Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Congestion is what urban life is really all about
DEAD HEART – SAVING THE CBD
Cities thrive on crowds, diversity, and high-rise, writes Elizabeth Farrelly.
Downtown Sydney may look like your regulation forest of towers with an unusually spectacular frontispiece. But the glittering spires are not the only distinguishing marks. This particular six square kilometres, Central-to-the-Quay, is unusual in its peninsular nature, its fabulous climate and its narrow, crooked streets. These change everything.
From the moment Sydney went high-rise, 50 years ago, it was never going to be Barcelona or Vienna, their compact low-rise cores riddled with cultural enterprise, ancient and modern. Sydney was never going to be Manhattan either, its streets three times as wide and blocks four times as long, its city fathers even then imposing a step-back rule to bring daylight into the streets (and incidentally producing some of the world’s prettiest skyscrapers, the Chrysler Building, for one).
Sydney city was never going to be London, crammed with world-centre institutions and global financial reach; nor Hydra, its twisting, cobbled streets serviceable by mule. Sydney’s downtown was never going to be sun-drenched or verdant in any way that might let it compete, as a sunny day people-magnet, with beach or harbour. But, despite all that, Sydney’s is no dead-heart downtown. It is itself, a flawed but intricate and interdependent ecology that deserves our understanding before we meddle.
Take congestion, probably the commonest city complaint. Traffic congestion, pedestrian congestion; buses and taxis congestion. It sounds bad, very bad. The very word implies a medical model, like hearts or lungs or liver, where any sclerotic impediment is a bad thing. But cities are not organs and city-type congestion is just an extreme case of a condition that is the very essence of urban life: crowding.
Cities, unlike hearts, are not improved by zero congestion. Pretty much the whole of Australia has zero congestion (unless you count the flies). Cities are designed to concentrate – or congest – human energy. They are less about moving through than being there; they thrive on bustle, busy-ness and friction, creative and otherwise.
In the 1950s, when the city’s architects were lobbying to legalise towers for Sydney, the argument was all about congestion. In lifting floor space skywards, it was argued, towers would reduce ground-level congestion for both pedestrians and cars. They would create calm, sunny, populous pedestrian plazas, and extra parking both on and below ground.
It was a plausible argument. Skyscrapers stand on tip-toes, reducing their footprint, craning for the view. But they also have a minimum site-size, thus obliterating many of Sydney’s fine-grain laneways and reducing total road area. At the same time, they increase the city population, and exponentially increase ground-level wind-speed, strafing what plazas they create with cruel winds. And, in hugely enhancing property values, in effect they price small, low-yield activities (such as arts, eccentric shops and small, funky bars) out of the area, replacing diverse public space with big-business monoculture, as in the still-mourned death of the bohemian Rowe Street.
Can such effects be offset? Can we retrofit a city like Sydney to be more people-friendly?
Are policies like that of the city planner Jan Gehl’s likely to have the desired effect? Think, for example, of the proposal to retime street crossings to give priority to pedestrians. Such ideas have been discussed and squabbled over in Sydney for decades. The killer is that every second given to the pedestrian is a second taken from traffic and, much as we might wish to see “cars” as the opposite of “people”, any slowing of traffic will be bemoaned as a worsening of already intolerable “congestion”.
What about a congestion tax then? The idea, modelled on the City of London, is to reduce traffic by taxing private vehicles. This may well reduce downtown car numbers but the environmental benefits would be negligible (since most people would drive elsewhere). The real effects of such a tax would be to aggravate the effective dedication of the city’s supposedly public space to big-end business.
In a metropolis where most people already underuse their city centre, this is wrong in principle, not only for those so excluded, but also for city as a cultural source, since the overlap between the impecunious and the creatives is so sizeable. A better idea would be to ban private transport (other than bikes) completely, forcing even the wealthy on to public transport. Then see how long it takes to get the train problem fixed.
As for voting like San Francisco to end approvals of high-rise buildings, that would solve nothing, and simply cede Sydney’s dominance as the country’s commercial capital to Perth, or Brisbane – both already growing faster than Sydney. Height by itself is not the issue. Neither is sunshine. The question is how to reinstate some undergrowth, some diverse ground-level life-forms into the monoculture.
Here the promised changes to licensing laws will probably prove a step forward. A surge in hole-in-the-wall downtown bars will have spin-off benefits for out-of-hours eating, shopping and bopping, street markets, art bars, jazz dives and unspeakable underground activities.
Downtown is not mainly about providing safety and comfort. If it is safety and comfort you want, head for the retirement village. Downtown’s role is to generate the richness and diversity upon which the nation’s cultural and intellectual powerhouse must feed.