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Better Placed: powerful truck carrying hopes & dreams or just a fluffy toy on the grille?

Sydney is shuddering from an orgy of transformation. That’s not a line from the ABC’s “Utopia”; it’s actually happening.

The Metro Northwest is nearing completion and new rolling stock has already been delivered. No longer a baleful promise, WestConnex is now roaring through Sydney’s suburbs (Newtown’s ungrateful coffee quaffers are about to deify the former transport minister in appreciation for his WestConnex vision). The light rail line between central Sydney and Randwick is shedding daylight on land once scarred by large shady trees. The west metro is, is, is… coming. Western Sydney – yes even the benighted West – is being won!

At the risk of indulging a party-killing enthusiasm for urban policy, Sydney’s institutions are also adding to the ecstasy. Set up only a few years ago, Infrastructure NSW (INSW) has curbed the pork barrelling hitherto blighting major infrastructure decisions – allegedly at least. The freshly minted Greater Sydney Commission has just released its plan for Sydney – for the next 40 years!

In the midst of this, perhaps a bit late to the saturnalia, comes the Government Architect NSW design guide. Called “Better Placed”, the document is a good-design manual for government projects and policies. Its intended audience is broad – politicians, bureaucrats, developers and the wider community. It paints a picture of a future city no one could reasonably object to.

But how could Better Placed possibly contribute to the frantic transformation already underway in Sydney?

Let’s explore one example.

When initially recommended by INSW, the promise of WestConnex was to trigger urban renewal by undergrounding and enlarging the east-west traffic sewer currently centred on Parramatta Road.

Urban renewal and infrastructure need to be intimately connected

Unfortunately, this joint endeavour soon dissolved. Alarming only the naïve, it was wearily lamented by most. The former chair of INSW put it tactfully: “Urban renewal and infrastructure need to be intimately connected, otherwise you are losing a substantial part of the purpose of the exercise.”

Former chair of the Committee for Sydney and current Greater Sydney Commission head Lucy Turnbull added, “There’s no integration between [the road] investment and the simultaneous development of a lot more housing along Parramatta Road”.

Yet the then ministers for roads and planning denied there was any such split. According to the Planning Minister, “You’d be hard pressed to find a better co-ordinated project.”

No more claims of urban renewal – just another road project from the ’50s

Sadly WestConnex itself largely contradicts the ministers’ contention. A cursory view of its website no longer reveals any central claim for roads-led urban renewal; it presents just like another road project from the ’50s.

Details of WestConnex regularly appear in the press. One example is the proposed St Peters interchange.

WestConnex St Peters interchange

WestConnex describes this and other related examples as a key benefit, in this instance the delivery of “more than 18 hectares of new recreational green space for local communities” (emphasis added).

It is hard to believe that any agency could seriously propose that parkland so comprehensively traversed by new elevated and on-grade roads could be considered as “green space for local communities”, let alone the kind of good quality urban design championed by Better Placed. The clear-eyed might see in this image more Darling Harbour than Botanic Gardens; the symbolically ironic more Godzilla than Hello Kitty.

However, and disturbingly, cynics might merely shrug at the yawning gap between image and language. For them, stretching credulity beyond its limits is now customary for far too much NSW urban policy.

Will Better Placed be taken seriously agencies now profoundly changing Sydney?

How then does Better Placed sit within this debate? Highlighting its utility, potential beneficiaries of Better Placed abound, and are meant to include:

State government … will also lead by example in demonstrating design excellence in the development of state-sponsored projects… (and)

The Community will champion good design in their neighbourhoods, cities and towns. They will be equipped and encouraged to participate in design and review processes and will provide valuable insights within the wider context.”

So the issue is fundamentally one of public trust in the power relationships between those who collectively shape and experience our metropolis.

Will Better Placed be taken seriously by those agencies that are now profoundly changing Sydney into the next century?

Will urban policy become the genuinely participatory enterprise where government and its agencies come to be widely admired for their imagination, foresight, inclusiveness and city-building excellence? Or will Better Placed in a year or two merely provide a more contemporary lexicon for further agency double-speak?

Rendered more graphically, what role might Better Placed eventually embody in the image below?

Will it be the powerful truck carrying the hopes and dreams of urban improvement that Sydneysiders so desperately crave? Or will it instead be the fluffy toy, distracting attention from, but strapped to the grill of, business-as-usual in the manner so lamented by the former chair of INSW?

michael brown illustration, the fifth estate

Until now, to participate in Sydney’s future all we could really do was drive our cars – endlessly of course – and pay the tolls.

Now that we are armed with Better Placed, how might we shape Sydney in the future? It’s hard to tell, but we’ll certainly still need to drive our cars or the business case for the WestConnex sale will collapse and we’ll all be left with another costly dud.

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 the University of NSW.

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Comments

One Response to “Better Placed: powerful truck carrying hopes & dreams or just a fluffy toy on the grille?”

  • I very much appreciate both your cynicism and scepticism Mike. The whole change process seems to be more of an exercise in making money for those in power than any viable development for the people of greater Sydney. If I hear Gladys say she’s doing this for the sake of ‘efficiency’ one more time, I’ll scream such that they hear it in Woolongong. Perhaps one day she’ll realise financial efficiency and social cohesion are two very different issues. After all, Mussolini is famous for making the trains run on time, but Oz fought a war against the fascism entailed in such efficiency. Moreover as someone born & bred in Canterbury Bankstown, I’d really like to know if Gladys, Baird or O’Farrell have lived in or plan to live in 20 storey apartment towers, or are they just being built for the hoi polloi and the coolie immigrants?

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