After a 16-year journey from his initial proposal of light rail and pedestrianisation along George Street, the architect behind the transformation of the Sydney CBD has, for the first time, laid eyes on the results of his work.
Danish architect and urbanist Jan Gehl was commissioned by the City of Sydney in 2007 to conduct a study supporting the city’s long-term strategic plan – Sustainable Sydney 2030.
Informed by international best practices, the Public Spaces and Public Life study paved the way for the transformation of Sydney’s CBD. It articulated the imperative for more space for people, the creation of a pedestrianised light rail corridor and the establishment of new public squares – all with an emphasis on inclusivity and sustainability.
Gehl recently consulted on the city’s updated strategic plan and visited Sydney to advocate for landmark civic squares. This included proposing improvements to the public plaza situated between Sydney Town Hall and St Andrew’s Cathedral, along with advocating for more pedestrian space and the creation of greener streets.
“A good city is like a good party – people stay longer than really necessary because they are enjoying themselves,” Gehl said. “The city throughout the history of mankind has been the meeting place for people.”
“Much of the culture of mankind has happened in the public space. Public space is a very important aspect of a good and well-functioning city.”
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After enduring 50 years of car invasion and relentless traffic, cities are now witnessing a resurgence in reclaiming urban spaces for people, Gehl said. Sydney stands out as a notable example, he added, exemplified by the transformation of George Street.
“If you see a city with many children and many old people using the city’s public spaces, it’s a sign that it’s a good quality place for people,” said Gehl.
Mayor of Sydney Clover Moore said Gehl’s contribution to the transformation of the Sydney CBD is unparalleled.
“We have come a long way since 2007 when Jan Gehl said Sydney had turned its back on the harbour, and that it was at breaking point, unable to cope with traffic volumes and gradually being choked in fumes and noise,” said Moore. “Back then I was in my first term as Lord Mayor, and Sydney had had a history of ad hoc interventions rather than considered long-term planning.”
“I wanted to change that and transform Sydney with a vision and strategy to achieve it.
“When we saw Public Spaces and Public Life, featuring George Street as a 2.5-kilometre pedestrian boulevard with light rail as its centrepiece and three large civic squares, pedestrian and cycling networks, green connections and revitalised laneways, I knew we had our vision.”
Public Spaces and Public Life presented a unique opportunity to realise Sydney’s potential as a green, global and connected city, designed for its people.
“Once a noisy, polluted traffic jam, Sydney’s central spine is now the people-friendly, tree-lined boulevard you’d expect in an international city,” said Moore. “Quality public space is fundamental to enjoyable city living and we’re edging closer to making three new landmark public squares a reality.”
“We’d like to see a public square at Central Station that welcomes people arriving in Sydney, one overlooking the beautiful harbour at Circular Quay and another that functions as an outdoor living room outside Sydney Town Hall.
“Building basic infrastructure for a growing population to function is one thing but providing the physical framework for neighbourhoods to flourish is another.”
The four overarching themes to Jan Gehl’s vision for Sydney:
A green and cool city
To improve the city’s urban forest with greater tree cover and more hardy species. Currently, the city has landscaped more than 28,000 metres of public space and now looks after more than 50,000 trees and 400 parks for everyone to enjoy.
Improved mobility and access
Make more room for people with wider footpaths and increased open space. Since 2004, the city has installed 25 kilometres of safe, separated cycleways and created over 60 kilometres of shared paths and 40 kilometres of other cycling infrastructure. Bike trips in the city have more than doubled in the past decade. The transformation of George Street has provided more than 18,000 square metres of public space.
A city for all
The Sydney CBD is made up of many nations including the Traditional Custodians, the Gadigal of the Eora Nation. Over 50 per cent of the city’s residents were born overseas, and 41 per cent of people speak a language other than English at home. Sydney also has a large population of international students and is a refugee welcome zone. The city is an epicentre of LGBTIQA+ life, history and culture.
A strong city magnet for people
The transformation of George Street – taking out buses and cars – was the start of a broader re-visioning of all city streets, putting people first. This includes the main streets of its villages, most recently Macleay and Crown streets. Outdoor dining has expanded out into roadways which is revitalising the Sydney streets.