Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Newcomers are encouraged to flog the elephants
Elizabeth Farrelly Elizabeth Farrelly writes on planning, architecture and aesthetic issues for
LAZING on the dock of the bay you watch locals in two-stroke tinnies fish some of the most polluted water in Australia. The ferry is a good hour away. Now and then a faint roar swells the air. It’s only footy, at the Olympic stadium, but it stalks the landscape like the undead echo of games past, wafted on a gentle PCB-flavoured easterly.
Homebush is what remains of the “best-ever” Olympics. It was a good party, but this avowedly dollar-neutral exercise cost us between $2.3 billion and $6 billion, depending on who you believe and how you count it. Now, as the NSW economy yawns and wallows in the massive flat patch left behind, and efforts to revive this white-elephant cemetery evaporate, you’d have to query the exit strategy. How long, think you, before Homebush’s boat comes in?
It shouldn’t be so hard. At rhetoric level, everything’s just sassy. Sydney Olympic Park is vast and riverside, two-thirds the size of the CBD and 12 kilometres from it. To date, post-Olympics, there’s a hotel, an office park, a skatepark and a brick-pit ring, whence to view the green and golden bell frog at only a hundred metres.
Coming are residential towers, an education precinct (private), morehotels, a town square and a clutch of office buildings, starting with four for the Commonwealth Bank, which will move 5000 jobs there by 2009.
That’s at rhetoric level. But then, at rhetoric level, there’s no war in Iraq, and Afghanistan is a free nation.
So what is Homebush’s problem? Why, after six years of relentless hype, after all the water-recycling and the frog-saving and the greatest jacaranda heist in history, why after all this does Sydney Olympic Park still feel like Canberra on dope? Like some random strewing of cheap hotels and cheaper offices around the great white remnants of Sydney’s finest hour?
Homebush is roughly the geo-centre of Sydney, yet it feels like a lost world. It’s beside our busiest highway, yet invisible. It has a glamour rail station with trains every 20 minutes; but most of them hail from, and return to, well, Lidcombe. It has a smart ferry terminal, which ferries sometimes service more than once an hour.
All buildings have four-star green rating, but this is one eco park to which everyone drives. In 2004-05 there were 1.5 million visitors, and 1.3 million parked vehicles. There’s no such thing as a spontaneous visit. You drive, attend your event, hop in the car, go. No one lingers. And for anyone without wheels, it’s a long way between shadows.
The bank’s move is hailed as a solution to all this. Good show, shouts the claquer. Decentralise. Spread the money, extend the influence, send the chatter wagons west and make Sydney efficient, free flowing and, dammit, fair. So eager is the State Government it promises new five-minute buses from Strathfield and Chatswood.
Such reasoning, though, is spurious. Banks westward-ho their workers not for equity reasons, but for economy, and not as a precursor to final central city-abandonment but, quite the contrary, to sustain a city presence. You don’t see many of the power boys doing frisson in downtown Homebush.
This is because cities are proximity phenomena. You can’t just take a normal congested city, crammed with rickshaws and road rage, press it out thinly across the Earth’s crust andexpect it to buzz on regardless. Social engineering of this kind generally fails. Margaret Thatcher managed it, but only because Canary Wharf was a coin toss from the city. Even then it cost her a fully formed rail line.
In Sydney, the Parramatta relocation of several government departments, far from spreading the wealth, has simply bred an executive species minutely adapted to inside-the-limo, dedicated global-warmers shuttling full-time between business districts.
City moulding fails because even the most sophisticated cities are primitive in this; they centre on ancient rituals of nose-rubbing. Theory may argue that all meetings can be cyber-managed but we all know that if you’re not in the room – if you can be flicked off with a switch or a power outage – you’re not in the room. It was true for the Medicis, it’s true for us.
This is why the failure of America’s “edge city” phenomenon to hollow-out Australian downtowns as it did theirs – replacing them with vast soulless boombergs designed around the basic irreducible unit of the recreational four-wheel-drive – is a countable blessing.
It’s also why Homebush was the wrong Olympics site. Some cities mould their Games around needed infrastructure and redevelopment. Others, like Sydney, choose one of the world’s most polluted sites, between a dead end rail spur and a toxic river, because it is empty, easy and cheap. Then they put the whole thing on credit, and let it drift into exurban dystopia. Party now, pay later. With interest.
That smell in the air? It’s not polychlorinated biphenyls. They are odourless. It’s the smell of plastic cards burning; of political expedience going up in smoke.
Maybe, when it clears, we’ll see there’s more to vibrant cities than education packages, leisure programs, lifestyle products and colour glossy brochures.
PHOTO: Photo: Robert Pearce