Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Sentiment for the fleet of foot is sweet, but the response is pedestrian
Elizabeth Farrelly – Elizabeth Farrelly writes on architecture, planning and aesthetic issues for the Herald
The outpouring of grief and nostalgia over the death of Billy Thorpe is not just for his personal brand of testosterone rock. It also shows our deep nostalgia for a Sydney lost: a flower-power Sydney, vibrant with creativity and euphoric with the urgency of making love, not war. Thorpe’s autobiography, Sex and Thugs and Rock’n’Roll, is arollicking 1960s tale of casual violence, thoughtless sex, and music you can only call cocky, all told with a profane exuberance that is repellent and endearing.
Beneath the froth, though, and intermittently visible through it, is that other Sydney of the 1960s and 1970s: the Sydney of the Heffron and Askin years; of bagmen and standover tactics, of police racketeering and speakeasies; of the six o’clock swill and the Goossens scandal, the sacking of Utzon and the disappearance of Juanita Nielsen.
Driving it all was an insatiable and unabashedly philistine profit-hunger that saw the explosion within a decade of a low-rise, pedestrian-city into Skyscrapers R Us, accompanied by even vaster clear-felling proposals for The Rocks, Woolloomooloo, Kings Cross, Paddington, Chippendale and Glebe.
The Sydney Cove Redevelopment Authority, set up by Askin in 1968 to do just that, redevelop The Rocks, produced half a dozen schemes that varied widely but consistently presumed erasure of what was already there.
You can see the brief conjunction of these two Sydneys – the froth and the underbelly – as the overlap of old and new, a significant moment in the passage from Tammany Hall to humanism. Or you can see them simply as different sides of a single cultural coin; the light as dependent on its underlying darkness as in any Goya or Rembrandt. Or, for that matter, any decent Bible story or fairytale. Either way, Thorpe is a connector, embodying the “who-cares-what-you-do-as-long-as-you-do-it-loud” philosophy common to both.
Sure, it’s crude. But how tame today’s Sydney seems by comparison: all highlights dampened, neither light nor dark but obsessed instead by safety, comfort and niceness. The successful conversion of the Cross from Sydney’s lair of sleaze and bohemia to a shiny, middle-class lifestyle burb, fully CCTVed to nanny central (strictly for training purposes), is a classic instance. A measure of safety and cleanliness in cities is welcome but they are grey, mediocre values, easily overdone.
So when the city council embarks on yet another “pedestrian strategy”, as every successive council must do, the proper response from us-in-the-bleachers is a mix of applause, trepidation and ennui. Applause for the thought, trepidation for any remaining specks of grit and grime that may yet be winkled out and flushed away, and ennui in recognition of its constant production of pedestrian strategies for 35 years, and their very slight on-ground effect.
Jan Gehl is the 71-year-old Danish architect who has been appointed, at a cost of about $210,000, to tell the city what it already knows: that there is an overwhelming preferment of car over pedestrian in the city centre, and that every pedestrian-unfriendly gesture – from traffic lights to street furniture to noise to fumes to the fact that the only civilised toilet in coo-ee is David Jones’s third-floor powder room – probably hurts the city economy.
It’s all stuff we know. We know that more street trees would be good. That scramble crossings at major intersections help dignify pedestrians; that people sit, talk and eat more happily away from the fume and roar of traffic; that shared zones work better than full pedestrianisation. We know that more, cleaner public transport is required and that chewing gum becomes devil’s spawn when it lands on bluestone.
We know that, in its permanent on-street advertising framework that passes for street furniture, JCDecaux should never have been allowed tolocate public phone boxes on the noisiest corners just because they’re high visibility, or to place footpath billboards where blind and partially sighted people will walk smack into them.
We know all this partly because Gehl has been here before, and told us, just like he’s told Melbourne, and Adelaide, and London and Copenhagen and New York. We know because we have strategised precisely these things ourselves, in every pedestrian strategy since George Clarke and Don Gazzard’s original in 1971.
And because we’ve made all these promises so many times – the boulevarding of William Street, the encouraging of small, local retail, the pocket bars and widened footpaths and park benches and working toilets and street trees – we also know the pitfalls.
We know that street trees need huge below-ground volumes that are already stuffed with undergrounded cables and pipes. That congestion taxes will work – as they have in London – but at the cost of reserving the street system for the rich. That small bars cannot thrive while the hotel lobby has the government by the wire hairs. That public toilets become shooting galleries unless they are constantly manned. We know it’s all about hard decisions, and making them stick.
We know that parking in the city was banned for the Olympics and everything worked just fine. And that the politician is yet unborn who will dare to make it permanent. Maybe if we just yell a little louder?