How Sydney Can Avoid the Traps of Density

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Thursday, September 1st, 2016
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With a metropolitan population which is expected to expand from just over 4.6 million in 2012 to around 8.5 million by 2061 and the best employment opportunities increasingly being concentrated toward the city centre, it is not surprising that growing ‘up’ through greater density rather than expanding outward is increasingly being viewed as a critical part of the solution to Sydney’s long-term planning challenges.

Nor is it surprising that planners are looking at ways to accommodate more of the population within a smaller space through greater density. A 45-year plan for the city’s centre released in July talks about having a skyline full of towers of greater than 300 metres in height.

Whilst this brings opportunity, problems could emerge if things are not done well. Accordingly, it is important to look at what could go wrong, how this can be avoided and how the city can capitalise upon the opportunities which are available.

According to Michael Banak, a principal at international architecture, design and urban planning company ROTHELOWMAN, there are a number of pitfalls to avoid.

In terms of amenity, Banak says it is critical to make certain that buildings are separated by adequate spacing and that there are good views, light and air quality as well as to ensure that wind impacts which tall towers can create at a street level are effectively managed. Any overshadowing of landmark spaces such as Hyde Park or Martin Place could also detract from quality of life for urban residents, he adds.

In terms of zoning, Banak says any failure to encourage mixed use of precincts could lead to commercial-only areas becoming isolated outside of business hours, whilst any excessive concentration of low-cost housing within particular areas could lead to some precincts also becoming home to greater incidences of crime.

Finally, Banak says, any failure to address sustainability related considerations such as transport could lead to more congestion, greater numbers of cars and more pollution.

Banak is not alone in stressing the importance of getting things right. Asked about these concerns at the recent Built Environment Meets Parliament conference in Sydney, Greater Sydney Commission chairperson Lucy Turnbull AO, UrbanGrowth NSW chief executive officer David Pitchford, Planning Institute of Australia chief executive officer Kirsty Kelly and NSW Greens planning spokesperson Jamie Parker all agreed that proactive efforts to ensure that density does not overwhelm the city are essential.

Parker, for instance, says there are additional concerns in this area. A phenomenon whereby some municipalities are well ahead in efforts to achieve 2036 targets whilst others were behind has led to an uneven pace of development and a lack of balance across the city, he said. Meanwhile, a shift in decision making power away from local councils and toward state governments and bureaucrats has created dangers associated with potential sentiments of powerlessness and perceptions about a lack of voice.

July saw the release of a new 20-year vision for Central Sydney. Along with the development of concentrated areas of ‘tower clusters’ involving buildings of greater than 300 metres in height, this includes plans to expand the Central Sydney area to absorb the Rocks, Darling Harbour, Ultimo and Central Railway to Cleveland Street; create three new squares along George Street; manage small sites to consider wind, sunlight, setbacks and views and to promote architectural excellence by requiring new towers and developments to go through a design competition phase.

Banak says opportunities are plentiful. He feels measures to improve ‘walkability’ and the ease of getting around on foot throughout Sydney’s centre are on the money, as are the aforementioned measures regarding design competitions. There are also opportunities to promote a laneway culture with a lively streetscape as well as to foster greater diversity in terms of visitors and residents from a social and cultural perspective.

“It’s about creating better access to our parks and public spaces,” Banak said. “It’s activating our streets and public spaces with restaurants, retail, events and that sort of thing.

“It’s also about creating a place with is more diverse with different ages, cultures, religions, genders, and rich and poor (residents). It’s about getting a diversity of people there as well.”

Pitchford says excellence in design is paramount, whilst Turnbull says a robust planning process is essential. Kelly, meanwhile, talks of the need to learn from positive design examples. Sydney, Kelly says, must move away from the notion of starting from scratch on particular site and instead learn from and replicate projects which have been successful in the past.

“It sounds bad, but you actually have to commoditise excellence,” Kelly told the Built Environment Meets Parliament forum.

As its population grows, Sydney’s challenge is to ensure that density is managed in a way that not only accommodates more residents and commercial activity but also enhances the city’s social fabric and improves the quality of life.

In order for this to happen, successful implementation of a few important strategies will be critical.

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