woman cycling on sydney roads
Image: City of Sydney

Is it time to consider “un-building” and “non-building” in urban design projects, such as the revival of Sydney’s Parramatta Road?

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic there has been much talk of the opportunity to “build back better”, to use the societal rupture caused by the coronavirus, and its lockdown and social distancing measures, as a catalyst for rethinking how we do things, like our politics and economy.

How we respond to this narrative – what and where we choose to build, and what we define as “better” – will shape the ability of our cities to provide sustainable, fulfilling, and prosperous lives for their citizens.

Examples of what building back better might look like have seemingly been the ponderings of many urbanists during our contemplative times in lockdown. From pop-up cycleways and re-thinking the role of streets in our cities, to reconsidering what it might mean to live local, all alongside the usual infrastructure-led recovery rhetoric.

All things considered, the notion of building back better seems to be envisioning a better version of 2019.

Thinking about our future post-pandemic recovery inevitably involves contemplating the future of the city and our collective future as a society. In their book The Fourth Turning, Strauss and Howe (responsible for coining the term Millennials to describe the generation now living by that name) suggest that the challenge in contemplating our future is not to look towards it along a straight line, but instead around its inevitable corners.

While Strauss and Howe’s generational theory isn’t without its critics (due to the seemingly pseudoscientific nature of it), the basic premise of their work is sound – that society occasionally goes through a massive crisis, after which a rebuilding phase allows for new ways of thinking and doing.

The Great Recession of 2008 seemingly signalled the commencement of the most recent Strauss-Howe crisis era, punctuated by social unrest (the Make America Great Again and Black Lives Matter movements), and now the COVID-19 pandemic. As we come to the climax of this crisis era and consider how to build back better, our challenge is not to look at our future as an extension of our immediate past, but instead to consider what corners we can turn to deliver a post-COVID world able to meet the challenges of modern times.

And if there was ever a time to “turn a corner”, that time is now. We are deep into multiple crises –health, climate, water, and economic to name a few – and the city’s complicity in these crises is undeniable.

The need to turn a corner in how we do things is a point reiterated by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), that states in order to achieve a durable and resilient economic recovery from the COVID-19 crisis “a return to ‘business as usual’ and environmentally destructive investment patterns and activities must be avoided”. The OECD also contends that that “unchecked, global environmental emergencies such as climate change and biodiversity loss could cause social and economic damages far larger than those caused by COVID-19”.

But the question remains, how do we make “better” the step-change that we need it to be, and not simply an improvement on business-as-usual?

Turning the corner

In his Architects Without Architecture discussion, Dan Hill, director of strategic design at Vinnova, the Swedish government’s innovation agency, critiques architecture’s failure to grapple with the “systemic challenges this age necessitates”.

Hill suggests that “the discipline’s ethical responsibility for the city ought to be more than reason enough” to see it tackle broader issues in society, and that “architecture needs to explore building as part of a range of approaches alongside un-building, not-building and re-building”. In an infrastructure age amid a climate crisis, it’s pertinent to consider how we might be better served by a framework that posits “building” alongside ideas like “un-building”.

The pandemic has also brought about renewed interest in “localism”. As a result of people staying away from city centres and CBDs, we’ve seen an uptick in retail/recreation activity in the suburbs of metropolitan Australia. This is a welcome extension of the Slow City, which seeks to demonstrate that reducing the speed of travel within cities saves time for residents and creates more sustainable, liveable, prosperous and healthy environments.

So, what might “turning the corner” in urbanism look like?

Un-Building Parramatta Road

By way of example, let’s consider the Committee for Sydney’s recent report Reclaiming Parramatta Road (November 2020), which describes a transport-led renewal for the Parramatta Road corridor.

It’s a proposal that is unsurprising for anyone living in Sydney over the last decade or so. The blighted Parramatta Road is often the topic of urban renewal conversation, and big transport infrastructure as a catalyst for such renewal is all the rage.

Put simply, the report proposes a street-based rapid transit system (light rail or trackless tram) along Parramatta Road as the centrepiece for corridor renewal. This transit system aims to connect the corridor to Sydney’s CBD and in order to meet travel time targets, there will likely be fewer stops than is desirable. The quality of the places along the corridor would likely suffer as a result, undermining the ability of a significant investment in transport to deliver the renewal it promises.

By adopting a slow, local, “un-building” approach to Parramatta Road, we might instead consider that the existing heavy rail (about 1km south) and future metro (about 1-2km north) provide rapid transit connections to Greater Sydney’s two main CBDs, Sydney and Parramatta, and that north-south active and public transport networks feeding these lines, together with best practice interchange and transfers, would adequately service the transport needs of the corridor.

But what if we were to proceed with the report’s proposed lane closures (un-building) without the accompanying street based transport right-of-way (not-building)?

This would “un-build” excessive road infrastructure, halt the perpetually negative economic, environmental and social impacts of car-dependant urbanism, and unlock significant potential for reimagining Parramatta Road as an independent piece of the city in itself. The abundant space made available could be repurposed for endless possibilities.

The recent proposal for renewing Champs Elysees in Paris helps us imagine what might be possible in lieu of another big infrastructure project.

And hey, maybe the local community might even get a say in how to re-use that space?

The planned renewal of Champs Elysees in Paris (source: PCA-Stream)

Never let a good crisis go to waste

The times we face are unprecedented and are an opportunity to do things differently – a step-change in how we deliver the city. As this era of crisis unfolds and comes to its inevitable end, only a “reset” will properly address the systemic vulnerabilities the pandemic has exposed.

As suggested by the World Economic Forum “for businesses, building back better is about…truly aligning markets with the natural, social and economic systems on which they depend. It is about building real resilience, driving equitable and sustainable growth, and reinventing capitalism itself”.

I’d say the same about cities – it’s time to re-invent urbanism itself.

Jason is a landscape architect and urbanist working and writing in urban mobility and public space.

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