Six NSW councils have headed to Brooklyn, New Jersey and New York City for some inspiring lessons in urban planning, Big Apple style.
Professor Ed Blakely, from the United States Studies Centre at Sydney University took mayors and urban planners from Canada Bay, Gosford, Hornsby, Pittwater, Marrickville and Wollongong Councils to six East Coast cities in September to give them a fresh slant on urban regeneration so they could return home and make their backyards more liveable.
Mr Blakely, who was the New Orleans recovery czar after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, said American cities provided useful comparisons to Australian cities because they had a similar government structure and many had made historically poor planning decisions guided by money, not people, that were coming back to bite them.
Each council was matched with a city that had been grappling with a similar planning problem. For example, Marrickville Council was partnered with Brooklyn, because both were concerned with regenerating industrial areas with arts precincts and live music.
The Future Cities Program, which Prof. Blakely set up in 2011, aims to lead by example and show councils how to recreate spaces and make them more sustainable, with a mix of housing, businesses and social life, while avoiding past planning mistakes.
But these study tours are not junkets or high theory – the aim is to confront a planning problem, map out a possible solution, go on a comparative fact-finding mission to the US and then help councils to make their dreams real.
“When you’re overseas, all of a sudden the phones stop. It allows staff and decision makers to see something in a different environment together,” Prof Blakely said.
“They see places that were broken down and had to face the future using their current urban fabric in new ways. Factories closed down in Jersey City, they were a toxic waste dump, and they now have one of the most beautiful, sustainable and habitable wetland parks system in the world.”
Council staff come back super motivated and ready to roll up their sleeves.
For example, Parramatta Council’s new $100 million Draft Parramatta City River Strategy, with its city beach, board walk and square, was directly informed by a Future Cities study tour to the American West Coast in 2013 and particularly by Santa Monica’s boulevard and beach.
“They loved it. They loved the square, the promenade and the intersection between existing and new retail,” Prof Blakely said.
He said that city residents were often already aware of how different cities and spaces in other countries looked.
“Almost nobody here comes from here so they have some pretty good ideas of their home environments, many of which are walkable and interesting, from Tehran to London. So many of our people travel and see these things.”
Marrickville councillor Rosana Tyler went on the September US tour and said it had been invaluable in working how to invigorate an industrial area around Marrickville and Sydenham and turn it into a hub for creative industries, temporary artists’ accommodation, live music and perhaps even the odd boutique hotel.
“It certainly broadens the mind. It’s a culture that’s very similar to ours, even though they often do things very differently from us. It’s nice to think what you could do with more integrated planning (which Marrickville Council has been trying to do for a while),” Ms Tyler said.
She said the process had been good for testing out ideas with other NSW councils and planners from the US Studies Centre too.
“It gets you out of your comfort zone because you have to present your project quite a few times and it’s critiqued. You also get everybody else’s projects.”
Already known for its pop-up shops, small bars, artists’ studios, craft brewers, coffee roasters and authentic multicultural food the Sydney inner west council is considering zoning the parcel of land known as the Marrickville/Sydenham Industrial Lands as a ‘free for all’, where the only thing taken into account will be the potential impact of an activity.
Permanent residential buildings are out due to aircraft noise and the flood plain.
Ms Tyler visited New York’s meatpacking district, famous for rising phoenix-like from its empty factories into a centre for live music and art. She said Brooklyn was also interesting for its creation of an area for creative arts.
The Future Cities program does not exist in other Australian states but Prof Blakely thinks it should.
“They could all benefit from a program like this. It would bring universities together to help solve urban planning problems. At the moment, universities act as critics, with very little involvement in most cases.”
Prof Blakely said that American universities were compelled to develop such relationships with the cities they were in and they were often asked to contribute towards solving current planning problem.