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  •         January 2008

    COMMENT: Jan Gehl’s pedestrian ideas for Sydney


    There’s 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 them.

    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, Danish architect 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 trucks.

    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 arrest.

    Were Professor Gehl‘s ideas ever implemented, Sydney won’t just be a city for pedestrians, but a very pedestrian city.


     TNC  20 January 2008                                                                                     Top /home