Sydney – Public Spaces Public Life

The City of Sydney recently engaged “international urban design expert Jan Gehl” to perform a “public spaces public life” study on Sydney with the aim of reviewing how people use the city of Sydney, living, working, playing, and make some recommendations as to how to improve it. He reported to Council this week.

Much of the media coverage has been of the big ticket items – put the Cahill Expressway and the Western Distributor underground – and while I agree they would vastly improve Sydney as a city, the prohibitive cost involved may not be worth it.

I found the full report a fascinating read. The most insightful part was about Sydney as a pedestrian city. Sydney has the number of pedestrians of a much smaller city (Pitt St Mall is around the same as Rundle Mall in Adelaide, and George St is much lower), and on weekdays, has half as many pedestrians in the underground pathways as it does above ground. An average walk  in Sydney involves waiting at pedestrian lights between 20% and 50% of the time of the walk. So walking underground makes sense. Quite a few pedestrian accidents happen at the worst intersections where it takes a couple of minutes for the lights to change for pedestrians.

I’m an inveterate jaywalker myself, but I’ve watched enough close calls that I don’t cross Elizabeth St at Martin Place without lights, and I know to leave at least 2 minutes to get across the Grosvenor St/George St intersection.

I’ve found it frustrating that a lot of the commentary has come from people who don’t actually use the city day to day. I’ve worked in various parts of Sydney CBD for most of the last 20 years. For 11 of those years I had a job that often involved walking all over the city to visit clients. And I visit often on weekends. So those people who say that piazzas don’t work in the Australian sun have clearly never visited Martin Place at lunchtime (or Spain in summer, but that’s another post). Sure, the shade is popular, but most people will grasp at the chance to be outside except on the worst days of the Australian summer. And the reason that people don’t walk is rarely that it’s too much like hard work – it’s that it takes too long, and it’s too unpredictable with the traffic lights.

There are lots of good ideas in the report, and it’s a fascinating way to analyse a city. Having just read Jane Jacob’s classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities it’s interesting to see her ideas being interpreted and used. I hope that the City of Sydney manages to implement some of the smaller, less headline grabbing  suggestions, so that we can gradually move towards the pedestrianised city that I’d love to work and play in. There is hope, with today quite a few business leaders supporting the need to gradually move towards a pedestrianised city.

  1 comment for “Sydney – Public Spaces Public Life

  1. December 6, 2007 at 9:28 am

    Yes, wasn’t this fascinating.

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