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High streets and how to make them great people places

empty street
King Street, Newtown

High Streets are the lifeblood of a city. They’ll be back after the current COVID-19 fears inevitably subside, but we need to ensure they’re designed for vibrancy and people.

Our local high streets are the beating heart of the community. A place where people could congregate, do their shopping, go to a café, library or park. This is the subject of the Committee for Sydney’s new report on Reclaiming Sydney’s High Streets.

When Sydney was originally built, virtually every neighbourhood had a local shopping street, and this helped to define so many of Sydney’s neighbourhoods. We celebrate these streets for everything they can offer – convenience, amenity, and the simple pleasures of walking around and people watching.

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But in many cases, Sydney’s high streets have not been well treated. At times they have been abused, neglected, and degraded by poor traffic management and planning decisions. That is why we are calling for the revival, reclaiming, and revitalising of Sydney’s high streets and turning them back into a cherished part of daily life.

In order to achieve this, we need to turn our minds to what made the high streets great in the past. We do not need to start from scratch. Sydney has some great examples such as Beamish Street in Campsie, King Street in Newtown, the Corso in Manly, and Katoomba Street in Katoomba. We can also learn from well done international examples such as Exhibition Road in London, Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, Herald Square in New York, and Valencia Street in San Francisco.

Our high streets need to have wide footpaths with less clutter so pedestrians can freely move up and down, without being impeded by utilities and other items that could be better and more centrally located. We are also calling for slower traffic speeds with buffers between the traffic and pedestrians, a reduction in the number of clearways, and making streets easier to cross from one side to the other. These measures will give pedestrians a sense of a safe and enjoyable environment.

Our high streets need to be places that our communities want to visit.  They need to have places to sit, with trees providing shade and an aesthetic streetscape, with well-designed buildings that draw people along the streets.

We have developed a “pathway to action” to ensure that Sydney’s high streets are reclaimed. The first step is to map where our high streets are or where there is potential for them to develop. We need to fund their redevelopment, starting with identified pilot projects, while developing a public realm plan for each high street. We need to examine how our streets currently operate and look towards changing the performance metrics, and how the along our high streets are designed.

We now have a Minister for Public Space and the NSW Government is very much focusing on our we can improve our public spaces, including high streets. Now is the time to strike. Now is the time to make the change. If we all work together, we can ensure our high streets become the heart of our communities again.

Daniel Hill is a policy principal at the Committee for Sydney.


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