More roads will just lead us nowhere
Illustration: Edd Aragon
"I am not the only urbanist in the room," Tim Williams, the chief executive of the Committee for Sydney, said last week. It was true. Place was full of them. Urbanism is positively the new black. But he wasn't the only Tim Williams in the room, either.
The other Tim Williams is an urbanist at the opposite end of the hierarchy. The creator of Super Sydney, trailblazer project for this year's Sydney Architecture Festival, he has an ear to the sunburnt ground, listening for the voices of the people.
Consultation, if you believe the hype, is this government's middle name. But which is more likely to produce the kind of city we want, top-down, or bottom-up?
And which is the government's $10 billion WestConnex road project? It appears populist but, as a moment young people are choosing to drive less and live denser, is it?
Will WestConnex (despite its horrible name) save NSW's ailing economy, as its proponents testily insist? Or is it, in the words of transport elder Ron Christie, "back to the 1950s … a real LA-type solution"?
It happened that, on the tram en route to that Meeting of the Tims, I met an elderly couple from Vancouver. They sought somewhere ''interesting'' for their last half-day in Sydney. Darling Harbour? I suggested. Pyrmont? Barangaroo?
As I sketched the background they were dismayed by how far and how recently Sydney has cleansed itself of industry.
"In Vancouver," they said, "we're trying to keep this stuff in the city so that people, and freight, don't need to travel so far."
In Sydney, I was ashamed to realise, just voicing such ideas still brands you as a boat-rocking leftie. How did our urban debate become so polarised? Can anyone still think that environment and economy are foes, instead of short-term and long-term views of the same thing?
The Committee for Sydney reincarnates Rod McGeoch's 1997 creature of the same name. Remember that lobby group for those least in need, the rich and powerful? I thought it had finally vanished from lack of interest but apparently not, for the new committee gleams stiffly like a Thatcher hairdo, stiff with the same old power-myopia.
It's very open. Anyone can join, for a mere ten grand (plus GST). And anyone can speak, as long as they're CEO of a multi-million dollar corporation.
The committee, whose board includes Sally Loane (now spin-meister for those well known philanthropic urbanists Coca-Cola Amatil) and former Howard hatchet-man Max Moore-Wilton, proudly spruiks such membership benefits as the "opportunity to meet … key decision makers", "access to leaders in private, public and not-for profit sectors" and the capacity to "influence key policies''. (Does saying something three times in different words mean it's hyper-important?)
It has not been idle. Last month alone the committee hosted five events: a briefing with the Network Rail CEO, David Higgins, lunch with Qantas CEO Alan Joyce, drinks for the London & Partners CEO Gordon Innes, drinks for Asian Cup Football CEO Michael Brown, and lunch with Landcom CEO John Brogden.
Whew. Talk about big issues. Just keeping track of which friend is CEO of what, this week, would fill those little gaps between your investment decisions all by itself.
The committee also blogs, with posts like ''CFS congratulates Business Events Sydney'' or ''CFS commends Planning Minister''. Surprisingly, there are no comments. (Well, there's one, in six months, a spirited discussion on intermodal freight interchange by the smart and indefatigable social activist Lynda Newnam. But she's no CEO, and there's no response).
As to policy, it's a bit thin. On transport, Sydney's bleeping-red issue, Tim #1 concedes that "the car … is now seen as a liability." Yet he insists that WestConnex is "an inevitability," not worth discussing. A $10 billion inevitability.
So that's city-planning orthodoxy; top-down stuff, forbiddingly abstract. Super Sydney inverts and subverts this model. Tim Williams #2, having lived and worked in Paris, developed it from a couple of Parisian projects - Sarkozy's 2009 Grand Paris, and the current, 196-council Paris Metropole.
Compared with Paris's 196 councils, Sydney's 42 seems modest. Still, over several months, interviewers headed to each of them, filming 12 conversations with 12 people about what people wanted for their city. The full, 504-video collection is available on the website.
My favourite so far is Ben from Marrickville, who says, somewhat bashfully: "I'd like to see public treehouses … really big ones, and you can, like rent it for a couple of hours and go up there … ''
Beauty's quite big, parks and fountains. (Locals love Blacktown and Mount Druitt, in particular, for their visual charms). Diversity, community, arts, friendliness and safety all figure highly. I haven't heard any calls for roads, although I believe there are some. But the overwhelming consensus is a clarion call for transport.
On this, vox pop accords with every visiting urbanist this year (and there have been a few). London School of Economics Professor Ricky Burdett, New York City chief urban designer Alex Washburn, and the deputy mayor of Paris, Pierre Mansat (in launching Super Sydney last week); each, unprompted, offered the same insight. Sydney desperately needs public transport.
So why this massive road project?
Infrastructure NSW argues thus: "Sydney's road network serves 93 per cent of passenger journeys, and most growth in transport demand over the next 20 years will be met by roads."
Especially, of course, if you keep building more roads.
This is the essence of conservative thinking. It's why top-down produces business as usual, because that's what feeds it.
But in fact we don't need more roads: if anything we should convert Parramatta Road to full-on public transport. As a former Federal Court judge, Murray Wilcox, AO, QC, argues, this project demands we ask, "who benefits?"
"If it's commuters," he said, "wouldn't they benefit more from public transport? If not commuters, then why do it at all?"
An answer is provided by EcoTransit's satirical WasteConnex vid, available on YouTube.
"WasteConnex," croons the voice over, "is the highest priority project … sucking $10 billion out of public transport and freight rail projects and delivering it to construction, consulting, and finance."
That's your "inevitable." Frankly, I'd prefer public tree houses.