Wednesday, September 21, 2016

MORE ON SYDNEY PLANNING: THE IMPORTANCE OF EXPERIENCE



The SYDNEY PLANNING draft was edited for publication to become THE THIRD WAY OF PLANNING FOR SYDNEY. The text below includes the portions that have been removed from the original piece. They have to do with the experience of place, the reality of planning. Today outcomes have become irrelevant; only the process is important. No one cares about the immediate end result, or what might happen in a few year’s time. The play of words and their contrived alignment, their justification, with written planning texts is the only important issue. This is what needs to be changed in the Town Planning profession. There is no point in having any controls that have no interest in real-life outcomes. It is the lived sense of place that is critical for everyone. Anything else is merely a meaningless legal game.


 In summary, the issues were:
Scenario One. Business-as-usual. Piled-up egg-crate apartments loom over gloomy, windswept streets, everything is the same-same, on the hulking Barangaroo model, huge of footprint, cheap to build, dull to look at, nasty to be near. Such buildings feed no one' s pride.
Scenario Two. Sydney's central spine is green, thrilling, hyper-dense. Manifesting the fact of innovation, not just the rhetoric, it has become a beacon and uniting cause, proof that Sydney can be there up with Berlin and Barcelona.
Buildings are tall but most are slender at the top, being stepped back to reduce street-level wind and welcome the sun into the streets and parks, especially Prince Alfred Park. In the city around it, footpaths are shaded with trees and vines, every built surface bears edible greenery or a photovoltaic skin and the dominant sound - above the solar tram's whoosh, the autonomous cars' hum and the ding of cycle bells - is the herd-patter of countless walking feet.
Sydney's customary planning habits - where the careful have no power and the powerful have no care - can only deliver Scenario One. For Scenario Two we need the power and the smarts in the same hands; intelligent, public-spirited, holistic, all-encompassing planning. You choose.








There is no guarantee that things will be better. To get an inkling of what the Farrelly vision might be, consider Jean Nouvel's One Central Park development at Chippendale in Sydney. Nouvel's novel Miesan glass boxes have some additional 'green' wall panels and a solar reflector gismo. Ponder the future of more and many such developments, comprising taller, more slender towers, with tapered tops, more 'green' garden walls growing edible produce, and clad with a myriad of surface solar panels. Place these projects side by side to create a street frontage massed with trees and pedestrians bordering thoroughfares buzzing with the near-silence of solar trams and autonomous vehicles; add drones humming overhead and any other predicted civic gadgetry one might dream of or hope for. Then fill more streets with these buildings, trees, people and transport systems. Does Farrell envisage more again and again elsewhere? Why not? What might there be otherwise? Will this be better? Considering the necessities involved in matters solar with orientation and order, how might these demands accommodate the specific requirements of habitation? What might this city be? What might it become? It is easy to see how schematically vacant, how simplistic the vision, Option Two, is. Cities are richer, more complex, far more detailed and intricate than this loose diagram of a technological future that is pushed as being 'intelligent' and preferred.



The Blackhouse, Arnol, Lewis





It was in Lewis, at the Scottish Heritage blackhouse at Arnol that one unexpected, surprising statement made its impact. At the counter of the tourist office in the adjacent white house that seemed to have every possible quirky gadget, thingumabob, and self-consciously tortured idea on display, with cliches abounding in an endless variety of catchy displays comprising texts, images and forms, I purchased the small guide booklet by Alexander Fenton. The suave, neatly dressed, very rational 'engineered' young man managing what was the typical showy souvenir/ gift centre filled with kitsch, politely asked if I had liked the house. It was not a busy morning. I told him how I was impressed to experience the peat fire burning in the centre of the room as it had done for years, with no flue, both here and in most traditional cottages in remote Scotland and the northern islands; how l liked the sense of the place as having been lived in. He said, "Yes, those walls have seen life, births, and deaths. Only the roof has been refurbished; and a few pieces of locally donated furniture have been added. The old bible is still in the dresser drawer." Our cities need this embedded richness and respect, this subtle feeling of being, not the clever, sharp jibes and general, fashionable grabs to promote cliché visions as if they might only have utopian outcomes created by mythical figures that can be drooled over as artful performances by 'smarts.'





As I write, I look out onto the north-eastern parts of Sydney from the height of Freshwater. I see the various tower tops of the tall CBD buildings, and those of North Sydney, in the distance reaching high as if to peep over hilltops; but they are really just being assertively taller than others to declare this clever difference. Further east, nearby, the less tall structures of Manly grapple with the headlands for dominance. In the remainder of this broad, cinemascopic prospect, in the covering of the swellings of the hill-scape, and of the valleys between, one sees the giant smudges of shopping centres, the grids of other large-scale developments, and the construction cranes making those forms yet to be. Generally the hills are awash with a cluttered gathering of little boxes sitting under sloping roof planes across the gradients. At this scale, the vista appears to be a smattering of similar, simply stacked assemblages all trying to be individually separate, presenting, almost resenting, the conglomerate vista held together as the coherent mass of the cityscape by a fortunate fuzz of trees, the planners’ ‘ivy’ that buries all mistakes. Above this uncertain sprawl spreads broad arcs of high, bright sky. The saving grace of this loosely scattered, random array is topography and geography; its geology and flora - the place. Even without the harbour, the location has an authority and wonder.

The city of Sydney

Directly below my private lookout is a huge, weathered sandstone rock, bigger than house size, filling the void of a backyard that, in adjacent private spaces is blocked out with the deep pale blue-green of swimming pools, water that attracts a sleek grey heron. Each private feature shares a remaining enclosed space cluttered with a rotary clothes line on a small patch of green, and sometimes a small seat or an umbrella. Activity is rarely seen in these secret zones. Occasionally there is a bush; perhaps a tree. An old oak filters the view west, varying daily as the new leaves sprout a growing density of fresh green. The tallest tree of the region stands grandly to the north, a magnificently silhouetted eucalypt, the highest of the high, that, unlike the tall-built masses claiming similar prominence, declares its place in time with a supremely assured modesty. This tree is the playground for carking lorikeets; last spring it was home for a screeching cuckooshrike and shrill, nesting currawongs. To the east is the blue-on-blue horizon that reveals the brilliant morning sunlight; to the west the grandly glowing russet sunsets shape the dark hills at the end of the day. This is one quick glimpse of the city from a remarkable location, free of the cliché harbour, its bridge, and the opera house - the familiar city icons that grab one's attention, distract. Here, in the northeast, the settlement reads as pure happenstance in the presence of place - chance and necessity in operation rather than any plan: literally 'your choice' - an assemblage of private parts. The whole random pattern becomes explicit, confirmed in the lights of the evening that speckle the darkness of the slopes, a pretty sprawl of forgiving ad hoc patterns with all of the attractiveness of frozen fireworks without the noise and pollution.

Sun setting at Freshwater

The messy mass of the mall

Moon rising at Freshwater

As one moves around, across and through the city of Sydney, it is the vegetation and the geology that quietly whooshes and hums in the play of the brilliant sunlight. These are the elements that remain memorable, like those in the Freshwater cityscape, but on a different scale. These qualities are unforgettable, remarkable, in spite of the annoying ad hoc transport routes, the sundry squalls of surrounding strip developments, and the occasional moody, monster massings. The water that permeates between the treed sandstone outcrops anchors place with its enlivening chance encumbrances, sinuous intrusions and embracing, bracing distance: the harbour, the horizon, and its glow. These unique characteristics of Sydney offer suggestions, inspirations for the beginnings of plans for place and people. It is not Berlin or Barcelona and should never try to be; neither should it be the aimless, ad hoc, random shambles it seems struggling to become now; nor should it become a testing ground for the scope of new and fashionable technologies. It needs a third way that can address all of these matters in the context of accommodating the lives lived, these hopes, loves, struggles and stories, in the wonderful hilly, headland, harbour, coastal site that it is, to define a future for a special city, Sydney: its qualities.

What 'I' want gathered together in the green

But how might we have more than a plan with no prescribed outcome in any specific detail, one that only describes present limitations? Surely a plan demands a described future? One has to work and think laterally by creating definitions and guidelines that are open, able to identify and define qualities that can be recognised and achieved rather than specifying dimensions and shapes, functions and uses of an abstraction. We do not need plans that are loose documents that form the basis of negotiations with clever legal representatives for ever-different, more massive, intrepid outcomes, but ones that accommodate life subtly, allowing creativity, the new to thrive; not merely technological wizardry or a different scale or type of development, but renewed ambitions that have been the same for all generations. Yes the present appears hopelessly sad, truly a problem; but we don't need the second, opposite way. We need better. It is never a simple black-and-white choice: but it does need commitment.

Warringah Mall - the blur in the landscape

Sadly, with the 'techno' future, (and all futures?), one can see the 'smart' deals already - 'smarts' are not necessarily good; they are frequently dangerously cunning too: “We'll double the edible surface, include square kilometers of solar panels, accommodate hundreds of auto vehicles, provide drone pads, incorporate a solar tram station, and install a recharge facility for everyone if council will approve a scheme ten times the size that it currently suggest, all without any of the defined qualities - look what the city will gain!” It is never easy, but the city needs to start, start managing the random strategies and the trade-offs. The beginnings need only be tiny; then again, and again. Soon the small parts might coalesce into something a little larger that might make outcomes intelligible for more, enthusing others to do likewise on ever-larger scales, so that in time these too might touch, to give the city a unique, rich identity and diversity - a place to be lived in and loved, not a place shaped only for and by 'smarts' with smart forms and ever-smarter technologies to attract smart tourism dollars. People will travel to experience such a different, ‘ordinary’ place, to live in it and experience it, for they are very rare in today's world; but, one hopes, they are still possible with will and dedication.

What might it be without the trees?

Dare one suggest that there is there an easy, "She'll be right!" Aussie fourth way? Should one cynically just plant more trees, vines, edible or not, and layer all available surfaces with solar panels to shroud the cluttered shambles, to make the cliche 'green' city greener, 'livable,' and continue to allow anything to happen under the negligent spin of ‘progress’ - ‘going forward’? Why worry? Your choice? No, it is our choice. It is what is happening now.

'Planned' Sydney without the distractions of the icons


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