Leading global cities protect their heritage views and sightlines, respecting the human scale of the city’s heritage and topography, cherishing the city as a landscape of natural features.

Earlier this year the final report of the NSW Legislative Council Select Committee on Barangaroo sightlines, made several recommendations.

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Among these is that significant cultural and heritage value of the sightlines. The recommendations included that:

“The NSW government, in consultation with the Heritage Council of NSW, develop a view management strategy that effectively identifies and preserves sightlines in the Millers and Dawes Point precincts that are of significant cultural and heritage value to New South Wales, and ensures that these views are considered in the context of any major redevelopment project”.

In response NSW government committed to consulting with the community to develop a view management strategy:

“The government will ask the Department of Planning and Environment, including the Government Architect, to consider the development of a view management strategy that provides a framework for protection and consideration of significant views and sightlines when major redevelopment projects are proposed”.

Meanwhile, word on the street is the revised scheme for Central Barangaroo Modification 9 will be lodged before the year is out.

Following the public outcry against Mod 9, which sought to block views of the harbour and lower lying stars from the Sydney Observatory in the western sky, blocked harbour views from the Langham Hotel and dramatically impacted the heritage and tourism qualities of Millers Point and the Observatory Hill precinct, which Sydneysiders enjoy.

It would seem prudent that the revised proposal be only assessed once a view management strategy for Sydney is finalised and considered.

What is a view management strategy?

If you stand out in front of “Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese” public house (rebuilt in 1667) in London’s Fleet Street and look east, you will enjoy an uninterrupted view of St Paul’s Cathedral.

Lean forward and you can see the silhouette of 122 Leadenhall Street (“The Cheese Grater”), which owes its shape to obligation to protect this view.

The Act for the Rebuilding of the City of London, passed in February 1667 proposed that all new buildings had to be constructed of brick or stone against the future perils of fire. It also imposed a maximum number of storeys per house for a fixed number of abodes to eliminate overcrowding. The London Building Acts of 1888 and 1894 ruled that architects should not be allowed to build structures higher than 10 storeys to ensure the city’s finest landmarks were not obscured (and so fire crews could reach the upper levels).

London has grown upwards since then, but still has protected views that pinwheel around historic sites such Westminster (and “Big Ben”), the Tower of London and St Paul’s Cathedral.

These “sightlines” influence the volume and massing of new developments, defining the edges of clusters of towers and their dividing chasms. Formalised under the London View Management Framework, the City of London has sought to balance the heritage sense of place with the desire to add more high-rise office and residential building – a challenge faced by many developed cities.

A similar commitment to preserving London’s heritage with the development of “sightlines” was included in the 2004 London Plan, published by then mayor Ken Livingstone, and based around the aspects and panorama that include historical sites such as St Paul’s Cathedral, the Tower of London and Westminster Palace.

London is not alone; many great cities protect the views to and from their monuments.

By 1300, the population of Florence grew to over 100,000 people. A series of laws were enacted to encourage order and dignity, express a shared spirit of civic pride, and to make the city il più bello che si può (as beautiful as possible).

Towers were reduced to a uniform height and regulations were passed to dictate the appearance of buildings. Today, nothing is built taller than the Palazzo Vecchio, and all roofs must be made of terracotta tiles to maintain the roofscape when seen from adjoining hills and Piazzala Michelangelo.

Rome, admired for its topography and resulting views was perhaps the first intensively represented city – first in paintings, prints and postcards, and then in the photographs of tourists.

Sweeping views of St Peter’s Basilica and the winding Tiber were influential in re-imaginings of idealised classical landscapes. The height of buildings in Rome greatly affects the view of landmarks and the overall skyline. You can still sit at the top of one of the seven hills that made up ancient Rome and see the other six.

Restricting the height of construction in Paris has a long tradition that goes back to 1667 when an ordinance during the reign of Louis XIV limited the height of buildings with façades on streets to 16 metres. One major purpose of the ordinance, which was issued one year after the Great Fire of London, was to implement safety precautions.

Royal decrees by Louis XVI in the 1780s specified heights of buildings proportionate to the widths of the streets they overlooked for reasons of hygiene, safety and aesthetics.

If a street was less than 7.8 metres wide, for example, buildings could be no higher than 11.70 metres, with a maximum of 20 metres permitted on streets of the same width.

The tradition of proportion was continued into the next century and was particularly developed by Baron Haussmann, the Prefect under Napoleon III who gave the centre of Paris its distinctive large boulevards and uniform stone-cut façades with wrought iron balconies and decorative door and window pediments.

Haussmann dictated that all of these elements on any given building had to be uniform and broadened the practice of limiting the height of the building to even specifying how many floors it could have. Modern Paris has limited high rise development to the La Defence district, maintaining low rise development in the historic city centre and affording a view that includes the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, Sacre-Coeur, Notre Dame and the Pantheon.

In Vancouver, one of the worlds “most liveable cities”, protected views restrict development in what is already a constrained site: a peninsula surrounded by water.

The City of Vancouver protects spectacular ocean and mountain views while promoting density in the downtown area. The mountains behind the city skyline signify their connection to nature and align with their sustainability goals.

However, the downtown peninsula has limited land available for development because of its geographic boundaries. To reduce urban sprawl, the city considers higher buildings that don’t impact the protected view corridors.

In consultations with the community, the city identified several locations from which both residents and visitors can appreciate the uninterrupted views of the North Shore mountains, the Downtown skyline, and the surrounding water.  

Views of the water in Istanbul, Turkey’s largest metropolis, were important in Ottoman times to detect the approach of rival navies, and over the years open views of the Golden Horn and across the Bosphorus Strait have become traditional images of Istanbul.

St Petersburg in Russia has long been admired for its skyline – the only things punctuating above is flat elevation are steeples of churches. The level was set by the height of the winter palace, and broad, sweeping views across the river remain key to St Petersburg’s identity.

More recently, there was public concern about the “Manhattanisation” of the financial district of San Francisco that many people thought would damage the “city pattern”.

This was developed into a general plan passed into law in 1995, including the preservation of “major views whenever it is feasible, with special attention to the characteristic views of open space and water that reflect the natural setting of the city and give a colourful and refreshing contrast to man’s development.”

I was born in Arbroath – a small town on the east coast of Scotland that happens to be home to Arbroath Abbey – the final resting place of King William I (the Lion) (1165-1214), and the site of the signing of the Declaration of Arbroath (Scotland’s “Declaration of Independence”) in 1320.

The oculus or “O” of the abbey is an iconic landmark which used to guide ships at night which can be seen for miles around.

It was because of Arbroath’s aesthetic value, as well as its historical significance, that efforts began to be made not only to ensure its preservation, but also to improve its setting, from a remarkably early date.

As early as the 1830s King’s Architect Robert Reid was urging that surrounding properties should be acquired and demolished so that the abbey could be seen to better advantage.

Are protected views the best way to preserve the heritage of the city?

Visitors to Scotland may have also made the steep climb up the Royal Mile in Edinburgh, you can only wonder at the shape of the shoreline from Edinburgh’s Castle grounds. The 2006 Street View Study conducted by the City of Edinburgh Council noted some places were “fundamental” to the city, and key views were “precious” and even “sacrosanct” in providing a “sense of the city”.

Nine significant locations were then identified, with a series of views from multiple angles drawn on to the map and a calculation for the “sky space” around the sites to allow its view to remain unhindered. In addition, 22 landscape areas were highlighted for special consideration.

­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­Much to its credit, the City of Sydney has developed just such an approach with its Central Sydney Planning Strategy, which states:

“There are a number of key views within Central Sydney, to and through parks and other well-utilised public spaces, that help define Sydney.

Examples of significant views include:

  • Views toward Central Station clock tower; these are significant due to the towers’ historically physical prominence in the city’s landscape.
  • Views along Martin Place: These are important due to Martin Place’s significant as a gathering place.
  • Views to and from Observatory Hill: These are significant due to Observatory Hill’s strategic role in the city’s history, in milling, defence, communications, astronomy and time keeping. These functions have required the surrounding views and physical alignments to remain open. Observatory Hill’s physical prominence relative to city development should be maintained.

New development must be designed to make a positive contribution to the characteristics and composition of designated public views. These public views should be preserved and have priority over private views.”

What is a monument?

London architect Jules Lubbock in Proof of Evidence at the City of London Local Plan Inquiry, May 1987, stressed to the symbolic importance of a monument against the skyline:

In focusing more upon the symbolic aspect of the skyline we need to apprehend the strict meaning of the word “monument”.

A monument is a structure designed to warn, to instruct or to commemorate. The word derives from the Latin “monere” – to remind or to advise. Not all monuments, of course, are architectural, and certainly not all architecture is monumental. Just as street façades can act as monuments to a family, a firm or some other public institution, so the skyline can be regarded as the collective monument of a city, and in the case of a capital city, of the country as a whole.

The Acropolis at Athens, St Peter’s in Rome, the Kremlin in Moscow, the Eiffel Tower in Paris, midtown Manhattan in New York and both St Paul’s and Big Ben in London are, or were, some of the greatest examples”

Sydney, and by extension as its status as the first point of European settlement in Australia, has its monument – one that reminds us of early milling to feed to population (as Windmill Hill), defense against perceived threats of French invasion and/or Irish uprising (as Fort Phillip), signaling the arrival of ships from the other side of world (as Flagstaff Hill) and facilitating the setting of accurate time for navigation (as the Timeball and Sydney Observatory).

“Timeball and Observatory: On the 13th of September 1850, Captain King addressed the Colonial Secretary, with the following recommendations: The best locality… is Fort Phillip. From this the ball would be visible from all parts of the harbour.” Sydney Morning Herald, Friday 22 October 1852, Page 2

Chosen for its highest natural point in the harbour, its status as part of our skyline and identity is under threat from the looming Central Barangaroo development.

Views to and from this important site along with adjoining protected Millers Point and Dawes Point Heritage Precincts are our city’s equivalent of St Paul’s Cathedral, Palazzo Vecchio, Hermitage Palace, Eiffel Tower or Coliseum.

We must protect the sights to and from these places and resist the temptation to sell these iconic public views to private interests for a bag of silver.

Martin Crabb, Don't Block the Rocks

Martin Crabb is a member of Don’t Block The Rocks campaign More by Martin Crabb, Don’t Block the Rocks

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