Three times in the past month, The Sydney Morning Herald, the city’s broadsheet of record by default, has published a particularly irritating kind of article on urban density. To paraphrase Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia (1999), this is not just a matter of chance. These articles, by the paper’s two resident economists and sole architecture critic, represent a disturbing and powerful tendency to treat cities as economic entities, blobs on a map rather than physical spaces. They don’t realize that you can’t extrude spreadsheets into skyscrapers. Help! The Borg economists are eating Sydney.
The results of the “short, sharp” review into Sydney’s Barangaroo development project have been released in the form of an 87 page report in which the word “outcome” appears 88 times. Though all sides have declared some version of victory in its wake, it is hard to see the report as anything other than a final rubber stamp for the developer Lend Lease. Whatever its misgivings, the report requires no modifications to the current plans. Any critique is blunted by a salad of weasel words and praise for the “world class people working on Barangaroo.” Whether or not anyone has the power to undo this mess, it’s clear no one has the guts.
No matter how many corners they cut, cities find it hard to outrun their pasts. Early decisions, however casual, however pragmatic, have a way of getting written in stone so that even long after these stones have tumbled, their consequences remain in the correspondence between certain cardinal directions and certain values. However subtle the reality on the ground, north, south east and west take on indelible local meanings. If you stand on George Street and look east down Bridge Street in downtown Sydney, it is easy to perceive the original topography of Sydney Cove, or Warrane as it was known to the Gadigal people. Bridge Street dips down toward Pitt Street and then rises up more steeply toward the Botanical Gardens at the top of the ridge. Along the low point ran the Tank Stream, now covered over, Sydney Colony’s first supply of fresh water and the reason why the city is where it is.
The people of New South Wales have been anticipating the upcoming state election almost since the last election four years ago, never a good situation. As regular readers of our dispatches from Sydney know, the soon to be defeated Labor Government has for the past sixteen years, with its inimitably bland, shiny-suited glee, trashed poor old Sydney. A place which with the slightest effort could be the most beautiful city in the world has instead deteriorated into a kind of Los Angeles without a Raymond Chandler, a Melbourne without intricacy, a Singapore without ambition.
One of the most urgent tasks facing the next state government will be the reform of NSW’s broken planning system, a system I saw in action (if that is the right word) during the disillusioning two years I spent in a cubicle at the NSW Department of Planning.