Sustaining Sydney

By Prof Ken Maher, 4 October 2014

Burnley Living Roofs, Melbourne (Hassell)

A more ‘organic’ architecture may arise which lives and breathes, which is of the landscape rather than imposed on the land. An architecture which is more Asian than European, yet through its intonation and overlays gives subtle expression to the multicultural dimensions of our community. 

Sydney is a city defined by, and in some ways, prisoner to its majestic landscape. 

In its built form, Sydney has failed to match the quality of its setting by a long shot.  Yet the power and potency of the landscape remains its source of identity. 

As Sydney resonates to the waves of international and multicultural influence we must ask: how can its landscape better inform its architecture?  How can a fusion of new cultures and old land give rise to a more liberating, invigorating and liveable place?

Topography underpins the form of our city. The flooded valley of the eastern escapements and delicate tributaries of the western plains have etched out patterns of circulation and development.  More often than not it is a pattern of disconnection and linear fingers – so different from the more orthodox urban grids.  We need to celebrate this difference by refocusing our development, design and management of the city in accord with its natural systems and landscape patterns.

This might well be achievable through more logical local governance organised to reflect water catchment boundaries, and with metropolitan planning focused on a vision of interconnecting these elements through lowlands and highlands as living systems.  These arteries of life could form the armature for consolidating transport infrastructure and social spaces to cater for an increasingly public way of life.  Of course realising this idealised vision – so far removed from political realities – will take political courage and foresight. This is a challenge to demand of any proposals being considered for local government amalgamations.

While nurturing and sustaining our natural setting is fundamental to the future of our city, redefining and indeed revitalising our built world is the key to realising its real potential. The rich legacy of early European settlement and more recent waves of immigration offers a paradox.  While this has been the foundation of our contemporary culture, we have been subject  to misplaced architectural interpretations. 

With rare yet precious exceptions our built world reflects a ‘second hand’ response – misplaced in its interpretation of culture, landscape and climate. This is ironic given the exemplar we have in our most internationally recognised building – the Sydney Opera House, and the reputation of individual works of domestic architecture forged by many of our finest architects.

In the past decade much has happened in the maturing of our design culture and the emerging urbanity of our city. Increasing community interest in the benefits of urban life is resulting in greater density in the centre and inner ring. When allied with policies strengthening the focus on the public and cultural life of the city, a transformation is evident.

There is now a much better understanding of the critical role of density, diversity and connectivity as facilitated by a shift towards public transportation and away from reliance on the car. Converting this into infrastructure on the ground is still sadly lacking.

Achieving a more equitable, efficient and enriching city over time requires strong shared visions and inspiring political leadership.  Lord Mayor Clover Moore and her team at the City of Sydney are providing this through the City’s Sustainable Sydney 2030 strategy and projects, establishing multi-layered policies supported by tangible programs. Most significantly, the City Council has been leading by example through their absolute commitment to the highest design quality through the development control process, but also in the design and delivery of their own public projects.

At the broader metropolitan level such clarity of vision is yet to be seen. Successive strategies have failed to have traction, nor be effective across the imperatives of integrated land uses, transportation, or social and cultural policy, let alone any real consideration of ecology and landscape.

A more visionary planning strategy would also explore the character, identity, and experiential quality of the public places that will shape the future of our city.

More recent discussion on the need to address the disruptive division between the east and western Sydney is a promising development. The possibility of nurturing the diverse life and identity within Greater Sydney’s polycentric centres including Liverpool, Campbelltown, Blacktown, and Penrith in our west, and better connecting them with public transport is enticing, thereby enriching the vitality of the city at large.

Parramatta, the larger of these centres, with its fine stock of heritage buildings, compromised only by a poor legacy from the latter half of the 20th century, has recently been gaining momentum as a second centre for metropolitan Sydney.  Some worthy initiatives including urban housing in the centre, improved riverfront public realm, light rail proposals, and cultural programs are generating a new vitality. A more comprehensive program modelled on the City’s 2030 strategy, yet with a stronger ecological focus, would accelerate this renaissance.

With the new millennium now well established, and an emerging sense of independent cultural identity for our city, the timing is now right to enact this through intelligent and informed design.  This identity need not arise from a romantic reinterpretation of rural life or imported cultural or stylistic references, but rather from architecture and public places strongly sourced in expression of our unique landscape and climate.

The challenge for a more sustainable built world is at this time becoming increasingly urgent.  This agenda holds the key to not only our collective health but also to a way of living more connected, but also in harmony with our landscape.

Sydney is at an interesting time in its evolution with many major urban regeneration projects now under way.  Significant and ambitious plans are under preparation to shape key government land holdings through Urban Growth NSW, including the strategically important Bays Precinct. These projects have the potential to transform our city for better or worse. Making the right decisions now is critical to the city as a whole.

Shaping a better city is not only a matter of planning. The design of our public realm is critical as is the quality of the architecture. Our cities would also benefit from an architecture that reflects our vibrant and energetic - even adolescent - culture.  It could express new ways of working, liberated from the structures of homogenised slabs of hermetically sealed office space.  It could provide new forms of living spaces where courtyards, terraces and outdoor rooms are more valued than internally focussed boxes.

A more ‘organic’ architecture may arise which lives and breathes, which is of the landscape rather than imposed on the land.  An architecture which is more Asian than European, yet through its intonation and overlays gives subtle expression to the multicultural dimensions of our community. 

In this way, a vision for Sydney emerges in which the built world truly respects and celebrates the ecology and beauty of our physical setting.

Sydney can become a city of poetic potency, and could serve as a demonstration of an urbanism that co-exists with, rather than opposes the natural world – a built ecology. This will take determination, imagination and intelligence, and will only occur by design.