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Towers not needed to build Sydney's urban density

Sydney doesn't 60-storey towers to deliver the density it needs to build a metro, writes Benjamin Driver.

We should congratulate the Herald for promoting expanded and new public transport projects for Sydney, but at the same time be politely skeptical about the details surrounding some of these proposals.

Chris Johnson correctly supports the idea of a Central Sydney Metro. It is perhaps the most obvious of the missing public transport links in Sydney. It will provide relief to this very congested of corridors, and open opportunities to house people along our beautiful harbour where the climate and amenity is high.

Paris has density without the need for 60-storey towers.
Paris has density without the need for 60-storey towers. Photo: AP

However, 60 storeys along this new metro line is difficult to justify. This tower height is present only in a few parts of Manhattan, and completely absent in Paris and London (although The Shard may get close). In fact, the density of all of these great cities comes not from the promotion of tall towers, but from the consistency of the buildings; four to six storeys, where each and every apartment has a relationship with its neighbours and the street. Streets keep their sunshine, and are supported by robust urban canopies. All the great cities in history have displayed this arrangement.

Towers can be isolating. In large clusters they form wind tunnels and, if not slim and elegant, are a blight on the cityscape and steal each other's amenity. This is not to say that towers don't have a place in contemporary Australian cities – rather their placement should be considered with care, rather than adopted as a predominant type. They should be a feature, not an imposition.

In 2007-08 Hill Thalis was part of the team that completed the Sustainable Sydney 2030 report for the City of Sydney along with SGS Economics and Planning and Rod Simpson, who has just been appointed the Environment Commissioner for the Greater Sydney Commission. This involved extensive research into the city building metrics of nine world cities - including New York, Paris and London - but also Sydney's direct competitors such as Singapore, and cities with similar climates such as Barcelona.

While collected some years ago, the numbers remain applicable. Comparison was made over the same 26 square kilometres the City of Sydney local government area occupies. The data is very telling: Sydney's inner-city population in this 26 sq km area is approximately 200,000, while Paris and Barcelona are in excess of 600,000; this equates to densities of 7,690 per kilometre, 22,500 per kilometre and 24,350 per kilometre respectively.

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Yet neither Paris nor Barcelona can claim a 60-storey tower between them. What they do have is regular and consistent high-amenity housing of four, six and eight storeys throughout their urban fabric.

Density in Sydney does not have to come at the expense of loss of our sunlight and suburban character – but if we are to develop and increase density appropriately, we must end the poisonous debate that surrounds renewing our suburbs. We must be happy with a four-storey apartment building next door to a two-storey house. We cannot be so spoilt as to deny sharing our neighbourhood. The effect will be to force towers on another neighbourhood.

Rather than trying to stop density, we should instead demand design quality and access to services. The population is growing. The dwellings will be built. It is how they are built over which we must have the most say.

Metro for Sydney is an obvious mode of transit. But no more converting of existing lines. This is only of partial benefit. We need new coverage to parts of the city which already suffer from lack of access to reliable mass transport. We can get it happening, and fast.

Let's build the three, four or more lines that make a true network. They are needed to service our existing city now – but should be ready for the future city we know is not far away.

Benjamin Driver is a senior urban designer at Hill Thalis.

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