At the beginning of the month, Danish architect and "urban quality consultant" Jan Gehl produced the results of his nine-month study of central Sydney, Australia. The city of Sydney had hired him to produce a body of recommendations in order to improve the city's core, both functionally and experientially.
His report paints a picture of a city at war with itself - car against pedestrian, high-rise against public space. "The inevitable result is public space with an absence of public life," he concludes.
His nine-month investigation found a city in distress. A walk down Market Street involved as much waiting at traffic lights as it did walking. In winter, 39 per cent of people in the city spend their lunchtimes underground, put off by a hostile environment at street level: noise, traffic, wind, a lack of sunlight and too few options for eating.
Gehl's report calls for the creation of three new major public squares along George Street, which Gehl envisions as the city's main promenade--one at Circular Quay, Sydney's principal ferry depot and a major transportation node; another fronting Sydney Town Hall (above); and a third adjoining the city's Central Station, the largest train station in Australia. Rather than imposing a new traffic pattern onto the street network, Gehl's subtle and incremental vision targets and connects these three existing focal points as a way of amplifying the core's existing strengths.
The quality of the pedestrian experience in central Sydney and by extension its entire urban fabric, is evaluated in a number of ways, spanning building height, microclimate, perceptions of safety, traffic patterns, and housing types. The graded evaluation of how building frontages throughout the core enhance or harm street life is particularly interesting.
Above: Gehl, in the middle of George Street.
The report emphasizes that the focus on George Street would introduce an important hierarchy to the central core's main thoroughfares, which they currently lack and that makes navigation needlessly difficult:
Transforming George Street into a "vivacious" promenade and shopping strip is critical to Professor Gehl's vision. Its 2.5 kilometres would be closed to private vehicles and dedicated to public transport and bicycles....
At the quay, the Cahill Expressway would be demolished (ie, like the Embarcadero Freeway demolition in San Francisco) and the railway station put underground to make way for a public square that would allow the half-million people who visit and work in the city every day to appreciate Sydney Harbour.
At Town Hall, the Woolworths headquarters would be demolished to create open space. The city council has already bought this and neighbouring buildings, and has long had such a plan. Pedestrians would no longer need to press a button at traffic lights. No one should have to "apply" to walk across the road, Professor Gehl says. It is a human right.
Walkers would no longer take a stop-start journey along George Street, the smog-filled thoroughfare that he says should be Sydney's main promenade. They should not even have to step down to the road at intersections with traffic crossing the city. It is the cars that should wait, he argues. Parking would be restricted to the edges of town.
Below, for context: a map of central Sydney, showing George Street, Circular Quay, Town Hall and Central Station.