The developers took advantage of the slight regulation with generous space and little sense for a comprehensive renovation with the exception of Australia Square. But on the outskirts of town in The Rocks and Woolloomooloo, brooding mega-renewal plans by the state government have been envisaged to the dismay of the population.
A closed meeting of the planning institute in May 1967 was painfully aware that the planning had been perceived as “conservative, cautious and finite” rather than “liberal, imaginative and continuous”.
Things turned for the better when the Civic Reform Association won a council majority in late 1969 to replace an enthusiastic triumvirate of development-friendly government-appointed commissioners in a new plan that summed up Sydney’s problems in JK Galbraith’s words: “private prosperity and public misery.”
Councilors Andrew Briger and Leo Port pushed the idea of strategy forward. By March 1970, the new council had more than 20 submissions to conduct the $ 100,000 study, a sizable sum for an urban planning project. The successful consortium, led by Urban Systems Corporation (USC), was led by George Clarke.
Clarke (1932-2005) had positioned himself cleverly to take on the task. Hugh Stretton described him as one of those archetypal architect-planners who “saw planning primarily as a form of social reform”.
Charismatic, eloquent and self-proclaimed “urbanist”, as his Paddington plaque proclaims, Clarke had worked and studied in the USA with mentors such as Lewis Mumford and Kevin Lynch. He returned to Sydney with a strong understanding of urban renewal, conservation, community planning and Lynch’s emphasis on the “image of the city”. In addition to being the first major design bureau established in post-war Sydney, USC was the first integrated company to encompass planning, design, architecture, transportation and research.
Clarke, along with architects McConnel Smith and Johnson and business consultants WD Scott, put a large cast together to prepare the plan. A total of 39 other specialists form the team, including specialists from abroad who form an impressive range of interdisciplinary know-how. Many would later shape Sydney individually into the 21st century.
In the process of gathering information, hundreds of stakeholders, including trade unions, churches, charities, corporations and government departments, were invited to contribute. Many are “amazed” when you speak to them, but people “are overflowing with ideas”. This experiment in community counseling, even if it was rudimentary, was a new method for the time.
Under each of its four main objectives there were four thematic policy areas, which in turn gave rise to more than 80 priorities for action. The city was divided into five different districts (Central Backbone, East, Southeast, Pyrmont, and University), creating more than 30 planning districts. This was Clarke’s answer to the complexity of the city as an urban system.
Five main control levers have been identified: reasserting the city as the domain of the council; Decreasing land use requirements by builders to encourage taller buildings to provide urban amenities; Develop a number of detailed “Action Plans” for key districts and projects; with a view to a three-year review cycle; and modernization of urban planning management.
The main overall goals were to restrict the large-scale commercial development to a central core, to defuse car traffic, to increase the pedestrian zone, to promote bypass routes, to increase the quality of urban development, to preserve historical buildings, to ensure more cultural diversity and to preserve inner-city residential villages .
They don’t sound revolutionary now, but half a century ago it was an innovative package. Key proposals included closing Martin Place to traffic and redeveloping the threatened Queen Victoria Building.
Other proposals betray the high modernity of the time: a World Trade Center; an airport in the city center for aircraft with new technology at the main train station; a planetarium for the end of the day; an investigation of monorails; Thousands of parking spaces in the periphery; and “traffic-separated pedestrian environments” with a preference for tunnels, bridges, arcades and sidewalks as opposed to the modern paradigm of street accessibility.
The architect Robin Boyd astutely recognized a scheme that tried to reconcile inventiveness and practicality without ruffling feathers. This was largely supported by vigorous public relations work. The sharpest critic was Harry Seidler, who identified a “toothless tiger” who highlighted the problem of a strategy of ideas rather than a control plan.
Perversely, the Askin State government belatedly released the city’s legislative plan, which had been in development since the 1940s, just days before the CSSP was unveiled. Developers preferred the more lenient rules that were expanded, leading to a rush of development applications. The misalignment was not fully corrected until 1979 with the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act, which included many of the planning tools envisaged by the CSSP.
By then, the plan had already been reviewed twice, green bans had come and gone, a state heritage law was in place, and the Department of Urban and Regional Development had piqued the Commonwealth’s interest in the city. The planning train moved on. Even George Clarke, who exported his formula to the City of Adelaide Planning Study in 1973-74 to consolidate his national profile, had enough: moving to Bali and a wandering life as an international design guru.
The CSSP remained “by far his crowning achievement,” according to Elizabeth Farrelly, and that goes in and out of her latest book Kill sydney as an enlightened leading article as Sydney’s “first foray into a people-friendly, tree-planting, street-conscious, pedestrian-oriented planning strategy”.
The plan was a best seller, educated the community about planning, drew on consultation and evidence-based research, introduced an official register of heritage sites to local government, pioneered site-based planning and plan review mechanisms, and promoted recently established high-level design review processes. Science raised and helped start a governance revolution that underpins the city’s current leadership in planning and design, guided by its own Sustainable Sydney 2030 strategy, which is proving to be equally enduring and influential.
Great architecture produces tangible symbols that are assessed based on their physical presence and functionality. The planning works through a different modus operandi of coordinative protocols and processes that are designed in the public interest. The CSSP 1971 defined a form of planning excellence long before prizes were awarded for it. But a badge will do the trick.
Robert Freestone is Professor of Planning at the University of NSW.