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A tale of two cities: skyscraper debate reaches farcical new heights

Planning minister Rob Stokes is behind Parramatta’s 336-metre residential Aspire Tower, which has previously been knocked back by aviation authorities.
Planning minister Rob Stokes is behind Parramatta’s 336-metre residential Aspire Tower, which has previously been knocked back by aviation authorities.

Sydney is suffering a bout of skyscraper envy as figures show the city is failing to measure up to global big boys like Shanghai and Dubai. So says tabloid The Daily Telegraph, which has devoted the majority of Monday’s front page and a further two pages to prosecute the case for Sydney to embrace super and megatall skyscraper development.

Meanwhile Melbourne is introducing height restrictions to improve amenity and reimagining its Fishermans Bend urban renewal precinct as a mid-rise community.

Sydney’s tower envy

The Daily Telegraph’s editor at large John Lehmann said Sydney’s skyline was “locked in a 1970s time-warp” stunting its ability to become a global city (let’s not worry about those business-crippling lock-out laws). The roadblocks: pesky aircraft space protections and, of course, Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore’s “village-style living” obsession (on a side note, the City of Sydney has approved the city’s tallest residential building, the Greenland Centre, at 235 metres).

The paper featured a range of commentators lamenting the fact that almost 70 buildings in cities around the world were taller than those in Sydney.

“Even Melbourne and Brisbane now feature taller office buildings than Sydney,” the editorial bemoaned.

The paper also revealed NSW planning minister Rob Stokes would use the launch of the paper’s annual Bradfield Oration to announce he would lobby federal aviation authorities to wind back flight zones so Sydney could develop a range of super and megatall skyscrapers.

“If we want Sydney to become a truly global city, we need to climb to new heights and think about shaping iconic buildings to rival those in New York, Shanghai and Hong Kong,” Mr Stokes was quoted as saying.

Urban Taskforce’s Chris Johnson weighed in saying a city’s height was related to its perceived performance in the boardroom.

“It is important that our city is measured against cities like Shanghai and Hong Kong, which are embracing height as a symbol of prosperity,” he said.

Bates Smart's vision of Sydney in 2050

Bates Smart’s vision of Sydney in 2050

Height for height’s sake

Consult Australia NSW responded, saying while discussions around responsibly removing height restrictions in Sydney were welcome, it had to occur in an environment that emphasised good urban design, integrated strategic planning and effective community consultation.

“We have a huge amount of expertise in Australia and internationally on delivering quality urban environments and world-class architecture. This should not be forsaken in the rush to deliver the next big thing,” Consult Australia NSW state manger Matthew Trigg said.

“Height is not a measure of success in itself. We need to see leadership displayed by all major stakeholders to ensure urban development meets and exceeds expectations.”

In the only sensible argument provided for greater heights, Phillip Vivian of Bates Smart – who has envisaged a Sydney in 2050 brimming with megatower developments (see our story The challenges of tall building sustainability) and whose firm is engaged in building James Packer’s proposed 275-metre ivory tower at Barangaroo – said increased heights and density could raise $7 billion to fund a metro system.

The case for mid-rise in Melbourne

If Sydney is to truly “grow up”, it really needs to do so in a less literal way, looking at actual drivers of city liveability. The last time we checked the various criteria in the major liveability indices, height wasn’t one of them (safety, connectivity, architecture quality, public transport, access to nature, business conditions, availability of goods and services, health care, education and culture were).

Indeed Melbourne, which routinely tops these lists, has moved to limit the heights of skyscrapers in the CBD to stop levels of density that would be illegal in New York, Tokyo or Hong Kong.

The planning restrictions were announced following amenity concerns regarding the myriad high-rise apartment developments approved by former planning minister Matthew “Mr Skyscraper” Guy.

This week, RMIT University also revealed an alternative plan for the Fishermans Bend urban renewal project, which forsakes the high-rise model of achieving density with a mid-rise model that achieves a good level of density while increasing street activation, fostering connection to nature and improving walkability.

The Sustainable Mid-rise for Healthy, Connected Communities model was created as an alternative to Melbourne’s “low-density urban sprawl and high-density high-rise”.

It said high-rise development had negative consequences of inactive streetscapes, high disconnectedness from nature, exacerbated urban heat island, low walkability and poor access to open space.

Artist's impression of a reimagined Fishermans Bend

Artist’s impression of a reimagined Fishermans Bend

The building typology of the alternative for Fishermans Bend is based on a European model with building heights of 4-7 storeys (with a few towers within the mix for office use), active streetscapes and high quality living spaces, with average apartment sizes of 100 square metres. The plan has achieved densities of between 200-310 dwellings a hectare, which the authors of the report say is comparable to densities required for brownfield development sites under Plan Melbourne.

In contrast to a typical tower/podium model, building frontages would be residential mixed with office spaces and commercial use on the ground floor. All dwellings would be within two minutes walk of open green space, and the city area would be up to 4°C cooler thanks to urban greening.

The report also says operational energy use in mid-rise development is up to 45 per cent lower per dwelling than in high rise.

And in a nod to actual drivers of prosperity, the RMIT report says its model could lead to better productivity from offices, as there was evidence demonstrating that integrating nature with office design reduced stress and improved work practices. It cited a study that found a six per cent increase in productivity of employees who had a view of nature compared to those who had no view.

“The risk of not acting is the development of a city characterised by a high-rise inner core, broadly spread low-level consolidation on established suburbs, and continued low-density expansion on the fringe,” the report said. “All of these options have poor consequences for urban greening, biodiversity, liveability and, by extension, health and economic productivity.”

RMIT researcher Professor Sarah Bekessy told The Age that high density residential towers made good investment properties but would not be beneficial if no one wanted to live in them.

The market, she said, could not be relied on to guide the development of important urban regeneration areas.

“It requires a slightly more interventionist approach – market-driven planning is not the solution. We have to make Fishermans Bend a liveable place, not just a site for investment. You can’t let the market run this show – you end up with places like Docklands.”

The Fishermans Bend plan has gone back to the drawing board following concerns the former government’s plan would lead to a “soulless skyline with no services and no standard of living”, in the words of current Victorian planning minister Richard Wynne. An expert panel was appointed to guide the development in July.

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