Cities, like people, have choices. They can struggle towards authenticity or collapse into conformism. They can strive to embody their highest aspirations or sink onto the couch of business-as-usual. Sydney has a fine, true heart shaped by decades, even centuries, of couch-mindedness. Right now, though, as it confronts its most dramatic transformation ever, would be a moment to consider how Sydney might become its best self – and what, actually, would that look like?

Most people, asked to nominate “core Sydneyness” waft into a dreamlike recital: harbour, beaches, then some combination of weather, sandstone and salted pink angophoras. But a city is culture, not nature. Made, not found, a city is a collective and enduring work of art.  For me, what is most precious about Sydney is the perverse and paradoxical fabric from those first desperate years; its crazy, crooked little heart. 

I am endlessly enchanted by Sydney’s mix of the perfumed and the putrid, sunshiny streets and shady behaviour, dislocated culture and voluptuous nature.

I am endlessly enchanted by Sydney’s mix of the perfumed and the putrid, sunshiny streets and shady behaviour, dislocated culture and voluptuous nature. I love how those half-starved convicts struggled to recreate, in this limitless continent, precisely those crowded gin-soaked slums that had rejected them. I’m enthralled by how this fabric could hardly be less appropriate to the place and climate in which they’d found themselves and even more delighted by the way, two centuries on, that same starveling fabric became the desired substrate for the well bred and well heeled.

It has always seemed to me that this fabric persisted by a kind of miracle. Through an era that saw most modern cities eviscerated by sprawl, exurbia and “white flight”, Sydney’s core endured. My theory (unverified) is that Sydney was protected by incompetence and corruption, much as a layer of rust protects steel, or charring protects timber. But now that has all changed. Now, for the first time, that frangible core is under threat.

Sydney, having legislated against them, came to skyscrapers half a century late. Now, when other cities are removing motorways, investing in ultra-green public transport and going zero-carbon, Sydney is dusting off that same old last-century modernist madness. Right now $18 billion worth of motorway bores into Sydney’s fragile heart from the west, public assets, public housing and crown lands everywhere are sold for redevelopment, tens of billions of dollars worth of building projects glitter in the eyes of bankers and developers, and parks are being sized up as development yield. So now is the time to decide what precisely we value most about Sydney. What embodies its essential Sydney-ness from the past, and what should carry it into the future? 

Sydney is beautiful but infuriating. Despite wrist-slitting congestion, public transport that is unreliable to non-existent, worsening wealth-gaps, stupendous property prices, impossible rental situations and ever-increasing densities, Sydney is expected to grow by 2.1 million residents – a city the size of Brisbane – within 20 years. This is intimidating, but also exciting. After all, no one is forced to live here. Melbourne consistently beats Sydney in the “livable city” stakes yet Sydney is greatly, passionately loved and hugely desirable. Will the coming metamorphosis make Sydney better, or worse? And what do we mean by those things?

To the ancients, the “good city” was self-evident. The city was both survival device and meaning-maker. Fashioned from nature to help humans survive her, its role, beyond the basics of shelter, was to embody the personal, collective, moral and religious beliefs of its inhabitants.

Despite having more wealth, liberty and leisure than any people in history, we seem almost entirely to have abandoned the idea that our city should offer either happiness or meaning.

This sense of a nurturing city comes to us from Aristotle, inter alia, who defines the polis as “a body of citizens sufficing for the purposes of life”. This made patriotism the highest virtue, and exile – of which there were three grades, from relegatio to deportatio – the worst possible punishment. To be deported, as the convicts were to Australia, was to be permanently deprived of everything that constituted identity or meaning. It was worse than living death, worse than crucifixion. This idea, of the city as both the embodiment and the source of meaning was paraphrased, two millennia later, by Churchill’s famous “we shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us”. 

Because cities are artefacts we can be quite shameless in defining the good city as that most likely to endow our lives with happiness, and we know from modern hedonics that happiness derives from a sense of greater meaning. Yet now, despite having more wealth, liberty and leisure than any people in history, we seem almost entirely to have abandoned the idea that our city should offer either happiness or meaning, and to have accepted instead the mundane reduction of “city” to “machine”, wholly measurable in terms of density, efficiency and profit. Not surprisingly, this leads to a soul-destroying acceptance that we are ourselves machines, with no greater needs than wealth and efficiency. No one much likes the concrete jungle, the freeway spaghetti, the forest of dark and windswept streets. Yet bizarrely this model, summarised in popular argot by the modernist term CBD, drives all current and future Sydney planning. And we say nothing. 


Illustration: Simon Letch

What, then, might rescue Sydney, making her a meaningful and nurturing presence in the lives of her citizens? Clearly, meaningful fabric requires an intimate and intricate response to both nature and culture, weaving the two into built belief.  But how to do this? What, in fact, do we believe?

In a contemporary multiculture, shared beliefs can be hard to discern. Almost certainly, though, they would emphasise equity, survival and public amenity – especially sunlight, greenery, explorability and quality open space. In Sydney’s case, five things could shift the city’s trajectory and all involve reprioritising that most overlooked of values, the public good. 

First, we must reconceive governance, acknowledging the creative and necessary opposition between government and business. As long as government sees itself as a quasi-corporation and its city as a quasi-product, to be branded and sold on a world market, mediocrity will reign. City governments must enable private interests but actively champion the long-term public interest, since this is otherwise voiceless. 

Second, capitalising on the burgeoning public interest in planning generated by the recent wave of destruction throughout metropolitan Sydney, we must generate a public conversation on the values that should be enshrined in our city. Every effort must be made to educate the public and to use all possible digital tools to elicit the shared beliefs and principles that should shape the future city. 

Third, we must reimagine Sydney’s spatial network – its streets and lanes and parks and squares and boulevards – as its primary figure, its connective tissue and vascular system combined. Cities are usually seen as comprising buildings, first, and their surrounding spaces only second; what is known in architecture as SLOAP, or ‘space left over after planning’. This is a dangerous misconception. The public spaces carry the city’s lifeblood, in particular pedestrians, without whom there is no city. Indeed, the spaces outside the buildings must be seen as the interior spaces – the public rooms – of the city. This demands a mental flip in which the public space is recognised and designed, and private buildings are required to shape, embrace and furnish it, just as the walls of a house shape and furnish its interiors. 

Fourth, we must invest in a clean, sophisticated and universally accessible public transport system. Such a system would clearly involve light rail, metro, underground and heavy rail as well as buses – and must be prepared to replace roads, not (as is currently the case in Sydney) parks. This is an ethical point but also a practical one. The only thing that limits driving is congestion. If public transport is actively to reduce driving, which must surely be the aim, congestion-pressure must be maintained. This means public transport must be extensive, intensive, sophisticated, zero-carbon and dignifying. 

Light rail, for example, rather than becoming another excuse to destroy trees and parkland, should run on turf and also beneath avenue – as in Strasbourg, Lyon, Bilbao, Basle, Brussels, Karlsruhe, Freiburg and countless other European cities. We must also recognise cycling and walking as desirable forms of mass transit, and encourage them accordingly. And finally, emerging from all these but also driving them, we need a bold and energising vision of how Sydney, both survival device and dreamcatcher, can take us into the future. 

We could do worse than implement the principles of randomly appointed citizen juries as espoused by the newDemocracy Foundation. [They] have proved extraordinarily capable of making intelligent and unself-interested decisions.

How would these things change what happens ‘on the ground’? 

Consider the multi-billion dollar Central-to-Eveleigh development. Right now, it is heading along the same depressing path already beaten out by Barangaroo and Darling Harbour – channelling public funding and public land ever more rapidly into private profit. 

Under a new, authentic Sydney regime, this would shift. First, rather than heading straight for a Thatcherite “development corporation” governance model with its built-in incentive to maximise yield and so undermine public benefit (a direct conflict of interest), we would give jurisdiction to local democracy. This would also work to reduce silo-urbanism and enhance connectivity with the rest of the city.

Many, I know, remain firmly sceptical of local democracy in New South Wales, and its capacity to act with adult intelligence. The happy exception to this is the administration of our most successful Lord Mayor ever, Clover Moore, which is a microcosm of good governance – principle-driven, climate conscious and unswayed by Big Money – within an otherwise retrograde metropolis. So it may be that the answer is to give more power to the “educated woman” – the term of abuse so often thrown at Moore. 

But if we think it is impossible to replicate this model of intelligent and independent local government more broadly, we could do worse than implement the principles of randomly appointed citizen juries as espoused by the newDemocracy Foundation.

Such citizen juries have proved extraordinarily capable of making intelligent and unself-interested decisions and could usefully establish core values or critical in-principle policy directions that would set the framework for local government in the way that Moore’s Sustainable Sydney 2030 has for the last decade.

This public debate on values and visions would result – let’s say – in a decision to build the world’s first hyper-dense zero-carbon precinct. This in itself would be thrilling, and generate public excitement. 

At last, a Sydney to be proud of! Development controls, shaped accordingly, would require all buildings to be off-grid for water, sewage and electricity, and all surfaces to be covered in photovoltaic skins or urban agriculture (for food and cooling). Prioritising public space, we’d plot out the major park that would complete Prince Alfred Park and establish the optimum street pattern and sun access angles (determining building heights). We’d locate parks, schools, transport and public housing – as necessitated by equity principles – planting vines and fruit trees to encourage walking and cycling and establish green-connectivity through the city. 

Then, and only then, would we offer sites to private development which, within these parameters, could be as high, wild and inventive as they pleased.  

These simple steps would produce, at last, a major new Sydney precinct in which to take pride. Which only makes it all the more inexplicable that Moore’s city council, the one Australian government capable of enacting such a development, will not be running this one. Back on the couch, guys.  

Elizabeth Farrelly is Associate Professor, Practice, in the Faculty of Built Environment.