Urban planner Jan Gehl discusses Sydney’s potential

The City of Sydney recently hosted a series of ‘City Talks’ at the Sydney Town Hall, exploring how the city can become a better
place to live in for all residents. This included a presentation by Janette
Sadik-Khan, Commissioner of New York City’s Transport Department; as well as a
panel discussion and debate on how learnings from New York City’s
transformation, many based on recommendations from urban planner Jan Gehl,
could be applied to Sydney. You can view our summation of the debate and the
speakers’ resources in our recent post ‘Where will the cars and the parking spaces go?’ here.

Following the City Talks series, the Sydney Morning Herald interviewed Jan Gehl directly, discussing many of his recommendations
and observations about Sydney’s transport, urban layout and planning decisions.
He is not particularly complimentary.

“You have the most wonderful city in the southern
hemisphere and you push one-third of all your activities underground instead of
celebrating the beauty of the harbour,” Jan Gehl says. In conclusion,
Sydney is rich with “good examples of what not to do”.

Gehl, a Danish architect and urbanist whose ideas
about pedestrianising cities have seen New York replace the frenetic gridlock
of Times Square with deckchairs, potted palms and people, even singles out
Melbourne for praise. “That is one city which has really addressed the
issues of making a better balance between concern for people and concern for

His firm was commissioned in 2007 to do a study of Sydney’s
problems and potential. Some of his recommendations – such as making the city
friendlier to bicycles – are steadily being implemented. But others – such as
his vision to make George Street a pedestrian plaza for bikes and light rail
from Central Station to Circular Quay, or ideas about demolishing the Cahill
Expressway and burying the Western Distributor – seem more distant.

Gehl’s firm starts with what, in the age of the car,
has become a radical idea: that people’s priorities are the most important
driver in the planning process for cities. Good public space planning is
particularly crucial for poorer citizens, who need to be able to walk, cycle,
or take public transport to seek employment and who need public outdoor space
because of smaller private dwellings.

And he has had the opportunity to exercise some of his
ideas. Working as a contractor for the Barangaroo Delivery Authority, he is pushing
for a ‘better quality people environment’ at the precinct. He says that there
has been “openness” to his ideas but there have also been
“commercial or other barricades” which have forced compromises.
“We have had some victories and some defeats,” he says.
But he adds there have now been extensive “at
eye-level”  improvements to
the project, including lower-rise podiums with the towers set back and
attention paid to the pedestrian scale.

We hope to see more of this kind of thinking from Jan
Gehl being incorporated into Sydney’s future planning  in order to achieve balanced outcomes for
transport, sustainability and public health. 
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