A true story: one day at the New South Wales Department of Planning two planners are talking about different theories of urban planning. ‘Neoliberal planning,’ the first says, “that’s what we do.” “No kidding,” the other replies.
“No kidding” might be replaced by “yer darn tootin” after the release of the NSW Government’s A New Planning System for New South Wales – Green Paper. If the title doesn’t quite grab you, a new planning system, however boring, will have a far greater impact on people’s lives than more juicy topics like a new Museum of Contemporary Art or a new pavilion for the Venice Biennale. Planning is the most visible juncture at which architecture meets politics, and what the Government is proposing is interesting for the way that it reveals urban planning as the point where conservatism begins to conflict with itself, where a libertarian sensibility runs counter to pro-business economic rationalist conservatism. The development industry is not quite a friend of the invisible hand; it does best when certain freedoms are curtailed. This was shown most clearly in the US by the Supreme Court’s decision in Kelo v. City of New London, which expanded the Constitution’s “Takings Clause” (“nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation”) to allow governments to claim eminent domain for purposes of private redevelopment.
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.