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Projects like WestConnex could become genuinely city-shaping. Here’s how

Thomas William Roberts Fog, Thames Embankment 1884, photo: AGNSW

Pyrmont and Ultimo in inner Sydney proved that new development could be knitted into existing fabric and the suburbs are now a powerful rejoinder to those who claim “Sydney is full”. Unfortunately, too many recent infrastructure projects are failing to deliver the same city-building dividend. It doesn’t have to be that way. Mike Brown in another of his compelling series of articles on urban issues offers some creative solutions that can turn major infrastructure into city building opportunities and rescues them from utter failure.


This familiar ethereal image by Tom Roberts at the Art Gallery of NSW conveys a little of the contradictory transformation caused by the industrial revolution on a frantically growing London towards the end of the 19th century.

Behind the languorous slightly uneasy mood, it depicts infrastructure. Its title is “Fog, Thames Embankment” and was painted in 1884. Since then the fog has mostly gone, thanks to antipollution measures that curtailed the burning of coal (hint for present day). The Thames Embankment – a legacy of the sewering of London – is still enchantingly with us.

Yet, the difficulty of managing urban growth persists almost 150 years later.

A recent ABC Four Corners program weighed into the debate about our growing population. It reported that most growth would occur in east coast mainland cities, primarily from immigration.

Some interviewees recommended reducing immigration because our cities are straining to accommodate this much growth, which they claimed also threatened “the Australian way of life”, namely the Aussie backyard. More optimistic commentators pointed out that growth from immigration was good for the nation and the apparent strain merely required better urban management, particularly the way we build our infrastructure.

Indeed, urban growth and infrastructure-led urban renewal are common features of successfully growing cities worldwide. It has also been so in Sydney.

Pyrmont and Ultimo were redeveloped following federal and state investment in basic urban infrastructure improvements. By knitting new development amongst existing, adding new arrivals amidst existing businesses and residents, it is now a powerful rejoinder to those who claim “Sydney is full”.

Similarly, Sydney’s Olympics project not only provided still-used sporting infrastructure, it also restored depleted wetlands, pioneered advanced environmental sustainability measures, developed new models of medium-density living, and recovered formerly abandoned industrial land. Furthermore, it helped drive Sydney’s economy westwards. This legacy continues to evolve.

Unfortunately, too many recent infrastructure projects are failing to deliver the same city-building dividend for Sydney.

Perhaps the worst offenders are our large road projects. Many were initially supported because they promised to improve urban quality. They then spectacularly failed to deliver. Let’s review.

Unmet “city building” undertakings of the Cross City Tunnel look set to be repeated with WestConnex. Initial claims that traffic-blighted Parramatta Road would become a tree-lined boulevard, bounded by desirable apartments and served by light rail, are no longer pressed. They have been replaced by ludicrous promises like: “WestConnex will generate more than 18 hectares of new open space for communities in the Inner West”, such as that in the image below.

Artist’s impression of the proposed St Peters interchange.

Artist’s impression of the proposed St Peters interchange.

Urban design students will recognise this kind of “open space” for what it is, mere SLOAP – Space Left Over After Planning – so it is depressing that a government agency could seriously propose landscaped nests of roads as parkland gifts, particularly in place of its original vision.

Apparently oblivious to these inanities, WestConnex promoters believe public disquiet is a mere perceptual disorder, capable of remedy by emergency advertising campaigns. Londoners got an Embankment with their sewers. Those Sydneysiders not content with exposed traffic sewers, must instead adjust their expectations.

Many commentators suggest these pathologies can only be corrected with better citywide governance. The idea is that a whole-of-city perspective would prevent the siloed delivery of infrastructure, such as toll roads.

Though a single oversight body might impart an integrative discipline on the planning of transformational urban projects, the experience of WestConnex suggests that additional project specific measures are also needed.

The simple reason is that cities are not the direct products of strategic plans, but of built projects. Too often, projects shape cities in terrible ways despite – not because of – contemporaneous strategic plans that point in the opposite direction.

How then might project delivery be augmented to amplify proposed organisational improvements?

Two measures are suggested.

City-building dividend

The first is that any large urban project could make explicit what city-building dividend it will deliver.

Any large infrastructure project will shape a city in ways that go beyond the provision of, say, new roads, rail lines or airports. The idea is to make these benefits explicit and, crucially, integral with the project, thereby enabling qualitative comparison with other competing projects.

For example, a project that entailed just the construction of a rail line and stations might be favoured less highly than one that also explicitly included attractive urban development around those stations.

Retrospectively applying this notion to the sewering of London, what might have entailed just the construction of a pipe and pump network, ultimately provided the city-building dividend of a Thames-side promenade of enduring urban amenity.

At its original announcement, WestConnex promised a city-building dividend of a transformed Parramatta Road. Even for road project detractors, the prospect of taming this extent of inner Sydney was compellingly attractive.

Some might object to the application of qualitative attributes to project appraisal in addition to conventional quantitative cost-benefit analysis. The idea is not at all far-fetched. A recent example is the decision to repair and rebuild Sydney stadiums, despite detailed business cases showing that community costs will exceed benefits.

However, the idea of conceiving a project in terms of its potential city-building dividend entails thinking additively. Driven by constant pressures to cut costs, most government projects pursue “efficiencies”, which is code for the removal of elements not considered “core”. Within this binary conceptual framework, a city-building dividend is by definition “non-core” and therefore easily eliminated, even if a larger project might deliver greater overall community benefits.

Bringing project conception and delivery under a single urban agency may prevent such reductive analysis.

Failure criteria

The second measure would be to define at the outset project failure criteria: to say upfront, “this project will fail if…”.

Failure criteria would enable the electorate to evaluate the certainty of a project and also prevent project drift. The electorate would rightly regard a project with scepticism if accompanied by thin or non-existent failure criteria.

There have been many calls for financial accountability in large infrastructure projects, such as requiring a business case be tabled in parliament before committing government funds to them. Failure criteria could be expressed in the same quantitative terms, such as “toll usage of WestConnex one year after opening will not be less than 10 per cent of the initially projected figure”.

Failure criteria might also include qualitative attributes, such as “within three years of the completion of WestConnex Parramatta Road from Strathfield to Glebe will be refurbished as a high-quality two-lane landscaped boulevard with maximum 40km/h traffic speeds and rezoned to permit six-storey buildings along that length”.

The idea is that the prospect of such review would hold promoters accountable and thereby motivate greater caution when making urban transformational claims. Will, for example, the coffee drinkers of Leichhardt eventually be grateful that the former Minister for Transport committed so vigorously to WestConnex?

A city-building dividend from WestConnex?

Despite the depressing retreat from its initial promise, WestConnex could still deliver an alternative city-building dividend*.

Central Sydney is struggling to find space within which to grow. In contrast, Melbourne continues to expand westwards into Docklands with new residential and financial services precincts still being developed. In the middle of this century Melbourne is set to overtake Sydney as Australia’s largest city.

The NSW government owns the land at White Bay and Glebe Island but redevelopment is still very much undetermined. Nevertheless, a metro station is proposed at considerable cost but with little idea how this value might be captured.

Glebe Island, endowed with a metro station one stop from central Sydney, could therefore provide a good location to accommodate Sydney’s CBD growth. It could become Sydney’s counterpart to Melbourne’s Docklands precinct, right on the Harbour’s edge. Further, with the line projected to extend eventually to the new Western Sydney Airport, Glebe Island would align with the emerging east-west axis extending through Parramatta to central Sydney (see dashed rectangle on image below).

 

This prospect invites speculation that a better location for any future High Speed Rail Sydney terminus could well be Glebe Island, not Central Station. Glebe Island would then become the new national and international “front door” for central Sydney with links to other east coast capitals, national government in Canberra, and overseas cities via Sydney’s only 24-hour airport.

A tunnel between west Darling Harbour at Fig Street and the proposed WestConnex Rozelle interchange would eliminate the need for the current elevated road decks and unlock the full redevelopment potential of Pyrmont and Glebe Island, while allowing lower development of the surrounding White Bay precinct as a buffer to Balmain.

White Bay is set to become a construction zone to extend the WestConnex road network across the harbour, so the set-up cost to build an additional tunnel would be negligible. Furthermore, at less than three kilometres in length, with no complex digging beneath the harbour, the additional cost would be minor compared with the cost of the complex Rozelle interchange and an under-harbour tunnel.

Yet the city-building dividend would be significant.

First, it would release for redevelopment the entire road corridor and surrounding road-affected land between Darling Harbour and Rozelle. The potential value of this land is immense and the immediate benefit would flow to government – direct value capture.

Second, the economy of Sydney could grow its CBD right on the edge of the harbour like other harbour cities such as Hong Kong.

Third, city-wide patterns for jobs and growth would develop along an axis that would be emphatically westwards, along the proposed metro corridor towards Sydney Olympic Park and beyond, and consequently bring even wider economic and jobs benefits to greater Sydney.

The simple question is: what is the cost of building the tunnel and clearing the road decks compared with the value of land released to accommodate CBD growth?

Yet here’s the rub: as projects are currently appraised, the additional cost of the tunnel would be measured solely as an unnecessary impost on a narrowly defined road project, as WestConnex has now become. Rather than treated as sunk costs and written off, like Sydney’s 30-year-old Allianz Stadium, existing road decks would be booked as assets, despite them approaching 25 years of age within which period most infrastructure business cases must ordinarily show a net public benefit.

For once, a hitherto maligned road project could be genuinely “city shaping”. It’s worth thinking about.

  • Master of Urban Design and Development students at the University of NSW examined these ideas in their final project over the last semester of 2017. Along with a number of other external contributors, this author participated as a tutor. Other NSW universities conduct similar urban design programs.

Mike Brown has worked in NSW local and state government in planning, urban design, and strategic roles for 15 years. He is also a graduate of the Masters of Urban Policy and Strategy at the University of New South Wales.

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