Sunday, 18 September 2016


One might be astonished to discover that the Greater Sydney Commissioner, Lucy Turnbull, was apparently "not aware there were (heritage) houses going to be demolished at Haberfield (for the WestConnex motorway)": but perhaps not, because, as Elizabeth Farrelly writes, 'Sydney repeatedly, persistently designs itself a planning system to fail.' Maybe Sydney is like most places these days that seem to create plans merely to fulfil legislative requirements and general expectations rather than as rigorous predictive or controlling tools to regulate and achieve specified outcomes, as plans should hopefully do for mice and men. So it is that schemes can appear deliberately vague, ambiguous and unusually accommodating. However one has to be equally concerned about the scenario that Ms Farrelly subtly suggests might be the better solution - the second choice. Her piece in the SMH of August 20-21 2016, p. 32 NEWS REVIEW, is titled: There are two choices facing future Sydney. In it she itemises the scenarios as she sees them and asks reader to choose.

By the use of her language, Ms Farrelly appears to have chosen already. Her text identifies Scenario One as Sydney's planning as it is now - 'venal, hobbled and intellectually threadbare.' Scenario Two is otherwise, completely different; almost the direct opposite - 'intelligent, holistic, all-encompassing.' The tacit implication is that this strategy will produce unequivocally beautiful, life-enhancing outcomes in every way possible: an idyllic environment.

The concern is that both the choices offer the same, a top-down, 'preferred model' thinking, one from 'men-armed-with-numbers-engineers, traffic guys, bean-counters, politicians, developers' promoting the rigour of the rational rationales we know today; the other from 'intelligent, public-spirited smarts' who, it seem, have the singular ambition to promote everything caring, new and now ecologically fashionable as the futuristic model of happiness, delight and pride, hoping that our cities can 'be there up with Berlin and Barcelona.' Why do we have these cringing ambitions that reach out for the European experience, seemingly anything but Australian?

Ms Farrelly makes some pungent points in her critical overview. One would like to genuinely believe in this honeyed, stinging, heroic rhetoric, but itemising two scenarios, as if these could be the only choices Sydney might have, seems blindly ambitious, overly simplistic, almost naive - perhaps haplessly, hopelessly optimistic.

Both scenarios suggest similar patterns for strategies, the subject matter of the guidelines varying in parallel with the approaches, with the alternative intents of each diverging to give black and white opposing options: literally the 'baddy' and 'goody' of the comic strip storyline - one 'intellectually threadbare,' the other 'intelligent.' Will brains beat brawn? We know the outcome of the first scenario - things as they are now - and it is not particularly nice; but there is no guarantee that tall, slender, tapered-top buildings will not shade the apparently green, leafy trees filling the parks and hanging over the pattering footpaths flowing with people going who knows where, doing who knows what, dodging the whoosh of driver-less trams, the accusing ding of kamikaze cyclists, and the hum of empty autonomous vehicles as they move through the city, whatever form this might take, all abuzz and awry amongst an extensive array of edible green walls and dark photovoltaic claddings.

The outcomes one might envisage with Scenario Two could be worse than those of One: one has to be careful what one hopes for with Two. The experience might match the alienation expressed in Orwell's brave new world with shady individuals hemmed in, shackled by technological wonders, those that can be envisaged today, and who knows what else: drones, and all those clever inventions yet to be thought of by the 'smarts,' who are always hoping for discoveries different and better? These new things could also involve improved, more subtle and intrusive, concealed systems of surveillance and control: consider the recent Volkswagen experience where smart systems were secretly developed to fudge performance results.

Who and what are these 'smarts' as Ms Farrelly calls them? The suggestion is that they are better than any of today's 'men-armed-with-numbers-engineers, traffic guys, bean-counters, politicians developers,' the embodiment of caring goodness. Is this something to do with personal perception alone, an individual's preference? Will the brave new world be devoid of 'men-armed-with-numbers-engineers, traffic guys, bean-counters, politicians, developers,' or will this group be transformed into new 'smarts' or by them? Who might engineer and manage this dream world that becomes more fantastic the more one ponders the possibilities?

Visions are always difficult to specify, to identify. Predicted futures usually only tell us what we are and know now, placed into an alternative time scale, like cars and houses of the 'future' that have already been built, to be available 'to the public' in a few years' time: in the future. Beyond this programmed time delay, the future is unknown - by definition and fact. It is not now or probably anything like a techno-fest, although we might like to see it this way to feel 'comfortable and relaxed' in our unpredictable, highly-hyped era.

What Sydney needs, as all places do, is a third way. This concept has nothing to do with Buddhism - it is just a numerical listing - but it could learn much from an awareness of matters small, subtle and sensitive. Instead of planning cities for envisaged wonders of rational and technical hope, in which all in power are 'intellectual' and 'caring' - if only! - we need something to be intellectual and caring about: we need to base decisions on an understanding of life lived, and feeling felt, making and shaping for a knowing experience of being, for remembrance, for support rather than any indulgent display and arrogant performance, where, yes, one can experience pride in place and feel the lived and the living complete and completely, with a rich satisfaction and easy contentment reinforced in the mediating fabric of form and place.


We need to attend to the tiny things, the fine occurrences, intimacies, rather than boldly promote popular eco-things that have probably already seen their past, if not their limited futures. Imagine a city with a life as short as that of a computer that is considered 'old,' out-of-date the day it is finished - well, implemented, as cities are never complete - with citizens always hoping for their built environment to become something else, better, newer, smarter, with a belligerent dissatisfaction and a disconcerting discontent, always looking forward, wanting to be elsewhere and otherwise. Such ephemeral ambivalence may become a core part of our futures, but we need a grounding for such variance - a third way rooted in something much more substantial than popular science hopes, indulgent whims and wistful fantasies that can all fail and fade so quickly as the newer, better, faster and smarter variations appear. The preferred approach may indeed be closer to things simply 'spiritual' rather than self-consciously being 'public-spirited,' whatever this might mean, for the public is as flippant as technological futures, where 'you choose' whatever appears immediately preferable without specifying any necessity, context or relationship on any scale, or with any reason or explanation beyond whim or self-expression: my selfie; myself - consider Brexit.

It might sound like a sad 1960's cliche, but we need planning to truly frame, to enhance places for thinking, feeling people, to enfold their histories and stories as they unfold, not just to showcase our spectacular, bemusing, entertaining creations as indulgent whiz-bangery and label this as 'forward thinking - going forward.' Outcomes must have beginnings in specific qualitative ambitions for individuals and communities if they are to hold and maintain sense, depth, meaning and relevance - something of substance.

SMH  AUGUST 20 2016
The bizarre planning scenario playing out in Sydney

Elizabeth Farrelly
"What did he know and when did he know it?" was Senator Howard Baker's immortal question on Nixon and Watergate. Ours, regarding Greater Sydney Commissioner Lucy Turnbull should be, "What doesn't she know, and why – for pity's sake – doesn't she know it?"
Turnbull's admission on ABC 702 this week that she was "not aware that there are houses going to be demolished at Haberfield," was the most shocking public statement in this country since George Pell agreed priests should be insured against paedophilia charges, although not quite for the reason you might think.

Turnbull's Westconnex lacuna is symptomatic of Sydney's massively dysfunctional planning system – right at its moment of maximum change. It's a system where all the big, driving decisions are taken by men-armed-with-numbers – engineers, traffic guys, bean-counters, politicians, developers – and "planning" is left to trot along behind. A system, in other words, where planning is treated like a girl.
You might think Lucy Turnbull's role as Greater Sydney Commissioner counters that view, but her 702 moment says otherwise. Across the eight months of Turnbull's appointment as Sydney's uber-planning maestro, the Haberfield demolitions have been intensely controversial. The constant protests, sit-ins and arrests did not stop 53 demolitions across seven streets, but you'd have to be comatose at the wheel to miss them. All very much on Turnbull's watch.
Had it been Wolseley Road, Point Piper, as opposed to Wolseley Street, Haberfield, you can guarantee the commissioner would have known. Indeed, you can guarantee the bulldozers would've been sent packing. Maybe too much harbour glare clouds your vision.
But that's not actually the point. The point is how Sydney repeatedly, persistently designs itself a planning system to fail.
Remember, this was meant to be the fix. Despite adding a fourth layer of government to an already over-governed metropolis, the Greater Sydney Commission is charged with producing "a plan for growing Sydney" in the form of mandatory frameworks to be imposed on councils everywhere. Bottom-up it's not. But it was meant, once and for all, to sort the unholy mess of state fiefdoms, council cronyism and developer free-for-all.
That can't happen. At a Better Planning Network meeting, 11 weeks earlier, someone asked GSC Chief Executive Sarah Hill – representing Turnbull – "What about the elephant in the room, Westconnex, and our houses being demolished?" Hill replied, "Well, Westconnex is a reality, we'll see how we can work with it."

     Illustration: Simon Bosch 

That was pretty pathetic. If planning has neither control over nor interest in its primary determinants – namely the major lines of transport – it's not planning, it's decoration. You don't ask a surgeon to cut toenails on feet already black with gangrene. Yet this, I fear, is how they like it.
For weeks now the GSC has been miming consultation, taking its "Talk Bus" to Penrith and Bankstown, soliciting people's views. History does not record whether the Talk Bus visited Haberfield. But if, as Turnbull's use of the future tense for the demolitions suggests, she genuinely knew nothing, the question becomes, if not, why not?

     Our skyline of 20 years' time could be more of the same, sweeping from Circular Quay to Botany 
     – or it could be a thing of true beauty. Photo: Peter Braig

In her next breath Turnbull noted, still with apparent surprise, that Westconnex "is being built. You know, when you drive out there to Parramatta and Penrith you can hear the machines digging away. It is happening." So, was the demolition of 53 houses just insignificant detail?
You might think it doesn't matter. Sydney is pretty amazing, despite its planning having always been venal, hobbled and intellectually threadbare. So do we care that planning has only what's left in the sandpit after the Big Infrastructure Boys have had their fun?
We should, especially now. It's not just transport – Westconnex, the Metro and the light rail. The biggest transformation in Sydney's history is underway, with a score of vast projects including the Bays Precinct, Green Square, Parramatta North, the huge upzoning along Parramatta Road and the 560-hectare immensity of Central-to-Eveleigh (which in fact extends to Waterloo). All are carefully quarantined against planning, carefully in the control of men-armed-with-numbers. The upshot? Almost all of the huge moves shaping Sydney sit outside any planning purview.
This is just bizarre. Urban Growth, formerly LandCom, is not a planning body. As invented by Whitlam in 1976 it was an acquirer of land for public purposes. Now it's a flogger of public land for private purposes; a quasi-developer briefed to maximise yield. What it won't do, therefore, is maximise public delight, even on public land.
Which is why, obviously, planning must happen first. Planning is about choice. Twenty-five years hence, Sydney's high-rise hyper-dense spine will extend from Circular Quay to Botany. It will dominate everything, but whether in a good way or bad is up to us, right now.
Scenario One. Business-as-usual. Piled-up egg-crate apartments loom over gloomy, windswept streets, everything is 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 and hyper-dense. Manifesting the fact of innovation, not just the rhetoric, it has become both beacon and uniting cause, proof that Sydney can be up there with Berlin or Barcelona.
Buildings are tall, even very tall, but most are slender at the top, being stepped back to reduce street-level wind and welcome the sun into streets and parks, especially the huge and beautiful Prince Alfred Park, completed first as a gesture towards all the new residents. In the hyper-dense city around it, footpaths are shaded with deciduous fruiting 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.


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