A century on, the first major planning inquiry for Sydney still gives valuable directions towards creating a sustainable, liveable city, says Professor Rob Freestone.

Almost exactly one hundred years ago this week the Royal Commissioners for the Improvement of the City of Sydney and Its Suburbs presented their final report to the Governor. They envisaged that their findings and recommendations would provide a 'scheme of improvement' for traffic, add 'materially to public comfort and convenience', and embellish Sydney 'from a decorative point of view' for the next quarter of a century. Their report represented the first major planning inquiry into the problems of metropolitan Sydney, or indeed any Australian city to that time.

It was also submitted ten days before publication of the more famous plan of Chicago by Daniel Burnham and Edward Bennett. The 1909 Chicago plan was a sumptuous prospectus for a Parisian-style in the American Midwest, underpinned by a physical restructuring to make it a model of efficiency and orderly growth. It bestowed an important legacy on the city, notably in re-conceptualising the CBD waterfront with parks and cultural institutions.

Windy city residents are rightly proud of their hundred year old Plan and are huffing and puffing about it right now. A whole year of centennial celebrations is playing out with talks, exhibitions, walking tours, family events, and even new public art (burnhamplan100.uchicago.edu). The opportunity to stock-take the city's future development in the spirit of the most inspiring recommendations of a visionary plan is also being seized.

By contrast, we have not heard a peep of recognition from the State Government or Sydney City Council about our very own 1909 Plan. Admittedly, it is difficult to celebrate anything much about planning these days. Despite the best efforts of the planning and design professions, public perceptions of planning in Sydney often struggle to see past highly politicised and fragmented agendas struggling to convince weary electorates of any far-looking commitment.

The Report of the 1909 Royal Commission may not deserve bounteous celebration. This was not a flawless document. Charles Coulter's classically-inspired attempts to capture the schemes discussed and endorsed by the Commission were not a patch on Jules Guerin's works of art for Chicago. British critics unkindly savaged them as 'inadequate' and 'pitiful'.

A truly metropolitan vision was muted and it was a report largely of individual recommendations rather than any truly integrated master plan in the modern sense. There was no attempt to cost recommendations despite a deeply pragmatic ruling ethos committed to economic growth to presumably also deliver the social, housing, and amenity benefits given rather short shrift. The overwhelming need for the reformer J.D. Fitzgerald's city of 'planlessness' and 'civic anarchy' was to better orchestrate what the Sydney Morning Herald described as the required 'symphony of growth' .

Nevertheless, here was a Report which for the first time moved toward an overall appreciation of Sydney's planning needs in a bold and impressive way. Some of the problems addressed seem surprisingly familiar: an underperforming mass transit system, traffic congestion, environmental pollution, improved urban design, providing more quality open space, and questions about the best organisation of local government.

Led by Sir Thomas Hughes MLC (at the start of the inquiry he was also Sydney's Lord Mayor, as would be his great-grand-daughter Lucy Turnbull nine decades later), the Commissioners had just six months to report. They were granted an extension. The arithmetic of the inquiry boiled down to a final 50 page report backed up by 250 pages of minutes of evidence, and 56 plans, maps and sketches based on submissions by 40 witnesses.

Those interviewed were mainly built environment professionals, public servants, and business people. But the Commissioners also tapped into broader community opinion via several suburban mayors, the Secretary of the Harbour Foreshores Vigilance Committee, a crusading chaplain from Redfern, and Catherine Dwyer, a trade union representative and the sole female witness.

The Commission organised its report into four main areas: traffic considerations, beautification, housing reform, and future growth, augmented by discussion of specific improvement schemes. In all forty recommendations were made but many other possibilities mooted. Later generations can probably be thankful that some of these didn't get up, like new roads through the Domain. The most tangible outcomes were physical interventions including the dramatic urban sculpture of Hickson Road, new approaches to Central Railway Station, completion of Martin Place, Anzac Parade, and sundry road widening and extensions.

Even if we don't throw a Chicago-style birthday party, there are at least three impressive lessons that speak across the decades. One is the importance of expansive vision and strong leadership in planning. A second is the necessity of openness and partnerships in shaping the future city. Third, is the importance of securing implementation pathways, something which the Royal Commission as an investigatory body sorely lacked.

Nevertheless, there is something deeply compelling in re-running such an inquiry now to look ahead and bring together and critique all sorts of ideas, approaches and policies for the future planning of Sydney. The environment is comparable to 1908-09 with so many things 'in the air' and critical questions to be asked and answered about directions for a sustainable metropolitan form. The current Legislative Council inquiry into the state's planning system is ample precedent for a Commission-style approach.

The brief might even be pinched from the Royal Commission: 'to diligently examine and investigate all proposals that may come before [it] for the Improvement of the City of Sydney and its Suburbs, and to fully inquire into the whole subject of the remodelling of Sydney'.

An edited version of this article appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald.

Robert Freestone is Professor of Planning and Urban Development in the Faculty of the Built Environment at the University of New South Wales.

Media contact: Peter Trute | 02 9385 1933 | p.trute@unsw.edu.au