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THE URBANIST JUNE-JULY 2016: LEARNING FROM SYDNEY

A Collaborative Approach to City Making: Lessons From Sydney


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by Yosh Asato and David Baker
“We’re all in this together” is perhaps the most important lesson to bring home from Sydney, Australia. Sydney-siders enjoy well-maintained public spaces that are engineered for travel by foot, a result of the city’s focus on creating places that are inviting to everyone. The lively nature of Sydney’s public realm is made possible by a principled and truly collaborative approach to city making that has fostered buy-in for dense urbanity — both in the city’s center and in its suburbs.

Summary: Sydney has policies in place that prioritize the pedestrian experience. A rigorous design process for major developments makes the rules clear for all parties involved. The result is inspiring.

The Urbanist Issue 551 June-July 2016

In the Bay Area, the process of getting a project approved can leave players on all sides with a sour taste in their mouth. Competing visions for what cities and neighborhoods should look like often dilute ambitious projects. Sydney combines policy frameworks that prioritize the pedestrian experience with a rigorous design process for major developments that makes the rules clear for all parties involved. While Sydney’s vastly different system of land ownership and state-driven planning policies (complemented by strong social and cultural services) can make it difficult to compare with the Bay Area, the city’s collaborative approach to city making offers some inspiring strategies that deserve further consideration.

Great shared urban space

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The Walsh Bay Arts Precinct, a vibrant mixed-use district, was a major infrastructure project led by the New South Wales government. Image: David Baker Architects

Prioritize public access to the waterfront — and include a wider mix of uses. In Sydney's Walsh Bay, the New South Wales government entrusted infrastructure developer Transfield and developer Mirvac with the task of transforming old storage and shipping facilities into a thriving mixed-use district, which now includes an art school, a theater company, creative workspaces, restaurants and both for-sale and rental housing. Redeveloping formerly industrial wharves has created a wealth of new places where people can enjoy the beauty of Sydney’s harbor.

Hidden, under-used spaces like the Ash Laneway were transformed as part of a larger effort by the City of Sydney. Laneway improvement projects are bringing signifigant economic benefits including increased local patronage and tourism. Image: David Baker Architects

Celebrate the city’s heritage. While new towers are rising throughout Sydney's CBD, the city's laneways, remnants of the city's extensive network of service alleys, are places of urban vitality today. The city’s laneway management policy was developed as a response to the sale of many laneways to private developments, without taking into account their value to the public realm. Now, restaurants with outdoor seating and businesses line the laneways, which also provide pedestrians with an inviting alternative to more crowded thoroughfares.

Art above the street in Paramatta. Image: David baker Architects

Invest in public art. Sydney’s (and Australia's) investment in public art is highly visible in the laneways, murals, underpasses, sculptures and temporary works that enhance public space through the city. Developed by city staff along with an advisory panel of professional artists, curators and architects, the city’s Public Art Strategy commits to promoting the arts as one of Sydney's cultural assets and to supporting working artists in the community.

An obellisk gets a pink condom for Gay Pride. Image: David Baker Architects

Density: Go for it

Greater density was allowed at the Central Park development due to the sustainable quality design. Image: David Baker Architects

Build better, build taller. By demonstrating how tall buildings designed with the public realm in mind contribute to a dense, livable city, Sydney has helped change the public debate around density. Projects such as Jean Nouvel's One Central Park counter the idea of density as a dehumanizing source of congestion. The building is recognized for its vertical gardens and an overhang that reflects dappled light onto the public park below. Along the western shore of the central business district (CBD), three commercial towers will soon define the heart of the precinct known as Barangaroo South, a former shipping dock designated by the state in 2005 for redevelopment as commercial space and parkland. Though controversial (city officials have no say in what happens at the state-owned site, and critics have decried the inclusion of a new casino and high-end hotel rooms on public land), the buildings themselves are a solid addition to the city’s urban fabric. Active ground levels invigorate the public realm and all of the buildings use cutting-edge sustainable practices.

Serious density on top of the Chatswood light rail station, an inner suburban location similar to the El Cerrito BART Station. Image: David Baker Architects

Accommodate growth through robust, transit-oriented development. Like the Bay Area, Sydney faces the challenge of accommodating a growing population fueled by a healthy economy. However, in Sydney the state’s planning department enforces a Centres Policy that has led to a greater acceptance of dramatic changes in architectural character outside of the CBD. Through significant upzoning and cultural investment around its central rail station, the suburban business district of Chatswood, located across the Sydney Harbour Bridge, has become a lively new urban center. Many Sydney residents initially balked at the prospect of high-rise apartments replacing quaint older buildings, but strong state-level vision moved the project forward. Now, good transit service, high-quality design and a walkable public realm make this a popular destination. Creating new regional hubs doesn't fully address the issue of displacement within the city center, but it helps to disperse demand without contributing to sprawl.

Embrace and invest in design excellence, past and future. Sydney is weaving a dynamic urban fabric by cherishing its many outstanding historic buildings and setting a high bar for new construction. In an interesting example of an efficient and open public/private partnership, the city’s Competitive Design Policy requires new buildings over 45 meters (147.6 feet tall) to undertake a design competition or the competitive development of design alternatives, offering a proactive strategy for developing win-win solutions. With these limited, paid competitions, the community, the city and the developer collaboratively jury the proposed designs (which include detailed cost and feasibility input) and a majority vote determines the winner. Contests are administered and paid for by the developer, though the process also requires a third party, such as the Australian Institute of Architects, to complete an independent design assessment. To offset the costs of the competitions, developers receive a 10 percent increase in building area. The return for the city is crop of thoughtful new buildings that contribute to a denser yet livable Sydney.

Frank Gehry visits Sydney. Image: David Baker Architects

The large scale Sydney city model is updated as new buildings are built. Image: David baker Architects

The Urbanist Issue 551 June-July 2016

The Walsh Bay Arts Precinct, a vibrant mixed-use district, was a major infrastructure project led by the New South Wales government. Image: David Baker Architects

Hidden, under-used spaces like the Ash Laneway were transformed as part of a larger effort by the City of Sydney. Laneway improvement projects are bringing signifigant economic benefits including increased local patronage and tourism. Image: David Baker Architects

Art above the street in Paramatta. Image: David baker Architects

An obellisk gets a pink condom for Gay Pride. Image: David Baker Architects

Greater density was allowed at the Central Park development due to the sustainable quality design. Image: David Baker Architects

Serious density on top of the Chatswood light rail station, an inner suburban location similar to the El Cerrito BART Station. Image: David Baker Architects

Frank Gehry visits Sydney. Image: David Baker Architects