COMMENT: Jan Gehl’s pedestrian ideas for
another election in the air. Local councils throughout New South
Wales face the voters this coming September. Hence the flotsam
of colourful ideas floating from the office of Clover Moore,
Lord Mayor of Sydney’s City Council. And there’ll be plenty more
by election day.
During her term, Clover has pandered mightily to her inner-city
constituency’s almost pathological loathing of motor vehicles
and equally extravagant ardour for all forms of public
transport. ‘Light‘, ‘metro’ or ‘heavy‘, anything on rails has
her undying love. And if rail can’t do the job, pedestrian
walkways and bicycle tracks must fill the gaps. Just no more
smelly, polluting cars.
Beloved of green activists and journalists, this line suits
Clover’s electoral interests to a tee. If it doesn’t suit the
rest of the city, so what? The inner-city is special. Clover’s
support base is in suburbs ringing the CBD. They are full of
people who trek the short distance to the CBD for work and
leisure. Most are white-collar office workers, and many work for
government. Central Sydney is already a well-serviced public
transport hub. So few drive very much, and motor vehicles are
marginal to their existence. Life would be so much nicer without
Such attitudes may seem selfish and impractical. But not to
Clover. For her they have the makings of a ‘vision’. And in the
cause of turning vision into reality - or at least into another
election victory - she lured a prophet to our shores. Last year,
Jan Gehl (pictured) spent months investigating Sydney’s CBD before
issuing his prescription, a weighty report called Public Spaces,
Public Life Sydney 2007.
His central point? You guessed it - too many cars.
To be fair, Professor Gehl is a lifelong advocate of
pedestrian-oriented urban design, having spent a career advising
cities how to save their streets from the evil motor vehicle. He
casts a long shadow over Copenhagen, apparently. Clients know
what they are getting, as did Clover. He didn’t let her down.
Gehl came up with the near-utopian idea of banning private
vehicles from George Street, Sydney’s central thoroughfare, or
’spine’ as he aptly calls it, along its whole length from
Circular Quay to Central Station. It should be reserved for
public transport, he says, preferably light-rail, and bicycles.
That way people get to stroll at leisure, without having to stop
at pedestrian crossings. Most of his suggestions hang off this
radical proposal. Three large public, and vehicle-less, squares
should punctuate George Street at Circular Quay, Town Hall and
Central. And Park Street, which crosses George Street, should
also be closed to private vehicles. Some streets should be for
pedestrians only, he says. The report goes on, smiting vehicles
left, right and centre.
Professor Gehl spent nine months in Sydney, but it clearly
wasn’t enough. While there’s plenty of scope to improve the
city’s traffic management, he missed the point entirely.
Three constants govern the growth and character of Sydney’s CBD.
First, it is a relatively small space enclosed by physical
boundaries on three sides - Darling Harbour in the west, Sydney
Harbour across the north and the Domain-Hyde Park along the
eastern flank. Expansion is forced upward or southward. This
accounts for the high concentration of skyscrapers in the most
conveniently located blocks. While this concentration of office
space attracts considerable traffic, entry and exit points are
limited by the physical boundaries. Flexibility of traffic
routes, therefore, is at a premium. Also, the small area and
commuter volume rule out a dense transit network like Paris‘s
Metro or London‘s Underground. Most internal journeys by typical
city workers or visitors are within walking distance. The
massive cost would simply outweigh any real benefits.
Second, Sydney is a modern city and a commercial centre, not an
historic or administrative one. Nor is it a national capital
like Gehl’s cherished Copenhagen. Sydney was never laid out to a
plan, but grew organically. There are no extensive blocks of
grand, historic state buildings as in many European cities. It
has few structures or monuments of historic significance.
Buildings are raised up and torn down according to commercial
imperatives. Overwhelmingly, building stock is allocated to
commerce, and commerce means traffic.
Third, the harbour will always be Sydney’s most aesthetic
feature. The demand for office space is most intense in northern
blocks and declines southward. Street closures can only work on
the premise that development will shift south, but this is to
deny the gravitational pull of the harbour. In Sydney, those
with the dollars compete for views of that spectacular waterway.
Anyone who can will crowd northward, as close as possible to the
water, the bridge, Circular Quay and the Opera House.
If these are the CBD‘s ‘iron laws’ of development, Gehl’s
blueprint violates them all.
The CBD is a mini-economy, sucking in and spewing out countless
services each day. Many traders and customers aren’t based there
and don’t live anywhere close. They come, transact their
business and go. Greater Sydney is evolving into a polycentric
conurbation. But Sydney CBD still interacts with a vast urban
hinterland, stretching up and down the coast and across to the
blue mountains. Those glass towers feed a host of outside
contractors: maintenance crews, carriers, technicians, security
staff, couriers, caterers and the list goes on. Not to mention
thousands of tourists and ad hoc visitors. Street closures,
light-rail lines and other impediments to the circulation of
traffic erode the CBD‘s vitality. This is more true of Sydney
than many western cities.
Neither Clover nor her supporters have much stake in the CBD’s
commercial velocity, so to speak. As employed office workers or
city dwellers, their interest is in the city’s street-level
amenity. Hence the aversion to stepping around cars, vans and
Professor Gehl resorts to a cardiac metaphor to describe Sydney.
‘Its heart is congested’, he says, ‘choking on the noise and
fumes of the internal combustion engine’. In fact, circulating
traffic is like blood entering and leaving its aortic chamber.
Every street closed to private vehicles is a blocked artery.
Without the lifeblood of traffic, the CBD is liable to cardiac
Were Professor Gehl‘s ideas ever implemented, Sydney won’t just
be a city for pedestrians, but a very pedestrian city.