioning wilderness, healthy bodies, strong communities and a creative, vibrant culture. In Sydney, for most of our short history, we have contrived to avoid, evade or deny the stringencies and deprivations that gave traditional cities their shape and intensity. Until now. Now, at last, the bony fingers of necessity are beginning to point our way, at once and in parallel.
What necessity, where? Well, water, for one. Air pollution, energy, social equity, wilderness, biodiversity, cultural mass, public health (mental as well as physical) or economic connectivity: all the fingers point ruthlessly towards denser, more vibrant, more intense and intensive cities. About time, in my view.
The irony is that the very suburban pattern for which our great grandfathers crusaded a century ago is now the chief culprit. Their huge centrifugal effort to end the rickets and diphtheria and moral depravity of in-town slum culture by packing the poor off to edge city gave us the Great Australian Dream. And now that dream itself is polluting our air, wasting our water, destroying our bushland and producing epidemic mental and physical disease to boot, as recent studies show.
Increasingly, the old pattern is inverting itself, giving the rich-and-educated good health in the dense inner-burbs, while the poor wallow in the huge eaveless houses, limitless space and epidemic obesity of far-out nowhereland. It’s a pattern of which we should be ashamed, since it deprives the have-nots even of the transport by which they might escape. And it is a pattern that market forces will not redress.
So, to the four schemes. Their single-sentence brief allowed the groups free range across the vast spectrum between practice and make-believe. Of the four, Newcastle Uni’s group (fronted by Tyler Mather) was at the far imaginative end of the spectrum. America, for instance, might be said to owe identity and empire more to the fictive power of Hollywood than to the financial engines of Wall Street. Intuiting this, the Newcastle mob wrapped Sydney in a Luna-esque gothic fiction in which roads writhe like agonised roller-coasters through city skies, bumper-to-bumper with cars-cum-dodgems, and sunlight seldom reaches ground. Water, they argued, will be scarce and the domestic shower a luxury long gone. In 2020, grandparents will treat children to the vast communal “shower tower”, where the standard sudsy ritual morphs into a symbolic memorial act.
The UTS team, fronted by Carlo Bellinato and Kristy Lam, was a little less fantastical, bent on decentralising greater Sydney and healing its “disconnected” quality by distributing the “soul of Sydney Harbour” across the entire metropolis. Taking Cabarita as an example, they launched a commercial/entertainment shard dramatically across its riverfront while reclaiming foreshore land into vast public parks. Suburbs like Lakemba, with no natural waterway, were given the canal treatment, linking back into the primary river-transport system. One might cavil about the river’s ecology, and whether the “soul of Sydney Harbour” could actually withstand such intensive artifice, but the impulse was a good and fair-minded one.
UNSW’s vision, presented by Peter Chen and Nelson Fung, titled “Looping Inertia”, was more analytical still. Based on an intelligent land use-and-transport rationale, it proposed a system of “secondary transportation loops” (trams, essentially) budding-off along Sydney’s existing heavy-rail stem. This created a series of medium-density villages that were at once stitched back into the city fabric by a network of effective public transport and “green movement surfaces” (pedestrian areas), which doubled as grey-water catchment systems. Clear diagram, strong idea, just a touch too Singaporesque in its realisation for that larrikin Sydney feel.
But the Grand Prize went to University of Sydney’s “In-between or Anywhere”, presented by Ross Langdon and Hamish Watt. This, of the four, was the easiest to imagine into a not-too-distant future.
It was a dual vision; part-CBD, part-suburban. For the CBD, it proposed a system of colonising laneways, occupying every crack, crevice and eco-niche with a multitude of uses from house to gallery to shop. In the suburbs, taking Canley Vale as an example, the students proposed making the suburban pattern denser with a system of modular prefabs up to four storeys high. The virtue of this lies in preserving both existing tree cover and individual gardens. Both ideas are vividly architectural, yet adaptable to circumstance; and both encourage diversity within a simple unifying framework. Which is pretty close to what cities are about.
It’s thoughtful and sophisticated stuff – yet its essence is simple: closer packing. Twenty years ago this was an unacceptable message, even within architecture. (I should know, having been howled down for it on at least two occasions.) Now, at last, it has become a commonplace, with each proposal simply assuming a zero-limit on greenfield expansion. Intellectually obvious, politically tough.
Which brings us to the sad fact that half of these ideas are already in Sydney’s metropolitan plans. And although there is some small effect, with average plot-size beginning to shrink (even as houses bloat), change is meagre and tortoise-slow. Why? Because all the real, big planning decisions are made by politicians, not planners.
And yet I’m optimistic. If students are early-adopters, popular acceptance will follow. This will do Sydney nothing but good; finally, perhaps, we’ll start to grow up.
Illustration: Christopher Nielson