As Parramatta is rezoned to make way for massive skyscrapers, the decision is a reminder that the world has forgotten how to build beautiful cities. By Elizabeth Farrelly.

How did Australia get so bad at building cities?

Spring in London’s Eaton Square, Belgravia.
Spring in London’s Eaton Square, Belgravia.
Credit: Greg Balfour Evans / Alamy

Before the election I spent a month wandering the streets of old Europe. Halfway through, we were in beautiful Bordeaux when New South Wales rezoned Australia’s second-oldest city centre to 70 storeys, threatening everything small, old or fragile with a future slew of huge-footprint glass-fronted, wind-generating skyscrapers.

The rezoned city in question is of course downtown Parramatta, just weeks younger than Sydney and, despite massive losses, still home to hundreds of irreplaceable heritage buildings. The former Labor minister who drove and applauded the rezoning is David Borger, now head of Business Western Sydney. And the underlying presumption, which increasingly shapes our cities, is the old-white-male view that taller is automatically more grown-up; that transforming Parramatta’s skyline to rival downtown Sydney is a move to urban sophistication.

But is this true? Are there other ways of making viable cities? Will the change of government federally offer more progressive city thinking? And what, if anything, can we learn from old Europe?

Europe has enjoyed an unseasonably warm spring, which is both delicious and an acute reminder of climate change. For this reason, and because everyone else is as eager as we are to emerge from under Covid, the cities we visited were abuzz with tourists. Yet, there’s a dignity. From tiny cliff-perched cities such as Ravello and Amalfi, to mid-size regional ones like Bilbao and Bordeaux, to majors such as Paris, London and Barcelona, the best parts have one thing in common: their streets, and often their entire central precincts, have a way of simultaneously dignifying the individual and making it clear that the individual is not the point.

This paradox is the essence of urbanism, and it’s as true of the crooked lanes of Saint-Émilion and Périgueux as of the famous Paris boulevards. The point is not the parts but their dancing, enchanting sum. That’s what dignifies us, civilises us. But skyscrapers are never about the whole. They don’t play well with others. Designed to celebrate, elevate, symbolise and enrich the individual not the group, the skyscraper is reified ego.

To wander these old cities again, by contrast, to explore their intricate streets and squares marvelling at their materials and textures, is a privilege and a delight. For me it also poses a conundrum: how come they’re so good at this city-making stuff and we’re so rubbish?

It’s not simply that they’re European and we’re not. It’s not cultural cringe. The newly built outskirts of these same cities – Rome, London, Barcelona, Paris – are every bit as grim and godforsaken as ours, and the buildings there are as shoddy and the streets as soulless. The confounding truth is that western cultures, once so adept at this, are no longer able to produce good cities, even when we want to. City-making seems to be a forgotten art.

Two things are fascinating about this – fascinating and confounding. One is that we flock to these cities, adoring everything about them. We’re still interested in and moved by beautiful buildings and places. Yet we return home to our soulless clumps of skyscrapers as though that’s natural and inevitable. The second revelation is that when we wonder how these glorious creations came about, it’s hard to escape the obvious fact that the prettiest towns are so often produced by the ugliest regimes.

That might be gently oversimplified. Certainly, brutish autocracies don’t necessarily produce lovely cities, even when they lavish money in that direction. Nevertheless, this heartwarming city fabric, almost without exception, was created by regimes that we would consider dastardly or reprehensible – monarchs and emperors with little or no concern for the plebs. Meanwhile, our own democracies, supposedly dedicated to the popular will, relentlessly generate ugly buildings and hostile spaces that increase inequality, deprioritise the many and profit the wealthy few.

A couple of years ago, struck by this conundrum, I invited a roomful of international planning historians at a conference in northern Germany to name an example of good urban design produced by a democracy. As one, the learned scholars shook their learned heads. Nein, nein. No one could cite a single instance.

There are one or two, of course, such as the very fine redevelopment behind London’s Kings Cross, where old warehouses now hum with retail, eateries and wine bars, organised around canal-centred public space, an art school (Central Saint Martins) and an HQ (Google’s new “landscraper”), as well as a dozen new streets. But this is an old place adapted to new use, and therefore pre-endowed with a warmth that new developments seem unable to replicate.

Consider, for example, the new Nine Elms and Battersea Power Station redevelopment that now occupies the huge stretch of London’s south bank from Chelsea Bridge to Vauxhall. I had great hopes, blessed as the site is with Giles Gilbert Scott’s magnificent upturned table of an industrial behemoth, not to mention seriously deep pockets – $5 billion for the Battersea part alone.

But, notwithstanding the predictable offering of outsize public sculpture out front, Gilbert Scott’s wonderful building remains as lifeless as when it was derelict. Flanked by new walls of soulless mirror glass, it is accompanied by a couple of the saddest Frank Gehrys you could hope to see, their mean-looking apartments joggled into an “interesting”, crumpled, crowd-pleasing facade.

The adjacent Nine Elms, meanwhile, centres on the supremely expressionless $1.3 billion United States Embassy, by architect Kieran Timberlake, and a famously attention-getting glass pool that hangs 10 storeys above the street. Otherwise, there’s a crop of tacky and iterative apartment buildings reminiscent of the Gold Coast on a bad day and endless dreary public space distinguished only by its careless hostility.

Consider also the massive, Qatar-funded Chelsea Barracks development in Belgravia. Although wildly exclusive – one house was on sale for $103 million – this is similarly unappealing.  So is there some causal connection here? Something that democracy gets wrong in its city-making habits? Well, yes, actually.

Chelsea Barracks owes its wildly inflated price tags to the sheer brilliance of the original Belgravia development, 200 years earlier. Outwardly, the circumstances are similar: Belgravia was also built on private land, owned by Robert Grosvenor, later Marquess of Westminster, by a successful developer, Thomas Cubitt. Sir Robert had a broad and detailed vision of a tapestry of handsome terraces, elegant streets and grand garden squares and, after gaining royal permission in the 1820s, he realised the plan.

Far from the mean cookie-cutter consumerism of today’s developments, however, Belgravia was, and is still, a model of fine civic manners. The houses are grand, but part of their grandeur is their generosity to the public. The streets they create are dignified and dignifying and the squares and gardens – like the glorious, leafy, 300-metre-long Eaton Square – share their mature planes and liquidambars, their cherry blossoms and hollies and flowering lilacs, with any and every passer-by.

Two hundred years earlier again, a similar generosity of spirit drove Henri IV’s Place des Vosges in Paris’s Marais district. Originally intended as workers’ housing attached to a velvet-making factory but completed, upon the demise of the factory, as housing for the aristocracy, the Place des Vosges is regarded as the first urban square in Paris and a model for many that followed throughout Europe, including Barcelona’s magical Plaça Reial.

Completed in 1611, the Place des Vosges measures 140 metres by 140 metres. Like Eaton Square, it permits car access but gauges the width of the street, the dominance of the garden and the sheer dignity of the inhabited street-wall, its ground-floor arcades replete with fine eateries, to ensure that pedestrian pleasure prevails.

This is what we’ve lost. It is what Parramatta, as it morphs into a city of towering glass facades, will never be able to regain. Even London, strewing itself with skyscrapers much worse than Renzo Piano’s Shard or Norman Foster’s Gherkin, is letting moths eat its mojo. The skyscraper – individual, impersonal, domineering – is the built form of what sociologist Richard Sennett calls “the fall of public man”.

We must rethink our city-making, finding ways to engage ordinary humans in the creation of our huge collective artwork – not via pretend “consultation” from on high, which convinces no one and achieves nothing, but by ending the hegemony of the dumb developer, embedding civic values in our political and design culture and encouraging self-build by way of co-ops, owner-builders and mum-and-dad developers. The critical first step, however, is to end the neoliberal fallacy that the world is nothing but a market. We must each reject the category “consumer” and select the category “citizen”.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 4, 2022 as "Tall tales".

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