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.
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.