Tag Archives: cities

Look Up!


I don’t regard myself as parochial toward any particular city. I relate to Melbourne best, because I lived there for so many years. So although I imagine myself to be Melburnian (or however we’re supposed to spell it), I cringe at the thought of comparing Melbourne to other places or spouting Melbourne to be anything other than a great city. Sydney’s a great city too. Great because it’s different to Melbourne, and because it’s not Melbourne. I’d better explain.


On this trip to Sydney, I’ve been struck by the beauty of her built form. I’m keenly aware of some of her prominent historical buildings (around Martin Place, St James Park and elsewhere), but my surprise has come from doing something that most forget to do. As I walked down Market street on my way to the water, I cast my eye up to the buildings high above. Looking up is something all of us that love the city, should do.


Downtown Sydney (oh yes, I did go there… girlfriend) is laid out on an elongated grid of streets running south from Circular Quay. The layout is often traduced for its long blocks, narrow street reserves and (of course), even narrower footpaths. But one of the finer points often missed about the elongated grid, is the view it offers those that bother to look up and along the long blocks of buildings that make up the CBD.


The concentration of high-rise buildings are a demonstration in contrast of material, height, shape and colour. The effect is quite unique in my experience, from any other Australian city. Sure, other State capitals have high rise buildings, but what Sydneyhas is more in the style I imagine many US cities like Boston, Dallas, Detroit, Chicago and New York, to be. By Australian standards they look bigger, and there are more of them. They are in the minds of many, a discerning feature that makes the city, the city. Sydney does high-rise better than, um, Melbourne. In my humble view, Sydney does them best.


But there is no escaping inter-city rivalry, unfortunately. On the Airport Link to Central Station I overheard a middle-aged Sydney local explain the difference between Melbourne and Sydney to a couple who had most obviously just flown in from Asia. “It’s the people” he said. “In Melbourne, they think they’re more cultured than us. But I don’t know… I’d prefer the harbor and the sunshine, you know? Plus, I don’t think Melbournepeople are as friendly as us…”


‘Fuck off’ I thought. But I didn’t say it. That wouldn’t have been very friendly. Plus, I’m not one of those that regard themselves as parochial toward any particular city – as I’ve already explained.


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The Other City

Many a Melburnian arrives home after an overseas adventure sporting, among other things, a perfunctory reaction to the ‘liveability’ of their own hometown. Visiting cities in other places usually confirms one’s prejudice about how stuffed Melbourne is, or it leads to overly illustrious praise.

Where once stood a Wall, now stands a fence... Ebertstraße, Berlin.

The great thing for me about the time I’ve spent travelling over the past few weeks, is that most of it has been in cities. Small cities, big cities, and one or two mega-cities, for good measure. I travelled most recently to indulge my curiosity and study of urban planning, and experienced these places in a way quite unlike the tourists I encountered. My interest was not in seeing the sights and visiting attractions, but in experiencing each city at the street level – the spaces between the things to see – was what I hoped to better understand.

In Frieburg I looked at cooperative housing developments that sought to meet and exceed the (German) Passivhaus standard for energy efficiency. I found that largely, the people of Freiberg view things like solar and wind energy integration and energy efficiency as enticing challenges, and not as a threat to their standard of living. But of course, they are different.

Bike riders, Hans Christian Andersen Boulevard, Copenhagen.

In Berlin, Copenhagen and Amsterdam, I watched as people pedalled from place to place on their impossibly elegant, upright bikes. Wearing only a segregated bike lane for protection, most were unaware that where I come from, we wear a helmet law which offers no protection at all.

In Prague I saw that conserving heritage buildings is mostly a nonpartisan cause, which poses both problems and opportunities for the city and it’s people. I saw that built heritage is something to be celebrated; if not by locals, then by the visitors who like to look at it and take pictures.

Jægersborg Dyrehave (The Deer Park), Copenhagen, is an open space protected by a real urban growth boundary.

In Copenhagen I saw that a long term strategy of preserving public open spaces (green belts and wedges) is reason to codify urban growth boundaries, and not to scrap them. I also saw segregated bike lanes – but I may have already mentioned this.

In Barcelona, Dublin, London and other places I saw bike share systems that were, well, very much in use. Tourists, families, workers, professionals and kids all zipping about as though there’s nothing to it. I mentioned bike lanes earlier, but did I mention the helmet law thing?

I saw lots of other things too; Ildefons Cerdà’s layout for the less old parts of Barcelona; the docklands redevelopments of Malmö, Hamburg, Rotterdam, Dublin and London (we’re not the only ones to do it poorly); and the phoenix city* that is Bilbao. Ghery’s art house isn’t all there is to see there, I’m very pleased to report.

So when I flew back in to Melbourne earlier this week, I felt that my city had some serious explaining to do. Arriving home to the wild wet of winter, what could she possibly say to justify herself in the face of such formidable competition?

Turns out she said nothing. She didn’t have to say a word.

*Pheonix City is a phrase borrowed from the 2010 book by Anne Power, Jörg Plöger and Astrid Winkler titled ‘Phoenix cities: The fall and rise of great industrial cities’ (The Policy Press).

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A City from Scratch

Dublin: Day Twenty-four

From what I’ve seen, few cities are intrinsically difficult to move around. Most feature the same devices to facilitate movement; paths, lanes, alleys, streets, roads, watercourses, open space reserves, light (trams) and heavy (trains) rail. The difficulties arise in response to attempts by administrators and policy makers to favour one mode of transport over another by installing obstacles, barriers, laws and regulations. I wonder, if I were to build a city from scratch, what would I do differently?

After identifying a piece of land that was topographically and ecologically suitable, I’d start by asking people where stuff should be put. Schools, shopping areas, and their homes, industrial and large scale commercial facilities. I expect it might be difficult to reach some consensus on these things, but I reckon there would be more agreement than disagreement in the room by the end of the process.

This process would also determine who wants to live where. The more popular the location, the higher the density, but the price would be less than for those that wanted to carve out their own private plot. The antitheses to what we do now in some respects.

Then, I’d start to look at how people might get from their homes to the places they need to go, and back. I’d prioritise walking above and beyond all other methods used to get from place to place. Next I would prioritise bike riding, skating, scooting and other active ways of moving around. Then I’d prioritise public light rail, then public heavy rail. I know buses are cheaper and offer more flexibility, but people don’t like buses as much as they like rail. Public buses are prioritised next, along with motorcycles (motorbikes and scooters), then cars, light trucks and finally, heavy (articulated) trucks.

I would design these priorities into the system by the way I allocated space – higher priority modes get the best bits, lower priority modes get whatever is left. This way, trucks give way to cars which give way to motorcycles, who give way to buses, who give way to light rail, who give way to bikes and pedestrians. The only exception might be when each mode is separated from the others. Pedestrians shouldn’t walk along rail lines, just like cars shouldn’t drive along bike lanes.

Where separated pathways meet, a hierarchy rule takes effect. Everyone waits for the pedestrian, then they let the bikes go, and so on.

I’m not suggesting that this system would work, but in the spirit of Ebenezer Howard, someone ought to give the whole thing a go!

Dublin is a great example of a place that could do with a rethink regarding the priority given to each of the transport modes represented. For reasons that I’m sure relate to past attempts at easing congestion’, Dublin now consists of lots of double and triple lane but one-way streets furnished to give cars and buses priority over everything else. And despite Dublin’s acclaim for the inroads it’s made with it’s bike share system, this is a difficult city to ride a bike in. A surprising number of bike lanes end inexplicably, or merge into vehicle lanes without warning. The idea of “A to B ism” (facilitating the most direct route from one place to another, and back again) is challenged here. I believe footpaths are for pedestrians, but at times while riding I found that this was my only haven from the risk of being run over by an errant car driver (of which it seems, they have about as many as we do, per capita).

Incidentally, the cost of unleaded petrol in Dublin today was €1.44 (AU$1.94) per litre. In Prague I remember seeing it at a similar price, as well as in Germany and Spain. Suck it up Australia. Our fuel is dead cheap compared to what many in Europe are paying.

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