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Can some infrastructure harm urban productivity?

There’s been a lot of chat about “infrastructure” recently: what it is; its transformative potential; what benefits might flow and to whom; how to fund it; who should own it; what types do we need compared with others; what institutions should plan for it; whether it is ugly or not; and how much of it we really need.

Of course, what we now grandly refer to as infrastructure used to be plain old roadways, pipelines, airports, rail lines, power plants, transmission lines and the like. We then generally understood infrastructure solely in terms of its practical necessity rather than how it fitted into our cities, probably because cities seemed endless and any infrastructure symbolised progress.

Times have changed. Though we still assess infrastructure in pragmatic terms – by what benefits above cost it yields and by how we might pay for it – our cities are now more complex. Additional infrastructure attributes are now important. Two Sydney landmarks illustrate how and why. Sydney Harbour Bridge was constructed some 75 years ago to overcome the constraint on growth from Sydney’s moat-like harbour. It did so – emphatically! It has majestically accommodated road and rail traffic growth over many decades.

It also generated an aesthetic response; recall the paintings of Grace Cossington-Smith and others. Its graphic distillation of a leap across a stream constantly reminds us exactly what it does and where. Contrast this symbolism with its equally practical but more perfunctory Brisbane counterpart, the Story Bridge.

The more recently constructed Opera House fulfils another kind of infrastructure need – for “world class” cultural facilities. Located on a dazzling promontory next to Sydney’s Circular Quay, and with a stop-the-car design by a foreign architect, the Sydney Opera House unequivocally proclaims the nation’s cultural confidence.

Both structures are now admired for their aesthetic qualities. Appropriately so for the Opera House, which was explicitly designed and located to generate such a response. Admiration of Sydney’s Harbour Bridge is more complex; our affection attaches symbolism to function.

Many tourism brochures highlight the Sydney Opera House, Sydney Harbour Bridge, and the harbour that laps against them. But if symbolism alone is key, why are there no images of the Western Distributor?

Running south from the Bridge and complementing its function, the thrusting columns, sweeping curves, pulsating traffic, and primal roar from the elevated roads are chuckle-worthy. slyly-erotic, symbol-rich monuments to the road-builder’s craft. What’s not to like?

How does infrastructure interact with the city?

A stroll below the road decks reveals why. A bit like the needle-mats beneath pine plantations, the elevated roads suppress any appealing urban growth.

It seems that our affections also measure the impacts of infrastructure on the city ostensibly served. Thus, the Sydney Harbour Bridge remains “poetically useful” yet the Western Distributor will be forever “toxic” and “ugly”.

But how are we to appraise these impacts of urban infrastructure?

Hard-nosed concepts are now available. For ill or good, 21st century cities are increasingly understood in productivity terms. City centres host high-value complex command-and-control functions characterised by dense concentrations of skilled labour and face-to-face interactions. Increasingly, the productivity of inner urban land is measured by how well it supports these activities.

Growth in Sydney’s financial services precinct is constrained on three sides by the Harbour and Botanic Gardens. Barangaroo and Darling Harbour have recently been redeveloped, further limiting CBD growth opportunities. The cost of CBD land is increasing with scarcity. Though higher values might benefit landlords, they merely add to the cost of doing business in Sydney. In short, CBD land scarcity reduces urban productivity.

How the Western Distributor has dampened growth

The substantial completion of Barangaroo now renders visible the impact of the Western Distributor on Sydney’s urban fabric. The effect can be seen by anyone driving south after crossing the Sydney Harbour Bridge (see the lead image). The dashed red line extrapolates the general height of buildings in the vicinity. The yellow dashed line corresponds to the location of the Western Distributor. The gap between the two illustrates the dampening effect on development caused by the roadway.

The effect can be seen from as far away as the airport. In the image below, from the airport, the dashed red line approximates the “M” shaped curve of development built on the double ridges beneath Sydney’s northern CBD.

In both images, the gap between the red and yellow dashed lines corresponds to some of this nation’s most expensive real estate. Furthermore, it occurs close to the very heart of the financial and professional services district. Here, the highly dense, immensely productive city centre is displaced by one the city’s lowest density transport modes.

“The highly dense, immensely productive city centre is displaced by one the city’s lowest density transport modes.”

It is therefore reasonable to ask: what opportunity cost do these elevated roads now impose on the growth of Sydney’s financial services precinct? What would be the cost of lowering these six lanes of traffic below ground level? What could be the consequential financial benefit of releasing the residual land for redevelopment and, more broadly, what gain in Sydney’s – and Australia’s – productivity might result?

Prompted by its own insights and those of its then urban planning expert Jan Gehl, the City of Sydney actually explored these very questions some five years ago, but the three reports and associated model are yet to be released.

The benefits to Sydney’s productive growth may warrant the cost of relocating the network below grade, but this cost need not have been so high if the network were placed below grade in the first place. Costs will be borne by taxpayers either way, whether through loss of productivity if the elevated roads remain, or by the high cost to bury them. Shortsighted “silo” project planning is the cause.

In the Western Distributor example, it appears that there is a happy correspondence between symbolic and economic impacts. In fact, these relationships are far from accidental. Cost-benefit analysis now customarily “price” aesthetic impacts in order to reflect our lived experience of benefits, costs and externalities. Any contemporary analyses that ignore these factors are simply misleading.

For global cities like Sydney, the pricing of aesthetic inputs can also be understood in productivity terms. Global cities depend on attracting highly paid, highly educated, highly mobile “knowledge workers”. Simply put, ugly cities repel these workers and urban productivity suffers. This is why Singapore is aggressively recasting itself as a garden city of culture.

If the Western Distributor network illustrates the utter folly of sterilising land so close to dense urban centres, has the lesson been learned for other highly concentrated urban areas – existing or planned?

There is emerging concern that transport decisions for Sydney’s second airport at Badgerys Creek are about to repeat the mistake. As for parts of the WestConnex project, some elevated roads are proposed to cross public parklands.

Have the correct analyses really been undertaken? Simply because in Western Sydney there is currently “no there there”*, the recreational value of parkland may be low, but its value will increase significantly as the area develops. Would the cost-benefit analyses still stack up if they considered the future value of this land once the west grows, the airport is built, and commercial development flourishes in the vicinity? Would other transport modes and configurations better fulfil these future conditions?

Returning to the long-term symbolic significance of infrastructure, what message will be conveyed about Sydney’s priorities to future arrivals at the Badgerys Creek airport? Will a fast train whisk them comfortably to the vibrant cities of Parramatta and Central Sydney? Or will they discover during their 50-kilometre increasingly congested road journey that in Sydney there remains “no there there”?

*Apologies to Gertrude Stein

Mike Brown has worked in NSW local and state government in planning, urban design and strategic roles for 15 years. He recently completed a Masters of Urban Policy and Strategy at UNSW.

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Comments

3 Responses to “Can some infrastructure harm urban productivity?”

  • john greenshields says:

    Well, why not bury the Western distributor, and sell off the air rights for 99 years?
    I suspect it would yield a whopping profit to State Government. Patient capital investment would reward future generations.

  • Fred says:

    Interesting article that reinforces the need to keep the highly productive CBD cores attractive and linked to the rest of the city. Sydney has a great advantage over other major cities – it is constrained and compact. It is possible to walk between meetings and have 6 or more meetings in a day – try to do that in London or New York. It also has major suburban rail lines dropping people directly near their offices with no need to transfer to “metro” lines. We need to capitalize on this density and encourage more higher density development in the CBD, it puts Sydney at the top of the world rankings. It is generally accepted that a high density of workers leads to more interaction and more innovation so build higher, build more commuter rail lines and do not encourage suburban office parks or secondary CBDs.

  • Sylvia Hrovatin says:

    A very thoughtful piece of writing. I hope these thoughts can be taken further so that Sydney siders can have a proper discussion about ‘infrastructure.’

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