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planning 20

Pub: Sydney Morning Herald

Pubdate: 18-Nov-2010

Edition: First

Section: News and Features

Subsection: Opinion

Page: 15

Wordcount: 943

Mayor with might, or it’s gridlock



I love postmodernism, or whatever it is we’re in now. Consider the sign that sprouted recently from one of Clover Moore’s new kerbside inner-city planters, proudly declaring it “The Clover Moore Memorial Swamp, in honour of a visionary Lord Mayor and her tireless battles against commonsense and efficient infrastructure.”

I instantly took this as evidence that the City Council had begun modelling its marketing strategies on that pre-emptive self-deprecation so irritatingly employed by the rag trade.

Shopping for jeans is life’s second-most vile occupation but increasingly necessary, I find. This is because, unless you buy the low-rent cheapies that look so blindingly new any self-respecting inner-urban elitist would rather die, they are already half knackered when you get them.

And this is where the pre-emptive self-deprecation comes in. The tagline on my new (aged) Calvin Kleins reads: “The breaking of the stitching and fabric is not to be considered a defect but a unique characteristic … that gives the garment a vintage effect.”

So simple, yet so brilliant. It’s old-style planned obsolescence, only iced with pre-emptive self-awareness. And it makes me wonder. I mean, we’re used to it in art. You venture that Damien Hirst is boring and obvious and the immediate riposte is, “uh, duh, it’s meant to be boring and obvious”, thus permanently precluding criticism.

But might we perhaps apply the same idea to building contracts? “Please note that persistent gutter overflow and occasional finger-wide wall crack should not be considered defects but unique characteristics giving the building an authentic, gritty effect.” Or city tunnels? “Intolerable traffic congestion, huge political backlash and unforeseen gouging of government coffers should not be seen as defects but …” Or submarines, helicopters, Airbuses? Streets?

It is with these thoughts in mind that, just for an instant, I see Clover Moore’s sign in the same light. But then I realise. It’s a spoof, designed not for your postmodern inability to judge but rather your postmodern irony. One has to be so careful these days.

Yet what I still can’t tell is this. Did the spoofers know, or did they not, that as one of several dozen new “rain gardens” that comprise the city’s water-sensitive urban design strategy, this was, duh, meant to be a swamp? And that in any case, for the postmodern garden, “swamp” is a compliment? Slow water, trickle down, all that.

Certainly, Moore is still kicking up her share of controversy, and not only from Rushcutters Bay-ites chaining themselves in front of bulldozers. Take the doctor’s waiting-room conversation overheard last week between two people from Batemans Bay:

Daughter picks up magazine headlined “Clover Fights Back”.

Mother: “Clover fights back.” Derisive snort.

Daughter (defensive): “Clover’s got some good ideas.”

Mother: “Ya what?”

Daughter (reading): “You heard.”

Mother: “If she’s got good ideas I’d like to hear them. All them bike paths …” Repeat snort.

Daughter shrugs, like she’s heard it all before, and resumes reading.

Clover, introducing Janette Sadik-Khan last week (Sadik-Khan is, as the headlines have her, New York’s “Transport commish hottie”) took the home-crowd opportunity for some pre-emption of her own, volunteering the following information.

The Danish streets guru Jan Gehl, who spends his life flitting between cities to fix up their “life between buildings”, had “done” Sydney well before he did New York. Yet here was Sadik-Khan, skiting about all the pocket parks, bike lanes (332 kilometres) and traffic closures (seven blocks of Broadway including Times Square, just to start) she has realised while we are still risking our lives just cycling to Town Hall to hear her say it. (Though I must say the free cycle valet parking was a stroke of genius).

Moore’s point was that change in Sydney is so mind-numbingly slow because of the proliferation of narrow bureaucratic fiefdoms that have veto power. She’s right.

The angry resident outpouring over the Bourke Street cycleway was largely over lost parking space, but virtually all the losses were actually down to new RTA regulations, imposed by the state but conveniently worn by Moore.

This situation – a global city that must beg a dozen permissions for its every move from unsympathetic statutory bodies – is the best possible argument for a Greater Sydney Council. Actually, no. Second-best.

The best argument is breaking the nexus between tiny local constituencies and tinier local councillors, which is and always has been a recipe for corruption.

In NYC, Sadik-Kahn, a true and glamorous Kahn, has a vast empire and wields vast power. She argues that Broadway, in diving diagonally across Manhattan’s grid and creating traffic chaos at every intersection, has been a problem for 200 years. Speed, she declares, is of the essence. So overnight, pretty much, she whizzes the pixies in, changes the streetscape, and watches to see what happens.

What happens is greatly enhanced retail and theatre profits, reduced bike injuries, improved bus use and, contrary to all the grumbling, faster taxi times. In New York!

Moore has also achieved some remarkable things, if hardly on the same scale, including an imminent trial of longer green-times for pedestrians at city intersections. But it’s taken a decade, just to get a trial. And Moore’s plan for George Street – closing it to private cars, prioritising public transport, bikes and pedestrians – can never be more than a plan unless by some miracle the government snakepit supports her.

It is ironic, or more accurately moronic, that we have ministers for the Hunter and for western Sydney but not for Sydney itself. It should be the lord mayor’s job but to do it she needs power. Genuine, executive, just-do-it power.

Our cities will feel like trash as long as our city governments are treated like trash. Clover for Bloomberg!




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