I plan, later this year, to share some blog entries on some of my observations on my travels about a variety of subjects from politics to public transit, but I’ve felt inspired to write and post this one now.  Most readers will know I’ve long had an interest in urban design and development – I have absolutely no professional accreditation or background, I’ll point out, but just an interest as an urban resident.  As one of the early members of the Church-Wellesley Neighbourhood Association (CWNA) I’ve had plenty of opportunity over the last year to have some really good discussions about urban planning and development in major cities, specifically Toronto.  There’s also been a renewed interest sparked (pardon the pun) by the recent fire at Yonge & Gould streets which is widely believed to have been set deliberately to get around heritage and zoning laws.

The catalyst for the formation of the CWNA was a proposal to develop a block of Church Street in Toronto, near Gloucester.  Many in the neighbourhood (not necessarily the association, I’ve been trying to keep up but am honestly not sure if they’ve made a final statement on the matter yet) strongly oppose any development of highrise buildings in the area, or in the city in general.  Opinions on development around the world seem to range from “build as many highrise buildings as we possibly can” to “build no highrise buildings and just build really good transit [which some would consider to include roads for cars] to accommodate commuting.”  I think a balance can be reached, somewhere in between, and that either end of the extreme will really kill a city.

I’ll start by briefly saying that Sydney has relatively few tall buildings (for its size, anyway).  That’s changing, slowly, but I live one suburb (non-Australians, read: ‘neighbourhood’) away from the Central Business District (CBD), and I can only think of one building here that has more than 10 storeys.  But there are some lessons that can be learned.

One big argument against building higher is that it affects the character of the street, the neighbourhood, the community, and so on. And, of course, it does — adding more people to the same neighbourhood without providing services for them puts a real strain on the existing services, and tearing down heritage buildings is wasteful and really changes the character of how we perceive the neighbourhoods we live, work, and shop in.  Visually, though, I’m discovering there are alternatives that seem to work.  Take this photo of Pitt Street Mall (a pedestrian mall, I might add!) in Sydney’s CBD.  Looking at it, you would never otherwise know that these buildings from the 1800s were actually the base of multi-story shopping and office buildings.  Developers and planners talk a lot about setbacks (or stepbacks) – a design feature where the taller part of the building is set much further back than its base.  A lot of people will argue these don’t work because, in practice, architects will often make the setback quite small so they can say they had one but not really make the effort.  If you’ve got a block that’s big enough (and this is key, I think), you can maintain at-grade heritage buildings (or even new buildings that are actually pleasing to the eye) without limiting the ability to develop higher.  There are plenty of heritage buildings here in the very-dense CBD area.

Another unique feature of development that I’ve noticed here is a sort of hybridized public-private space.  I’ll admit ignorance on the policies, laws, or agreements that make these work, but I’ll attempt to explain.  If I were to walk to the Opera House from here, it would involve going through a public park area known as Mrs Macquaries Point.  To get there, I can climb a steep set of stairs in the rock face, or I can go over the roof of a private apartment building.  This building has numerous public access (24 hour) steps as well as a public lift up to its roof. On the roof is a small park-like area, with paths winding around it that lead from Woolloomooloo up to Mrs Macquaries Point and the Royal Botanic Gardens (as well as a little platform above the elevator bank that you can walk up to for stunning views of the harbour, Woolloomooloo, Potts Point, and the city).  Essentially, they built a park on the (easily accessible) roof of this building whenever it was built.  Granted – this requires a low-rise building.  And in theory, since the building is privately owned, there is the risk of it being closed — but the point stands that if you make these demands when providing for zoning, you could guarantee long-term public access relatively easily.  (Another brief example is one of the sets of stairs that lead from Woolloomooloo to Potts Point, which climb the presumably-public rock face but then go through the middle of an apartment complex to access Victoria St).  This sort of thing works, and can help to counter some commonly-cited problems of development, such as lack of public space and access.

These are just  a couple of examples of how development in our cities doesn’t have to be the disaster that it often is, and doesn’t have to destroy neighbourhoods or ruin heritage buildings as it often can.  There are lots of examples here of situations where it hasn’t worked — the tall building in the middle of this photo, for example, is in the middle of a neighbourhood of all 2-3 storey buildings, and practically fenced off from the rest of the street. It sticks out like a sore thumb, has virtually no connectivity to the street at ground level, and was highly controversial when it went up.  That’s not to say I wouldn’t like to see more buildings like this (I actually kind of like the way it looks on the skyline, just not the fact that it IS the skyline), but that they need to be designed to fit the area.

What’s more convincing for me though is the alternative to building highrises – not doing so can be quite problematic.  Outside of the CBD, there are relatively few highrises in Sydney.  There’s a small cluster on the North shore by the harbour bridge, and other small clusters near a handful of the CityRail stations, and a few one-off buildings in various other places.  As a result, the city sprawls.  Combined with one of the most frustrating transit systems I’ve ever endured, this can make things quite difficult.  But more importantly, Sydney is incredibly unaffordable.  I’m paying about 75% more for an apartment here than I would for a comparable one in Toronto, which is itself known as a highly expensive market.  It simply doesn’t make any sense to have such a low-density urban core.  There is huge demand for rental apartments here — with a virtually non-existent vacancy rate it’s very common to compete with literally dozens of other potential tenants just to get a lease on an only so-so apartment.  There are other reasons for this, of course, including the fact that build-to-let apartment buildings here only exist in the form of luxury / “executive” hotels.  Finally, of course, there’s the environmental impact of not only using up forest and farm land to build homes but also burning fossil fuels to help people get from one place to the next because nothing is near anything else.

My conclusion, then, is that we must accept and support development in urban centres.  But we must do it smartly – we must think of ways to build without destroying our heritage, our communities, or our planet.  It is possible, we just need to have the will to make it happen.

As an aside, one feature here that seems to compensate for the sprawl is that each suburb is relatively self-contained.  At least within the inner suburbs, almost every suburb has residential and commercial in proportions that seem to work.  You can live, work, and play all within the same suburb, and rarely have to walk more than 15 minutes to do any of those things.  If your suburb doesn’t have what you need, usually the next one over will.  (There are, of course, some things that are more spread out – for example, big box stores require at half-hour train ride from the city centre).  Sydney dubs itself the “City of Villages” and it’s reasonably accurate – each area is its own little village, and it seems to work.  There are of course exceptions – the ‘suburb’ of Sydney is basically just the CBD and virtually no one lives there so the people that work there commute in from the inner and outer suburbs (thankfully the transit system serves the CBD better than any other part of the city).  Generally speaking, though, commuting doesn’t have to be part of your life here, and many choose not to.


3 responses to this post.

  1. To show another example of preserved heritage buildings accommodating large tower development (in this case, an office tower), I’ve always considered this a great case. I took these photos today out the window of the Museum of Sydney (a must-visit for urban-philes like me).

    I’ve often walked by these buildings and only noticed after a few minutes that there was a giant office tower in behind it. The GoogleMaps link on the Flickr page shows the front of the buildings, but the Flickr photos (view the next two as well) show that the original buildings were hardly modified and yet the whole landscape is completely integrated.

    One thing of note is that Sydney often has larger blocks than places like Toronto which makes much of this easier.

    I should also add that while Sydney has some great history of preservation (union-backed “green bans” being the catalyst for a lot of preserved buildings — something I wish we had more of in Canada), there are many examples of destroyed buildings. The Museum of Sydney itself was built on top of the foundations of the original government house (home of the first 5 or 6 governors of the New South Wales colony) – the building was destroyed in the 19th century as each governor complained it was too small, and the city’s plan involved multiple streets going right through the middle of it (the streets are still there today). They discovered the old foundation and various artifacts in the 80s and ultimately decided to preserve what was left by building a museum on the site (the museum has many of these artifacts now on display, along with a concise but interesting history of the city of Sydney).


  2. […] relevant than now.  I would also consider some earlier posts (namely ones on Internet Services, Development, and Standards) part of this series, though they weren’t explicitly so at the […]


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