NLA live link up: Polycentric cities

Monday 26 Mar 2018
Credit: NLA

Architects: New London Architecture

A polycentric future for our cities?

Sydney and London both have their own housing crises which are leading them to embrace ‘apartment living’, transport-led development and a reappraisal of density

In a fascinating live link-up between Australia and the UK at the NLA in London on 22.3.18 two panels of experts examined how London and Sydney are aiming to become polycentric cities. Audiences of professionals from engineering, transport, architecture and construction gathered to listen to the debate and question the panels on the future development of the two cities. 

Cities are the defining characteristic of the 21st century, said Bates Smart director Philip Vivian, eclipsing the 19th century’s theme of ‘empires’ or the 20th’s of ‘nation states’, with 75% of the world’s population predicted to live in urban areas by 2050. But while Sydney’s density is less than half of London’s, at 29 people per hectare, the Australian city is only just starting to ‘rebalance’ itself away from the private car and towards public transport, whereas Crossrail exemplifies London’s approach. Both, however, are seeking to grow equitably amidst housing crises and the challenge of NIMBY attitudes.

Greater Sydney Commission chief executive Sarah Hill said the city’s area was ‘enormous’ compared to most, with a population growing by 1.9% per annum compared to London’s 1%. The commission is working to create a city based upon a platform of ‘liveablity, productivity and sustainability, with infrastructure and collaboration extra themes demanded of it from the citizens. ‘What people want is great outcomes’, she said. ‘They want more of everything, but done well.’ The city has produced a plan creating a ‘metropolis of three cities’, and a notion of the 30-minute city – that you can easily access the places you need to visit on a daily basis in that time period.

Darren Richards, interim head of London Plan and growth strategies team at GLA provided a whistle-stop presentation on London’s approach, albeit questioning whether London was yet a polycentric city. The London Plan’s emphasis, he said, was to provide a break from pervious plans in being more directive, and around the six principles of ‘Good Growth’. The plan is also trying to ‘change London’ in terms of densifying its suburbs, while areas like Old Oak Common and Park Royal are now seen as ‘reserve’ office locations, capitalising on its ‘hyper-connected’ status where the HS2 meets Crossrail.

The future for Sydney is a lot about height, said Urban Taskforce Australia chief executive Chris Johnson, with better, more effective transport systems required to connect housing, perhaps including a metro circle line with light rail loops around centres. But with Sydney’s housing rating as some of the most expensive in the world, ‘there is a big swing towards apartment living, driven by affordability’. ‘We’re a city moving from a low-rise suburban character to becoming more urban’, he said. The trick was to negotiate the way through this housing need, given the level of Nimby opposition some development was attracting in Australia.

Other speakers included TfL’s Stuart Robinson, who said that while transport was perhaps at the top of Sydney’s agenda, that was where London was around 10-15 years ago, with housing now taking its place. To help meet that need, TfL is looking at the 5700 acres it owns, to produce 10,000 homes, some of them in the next tranche on its railway station car park sites. ‘We’ve got to create good places’, he said. ‘That is absolutely fundamental... Housing growth will have to double in outer London to meet the ambitions of the polycentric city we’re talking about.’

Battersea Power Station Development Company head of planning Gordon Adams said the key difference between the two cities was the size and space, but schemes like Battersea would not have been possible without the public transport investment represented by the Northern Line Extension. Sydney’s expansion, he added, was also hampered by the fact that the CBD is on the coast. But on the NIMBY question people were not objecting to growth, per se, they were objecting to ‘bad, terrible growth’ said Arup’s head of cities Tim Williams, suggesting that more and better infrastructure was key. ‘It’s not density’, he added, ‘it’s density done badly that is the problem.’

WAN's Reclaiming the Streets initative is looking at the opportunites presented by the advent of autonomous vehicles and an increasing awareness of the health risks from vehicle pollution.   

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Deadline for entries: 29 March 2018