Liveable cities: who decides what that means and how we achieve it?
Words about cities are not enough

In May 2014 developer lobby group Urban Taskforce released draft plans from three Sydney architects that imagined a new urban environment for the city of Sydney in 2050.

Architects Richard Francis-Jones (fjmt), James Fitzpatrick (Fitzpatrick+Partners) and Philip Vivian (Bates Smart) took up a challenge by the Urban Taskforce to depict a future for Sydney that considered the predicted growth of the city’s population (up to 7.26 million in total) and the ensuing workforce.

As Vivian explains in a recent report to the Council of Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, specifically in question was the city’s statutory height limit for buildings of 235 metres which sits just below the lowest inhabitable level of the iconic Sydney Tower (also known as Centrepoint Tower), as well as the likelihood of Sydney maintaining its title as a global city in the future without plans for taller buildings and increased population density.

He claims that his firm’s submission, which focussed on an upgrade to Sydney’s inner ring metro system and the creation of clusters of ‘super-tall’ buildings within 200 metres of the metro stations, wasn't well received by all, facing opposition from the City of Sydney and some media outlets as well as some resistance from the NSW Chapter of the Australian Institute of Architects.

Vivian proposed that in order to grow sustainably Sydney needed to increase its housing density with taller buildings and to build a new rapid transit system to service the increased population.

Vivian’s transit system would service metro stations throughout the city’s inner ring and would be partly funded by the government through investment in the increased floor space from new supertall buildings. The supertall buildings would be built in clusters around the metro stations and under the proviso that the City of Sydney relaxed its building height restrictions.

6.JPG7.JPGAbove: Vivian says that although these visions are initially disconcerting in their scale, a quick reference back to a photo of Sydney in the 1960’s demonstrates that they are not beyond the likely increase in city scale required to accommodate the predicted population increase.

He has since released a research paper titled Sydney 2050: A Sustainable City Vision for Greater Height, Public Benefit & Tall Building Resurgence that offers more detail and clarity on his vision for a sustainable Sydney.

It begins be clarifying one of the major purposes of the Sydney 2050 initiative and also by highlighting what he feels as one of the major forces of resistance to taller buildings in Sydney – the fear of change.

Here’s an excerpt:

“Why is it…that change in a city attracts so much criticism? Is it simply that anticipated change in the scale of a city and its buildings causes a public reaction of fear and distress? Knowing that a vision for a taller, denser city would cause adverse reactions, part of this study was about educating the public in the nature and necessity of city growth and change. It is our belief that even with supertall buildings Sydney can maintain its beauty, romance and importantly its status as a global city.”

As highlighted in his research paper, the three major premises that build Vivian’s vision for Sydney’s future are:

  1. Cities grow
  2. Density is sustainable
  3. Rapid transport is sustainable transport

Vivian comments on Sydney’s statutory height limit (LEP), which is restricted to the 1970s-built Centrepoint Tower.

“While Centrepoint was, in the 1970s, the focus of the Sydney skyline, one can observe how after 45 years the statutory LEP has encouraged a horizontal skyline and [how] the city profile is tending towards being level at 235 metres,” reads the research paper.

“As Sydney grows it is simply not sustainable to continue the outward sprawl of the city, thus it is vital to the look at increasing density. The central CBD is tightly constrained by the harbour to the north and west, parklands to the east, and Central Railway Station to the south; thus it is clear that additional growth in the CBD can only be accommodated by additional height.”

For Vivian, the question became about how to best distribute the needed building height and the challenge became how to reimagine the skyline rather than simply suggesting an increase in overall height limit across the entire city.

His approach focuses on three pillars:

  1. Sustainable transport
  2. Public benefit
  3. Economic development

The sustainable transport would come from a rapid transit network which would service Central, Town Hall, Museum, St James, Wynard, Circular Quay, Milsons Point and North Sydney stations.

It would be partly funded by the revenue raised from the sale of supertall floorspace – that is any floorspace above the current LEP of 235 metres - in new clusters of supertall buildings situated around the above metro stations.


Top: Bates Smart’s vision has allowed the development of supertall buildings within 200m of a rapid transit station in the city centre. 
Above: Vivian says that adhering to the current LEP would result in a horizontal city CBD and an unsustainable amount of suburban sprawl by 2050 (compare the middle and bottom diagram).

Bates Smart’s vision allows for the potential of 12.5 million square metres of additional floor space above the current height limits. This would realise an estimated $7.1 billion in revenue over 35 years for the government which could fund part of the rapid transit network.

Vivian also includes ideas on building design controls that would ensure supertall buildings make a positive contribution to the public domain and the urban design of the city.

For more detail on those ideas you can download the full research paper here.

Images: Bates Smart