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?’.
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 cars.”
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.