While Sydney is recognised by the world for its natural beauty, it could do a lot better in terms of its built environment, a team of experts have declared.
“We could do much more to improve the public realm and we have a lot of underutilised assets in both private and public hands that could be repurposed to much better effect,” said Andrew Hoyne, the principal of place and property branding and marketing company Hoyne who on Thursday launched a new book about global cities.
“We have a beautiful environment, and lots of greenery like the Royal Botanic Garden and Hyde Park but, architecturally, we’ve had some pretty poor outcomes with some very ugly buildings from the 1970s.”
In stark contrast, Brisbane has been speeding ahead in leaps and bounds. “Brisbane has been doing a really good job of planning for the future and I actually think that city, if its plans come to fruition, is going to be the most progressive place in the next 10 years,” he said.
“I know that sounds crazy as Sydney was always the most dynamic and exciting city, but now it is starting to fall behind.”
Hoyne travelled the world to examine its cities and talk to experts, architects, officials and residents everywhere for his 500-page The Place Economy, Volume 2. He’s now returned with the results of his research, with contributions from over 60 experts, and it’s not good news for Sydney.
While first-rate placemaking is happening around the world at macro city level – with Berlin its outstanding example – and down to micro precinct level, with Detroit topping the list, Sydney’s short-sightedness extends, sadly, from the very bottom of our buildings to the very top.
Too much of Sydney at street level is about blank walls that do little to entertain, engage and excite passers-by, Hoyne claimed. And too little at the top is made good use of, and opened up to the public.
“There should be a lot more consideration of the groundplane,” he says. “For instance, you walk down Pitt Street in Sydney, and you have 40 metres of wall, instead of what should be there – food and beverage outlets, retail and public space.
“Also, Sydney has completely wasted its opportunities to use its rooftops. We have an incredibly good climate where people relish being outdoors and being able to see the city’s beauty from up high, and a small amount of investment could be a real revenue-generator and really add to the public’s experience of the city.
“But we still rarely use them, particularly in the CBD where they could really help to activate the city outside of work.”
Brisbane, however, has been planning and investing hugely in public spaces, making sure streets attract people, and regenerating suburbs like South Brisbane, West End and Fortitude Valley to make them much more dynamically liveable areas.
South Brisbane’s Fish Lane, for instance — an old forgotten shortcut that’s become a regenerated hub of dining, drinking, artwork and lifestyle destinations — is being hailed across the world as a striking example of what can be achieved when there’s the will.
But while Central Park in Chippendale and parts of Surry Hills have made an active contribution to the groundplanes, most of the rest of Sydney had paid them scant regard, Hoyne said.
Eamon Waterford, acting chief executive of Committee for Sydney, agreed.
“We’ve made lots of bad places in Sydney,” he said. “The booming residential market has meant the rush to build, combined with the focus on making quite good apartments internally, has meant there’s not been much attention paid to the public realm.
“As a result, we have a lot of buildings that are nice to live in but when you come out of the front door, there’s nothing or you step on to a main road. There are no places you want to wander around or shop in nearby, and you just want to get the hell out of there.”
Ironically, research shows that many developers are accepting a return on investment for projects in Australia as low as 10 per cent, while for developments where investment in placemaking is committed to upfront, such as with Fish Lane or Central Park, a benchmark of 30 per cent is being achieved.
At Fish Lane, Aria’s South Brisbane project The Melbourne Residences saw an average rise in value of $185,000 per apartment when the rest of the market devalued.
“It’s important to look forward with creativity and innovation and see how assets can be put to better use,” Hoyne said. “The fact is, with a good groundplane, there’s a halo effect for developments nearby, and we’ve seen this around the world.”
Brisbane has an advantage in that its city is dominated by a huge government sector and run by a single Brisbane City Council, which can make unified decisions about how it should work, plans for its future and infrastructure investments.
Sydney, on the other hand, has a city centre dominated by the banks and finance industry, who have different priorities from the public, and deep fracture lines in decision-making with both the NSW government and myriad smaller councils – over 33 decision-making bodies in all, according to Waterford. “That doesn’t make it easy to try difficult and challenging new things.”
Importantly, Sydney’s major issues with its night-time economy and lockout laws have also been hampering its efforts to become a true global city, Hoyne said.
“Travelling around the world for this book, the first thing people nearly always said to me was that they’d always wanted to visit Sydney,” Hoyne reported. “But then the second thing was, ‘But what’s going on at night time there? We’ve heard Sydney is a dead zone at night.’
“We do have the potential to come together, which we’ve seen at Vivid and the Mardi Gras, but we need to resolve the problems of our night-time economy, so we can change its global perception from the rest of the world.”