As city populations boom, what are some of the major challenges for urban designers?
A major challenge is understanding financial viability, the development market and the property cycle, which is always a bit of a mystery even for economists.
In the 1990s, I was involved in master planning the city precinct of Ultimo-Pyrmont on the west side of Darling Harbour and Central Sydney. At that time, economists were saying there would be no market for residential and the area’s future was in office employment in support of Central Sydney which was mainly offices. The place was so quiet outside office hours, you could shoot a gun down George Street and not hit anyone on the weekend. As office developments rely on transporting commuters in peak hour, our plans limited the floor space density for such office development so the transport system could cope. We put some height limits on the buildings to control general amenity too. This was all done on the advice of several prominent economists.
Then, just as the plans were made, the residential market boomed, and our planning controls weren’t sufficient to control general amenity. With no density constraints (FSR controls) on residential uses, developers just puffed out the floor space to maximum limits with poor overall design quality.
Some of the first government-required architectural design competitions were established so that planners and urban designers could make quick revisions to the initial plans and bring in design excellence provisions.
We were caught by a major change in the market. Inner-city residential living took off for the next 20 years transforming life in the city. The lesson is that urban designers and policy makers need to understand the market without being controlled by it. Above all, we really should be thinking about what’s best for an area and maximise the mix of future uses. Urban designers and strategic planners should be guided by their sense of social responsibility as well as market, environmental and amenity considerations.
Can you describe some major strategic projects and the long-term lessons learnt?
An area that has involved much of my professional life is master planning large renewal areas and central city street blocks. There are two precincts near Circular Quay that I have had direct involvement and illustrate the importance of strategic thinking and urban design ideas.
The first is the street block bounded by Alfred St, Pitt St, Daley St and George St, known as the APDG precinct. Back in the early 1990s I remember sitting at the table with the Central Sydney Planning Committee as the city’s principal urban designer for Central Sydney and setting building heights for key parts of the city centre. Some parts – such as solar access planes to parks, lower heights in Special Character Areas – were logical and others were not so easy.
One complicated area was the APDG street block. It was decided that the height of the APDG street block should be 110m above ground – the same height as the highest building there, Goldfields House. I always thought this was poor logic. Then, 20 years later, owners of land in the APDG street block started lodging development proposals and we were fast approaching a situation where there would be eight 30-storey towers all jostling side-by-side with little amenity.
By that time, I had been seconded back to the City as Director of City Strategy and Design and I organised a street block master plan with the Government Architect’s office that allowed some towers to double in height from 50 to 60-storeys and others to stand at half the control height. All towers would exist within a public domain network of connected lanes and a new central open space.
To achieve this, the landowners had to cooperate or otherwise be stuck with the existing planning controls. This vision is now being built to a better standard than we hoped for due to the new light rail infrastructure, which has increased focus on the amenity of George Street. The centre block open space that I envisaged is now being built as a square facing George Street with better sunlight access. The lesson is that the market will respond positively to a well thought out vision where everyone benefits.
The second example is the AMP Quarter also near Circular Quay. For decades AMP had planned a tower behind Customs House and purchased several buildings to complete the street block. During this time, various Lord Mayors and Ministers of Planning were resisting the market’s call for a tower for fear it would overshadow of Macquarie Place and First Government House Square.
When I was working for Council, Lord Mayor Clover Moore asked me what I thought about it. I said I was sympathetic to the market demand but that I couldn’t see how a tower was possible given 20 years of planning control protection of sunlight to Macquarie Place and, thus, community expectation.
However, the Barangaroo office towers had just been approved with very large floorplates I could see how they could draw key tenants away from Circular Quay. I noticed that the existing AMP towers to the east of Customs House were widely separated and that perhaps expanding the floorplate for the existing tallest tower might resolve this decades-old conundrum.
We drew up some ideas and spoke to the AMP property people, who were, understandably, initially quite reluctant to council planners proposing that they lose 60-storeys of paying tenants. However, within a few years AMP took up the vision with gusto, held an international architectural design competition and now is constructing one of the best precincts of the city through a lower-rise mix of buildings behind Customs House. The lesson is that a good idea at the right time can be transformative.
There is a great urgency to put foundations for sustainable, carbon neutral cities in place. Can this exist in harmony with rapid urban growth?
It only exists in harmony if the right government regulations are in place. Otherwise, it is piecemeal.
The Green Square Town Centre, which is a new urban centre between Central Sydney and Sydney Airport, is a good example of how backwards regulations can prevent sustainable urban design. That project incorporated 280 hectares of industrial land around the railway station planned for major urban renewal to high density residential, mixed-use and employment development.
The project was to create a town centre on mainly government-owned land where government agencies, such as the police, had major buildings. It took the government many years to have the land ready for development due to complex land holdings, lot configuration and stormwater flooding. The opportunity was for a green carbon neutral centre. We could put in place all sorts of fantastic innovations that other countries around the world are already doing such as precinct-wide recycled water, an evacuated waste system, and even perhaps a waste to energy system. We could circulate hot water through the precinct from a tri-generation plant to provide efficient heating and cooling of buildings as well as generate local electricity. The buildings could be much more cost effective and more efficient.
There was great potential for a whole range of sustainability measures to really pioneer for the future. But when the plans came up against existing government regulations that favour the utility monopolies, many of our ideas were shot down. So, while the buildings themselves might be built now to a reasonable Green Star rating, they are not nearly as sustainable as they could have been if a green precinct approach was carried through the whole precinct.
Some private enterprises have been leading the way in establishing Australia’s first green precincts. In Sydney, Barangaroo by Lendlease and The Central Park development near Central Station by Frasers are great examples of this. Also, there is an increasing number of individual buildings which are great examples of sustainable design. But as a wider community, we are missing out on the real potential that current knowledge gives us.
Australia has been lucky in some ways. We are a large, dispersed country and we’ve never really had to worry too much about these things. But now as our cities become bigger and more densely populated and our carbon emissions increase, these concerns are becoming critically urgent. Creating green city precincts is the only solution if we are to reach zero carbon targets in regard to the built environment.
Michael Harrison has 40 years of experience in urban design, urban planning, and architecture. He was a Director of Architectus from 1985 to 2018 where he led the Urban Design and Planning team. From 2007 to 2011, he was seconded to Sydney City Council as Executive Director of the City Strategy and Design Division where he was responsible for City Plan Development, City Design, City Sustainability, City Transport, City Renewal, and City Strategy/Economic Development.