Easy Street, Pride Of A New Sydney

Sydney Morning Herald

Saturday December 1, 2007

Catharine Munro Urban Affairs Editor

MELBOURNE has Collins Street, Paris has the Champs-Elysees and Los Angeles has Hollywood Boulevard. So too should Sydney have a landmark street to give the metropolis a strong identity, says the Danish architect and planner Professor Jan Gehl.

George Street fits the bill because it is the central thoroughfare that runs down the city's spine, linking Central Station to Circular Quay.

Private cars should disappear from its lanes, leaving the road dedicated to bicycles and public transport, preferably the light rail that the NSW Transport Minister, John Watkins, has to date ruled out. Its footpaths should be widened, two lanes should be dedicated to public transport and two should be given to bicycles.

Just like London's Oxford Street, it should be a "grand retail strip", "vivacious" and "dynamic", Gehl says in his report commissioned by the City of Sydney.

The lengthy promenade of George Street should be punctuated by three large public squares - at Circular Quay, Town Hall and Central Station.

Pedestrians should be able to stroll its length without having to step off the kerb every time they cross a lesser street. Instead, it is car drivers who should have to cross a raised section when they come to cross the main road.

Gehl argues that Sydney's main thoroughfare is already overloaded with the traffic it handles and carries too many buses that drive too fast off peak and travel too slowly at peak hour. Noise and wind make it unpleasant.

As main streets in cities around the world go, Gehl observes that George Street is uniquely long and skinny, measuring 2.5 kilometres with a breadth of only 22.3 metres.

Compare that with Swanston Street, Melbourne, which is 1.3 kilometres long but 30 metres wide. The closest comparable thoroughfare is Oxford Street, London, and even that is only 500 metres shorter, with "its course broken by the characteristic circuses".

His vision of three large squares that would function in a similar way to London's circuses involves knocking down the Cahill Expressway to open up the city to the harbour, knocking down the old Woolworths headquarters opposite Town Hall and altering the traffic conditions on Eddy Avenue.

The measures sound drastic and impossible. The campaign of the former prime minister Paul Keating to get rid of the overpass to the Harbour Bridge is notorious as a pipe dream, and the recommendations need the support of the Roads and Traffic Authority.

However, not all of it is impossible. The City of Sydney has long been planning to create an important public space opposite Town Hall and already owns much of the property, including Woolworths, that would allow such a vision to be achieved. Gehl concedes that Sydney already has open spaces dotted throughout the city, but he argues that they are repetitive and allow the same activities.

"There tends to be an overload of smaller, more or less anonymous lunchtime plazas equipped with four benches, three palm trees and a kiosk, eg Richard Johnson Square or Farrer Place," he writes.

IN SEARCH OF HARMONY

The problems

INTROVERTED

City cut off from its best asset, the harbour.

Walking links are poor, a bulky ferry terminal detracts from Circular Quay, Darling Harbour and the Hungry Mile are isolated sites.

SPLIT IN TWO

The western part of the city is reduced to acting as a service corridor for the Western Distributor.

MONOFUNCTIONAL

There is little mix between the cultural, business, consumer and 'fun' districts of the city. While some parts are overcrowded at night, others are deserted.

SKY OBSESSED

The dominance of skyscrapers means streets are in shadow, plagued by high winds and clogged with traffic and commuters. Little attention is paid to street level design.

NOODLE SOUP

No street hierarchy so everything looks the same. All roads act as transport funnels.

UNFRIENDLY

There are few small public spaces, they all look the same and there are no dedicated walking links between them. Few people use them.

The solutions

Exploit the waterfront

Develop a connected network of

parks, green squares and lanes

Create a better city for walking and cycling

Improve the public transport system

Divert traffic away from the centre

Ceate a central spine with a traffic-free George Street and no

Cahill Expressway

Enhance the streetscape with more public spaces

Integrate the various districts

© 2007 Sydney Morning Herald

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