Mark Davy & Tim Jones,
Futurecity

Sydney: City of Renewal

‘We cannot just look at the world through simplified quasi-professional prisms of transport systems, land use zoning or economic development through sequences of property deals’. 1

Successful places, in spite of all their individual particularities, have a common ‘taste’; a similar atmosphere. At Futurecity we would describe this as ‘seductive urbanism’, meaning urban space as playful, lucid, varied, beautiful, pleasurable, rewarding and surprising. We believe that whilst culture is the key to unlocking the seductive power of city space it is still regarded by developers, architects, planners and politicians as ‘magic dust’, something to be sprinkled on a new development or city quarter, using an approach that has changed little in 30 years. The late Sir Peter Hall (who wrote about the economic, demographic, cultural and management issues that face cities around the globe) talked of ‘the City as Pleasure Principle’ 2 and referred to 18th century Vienna, 19th century Paris and New York in the 20th century, as cities that offered a symphonic experience—formal, creative, adventurous, breathtaking and spectacular even. But in the 20th century planners and architects adopted a more utilitarian approach, building successively the Industrial City, the Hygienic City, the Information City and the Investment City.

In the 21st century, Sydney, like many other world cities, is fast becoming the Cultural City; a place where creative and cultural genius can flourish. We know that cities still require the contribution of factories, sewers, high-density housing, infrastructure and metro systems. But these are no longer sufficient to attract us to one place over another. Now is the time of the city as a blank slate for beauty, an urban theatre for authentic experiences. But to achieve this a new cultural language is required and the guardians of our 21st century cities need to adapt their thinking to our rapidly changing world. When 20th century architect Alvar Aalto spoke of building art as being ‘a synthesis of life in materialised form... not a splintered way of thinking, but all in harmony together’, he sought an innovative and radical model combining art, architecture, creative engineering, science, master craftsmanship and innovative fabrication. In 2017 we need a new approach to designing the city if it is to be a place of culture, ideas and experience—a new system that doesn’t discount risk and experiment.

Futurecity began working in Sydney in 2015 but had already spent a decade inside London’s property boom, watching as the knowledge and creative sectors grew in importance and the financial sector declined as the city’s main economic driver. Post-crash, investors, buyers and the public rejected the marketing promise of a ‘Truman Show’ urban paradise, bathed in eternal sunshine and populated by a CGI community of perfect people. Instead the idea of an authentic ‘narrative’ (not authored by a copywriter) began to emerge, set against growing disenchantment with consumerism and globalisation. In addition, a media-savvy public used social media as a tool to circumvent more traditional means of information and persuasion. In Sydney we can see the same danger signs but also the opportunity to learn from the excesses and mistakes of the London boom years. Sydney has a diverse, international and rapidly growing urban population. There is also the need to differentiate the city from competitors in Australia and Asia, the huge growth in property development on former brownfield sites and an interest in urban development in what were once considered suburban places.

We believe culture-led placemaking must drive the debate on urban growth and help provide a focus for the economic, social and cultural benefits this scale of development can bring to Sydney. This is also a time for big global ideas. Perhaps Sydney becomes the ‘Outdoor City’, the ‘Ideas City’ or the ‘Tech City’ as we watch with admiration (and not a little trepidation) the plans to remodel the city’s boundaries, re-inventing new city districts such as Barangaroo, Green Square and Parramatta and the reimagining of former industrial areas like White Bay. But how can the teams responsible for the remapping of the city draw from the wellspring of creative energy that resides in this unique bay city of sports and festival, outdoor lifestyles, health and wellbeing, diversity and culture—and are there a new generation of city savvy urbanists drumming the beat for Sydney as it changes both physically and conceptually?

Sydney can certainly learn from other world cities. In Costas Spirou and Dennis R Judd’s new book Building the City of Spectacle 3 they anoint Chicago as the ‘City of Spectacle’ and in particular the successful reimagining of ‘Millennium Park’ as the flag bearer for a ‘culture-led’ approach to regeneration, that turned bridges into sculpture, fountains into social commentary and landscaping into the front garden of this Architectural City. This was ‘culture as catalyst’: using the arts as a means to explain and deliver other agendas, such as inclusive public space, promotion of health and wellbeing or promotion of community cohesion and local socio-economic development. A decade later, the transformation of other forgotten and neglected industrial wastelands has provided the High Line in New York and King's Cross in London, each offering proof that culture can be a critical ingredient when planning a modern city.

An important point to make here is that it’s not just about the public sector leading the way—we are in this together. It is time to consider the developer as a cultural brand. After all, they’re already investing in architecture, infrastructure and landscape, in new shops and offices, in street furniture, public art, road systems, parks and public spaces. It’s time for intelligent discussions about how to bring an ambitious cultural mix, including galleries, museums, libraries, studios, creative industries and theatres into our residential mixed use and commercial developments. In a world where the interchange of disciplines is becoming the norm, there is a need for new disciplines to join the developer, masterplanner, engineer and other experts. New creatives can be involved in the reimagining of bridges, buildings and the urban landscape and in doing so, change the way we inhabit our cities. Imagine the city as a gallery without walls, a creative dialogue between developer, planner, architect and artist. In the new Cultural City only originality, content and authenticity matter. Now is the time for urban theatre at street level, with experience and encounter driving the design of new city quarters. In the UK this approach has led to the new global businesses choosing different locations for their HQs. Apple is moving to the iconic Battersea Power Station in the new creative district of Nine Elms and Google has chosen King's Cross for their new headquarter building. These are global brands moving to new parts of London, abandoning the established commercial districts of the City of London and Canary Wharf.

This approach of ‘culture as business’ is challenging developers to look differently at their economic model. The time of the Cultural City is upon us and yet culture is still frustratingly peripheral to our urban planning process. The top-down model persists: a pyramid culture, with the developer and the architect at the top offering ‘vision and the solution’. Our contention is that the pyramid needs to be upturned, with vision, narrative, content and communities at the top, providing a trickle down narrative to those whose job it is to design and deliver our urban centres.

It is becoming clear that a new generation understands and wants to engage with culture in new and rapidly evolving ways and that the property sector needs to move fast to keep up. Millennials aren’t compliant with the way cultural engagement is traditionally framed; they frame it themselves and not through accepting value judgements based on old financial models. Production models which require the public to come in and leave places at pre-ordained times, which provide limited interaction or scope for audience ‘authorship’ and which require rapt concentration and reverence—possibly even a pre-knowledge of art history or critical theory for the rewards to be fully unlocked—are fast becoming outmoded.

Here in Sydney that change is already upon us. The long-term investment in placemaking and culture taken by Frasers Property at Central Park has begun to bear fruit with the flourishing creative district of Chippendale—a testament to the right mix of studio provision and public realm activation, both temporary and permanent, and thoughtful acknowledgment of the unique history of the site. The business case of embedding culture has also been powerfully made by the City of Sydney to developers Greenland for their new CBD tower which will provide five floors of purpose-built rehearsal and creative spaces in the heart of the city, spaces that are in short supply in this rapidly transforming city. 4

However, just as the developer and city planner need to change, so does the cultural sector. The arts have not presented themselves as partner or player in this new world. Sixty years of public funding for the arts has had an unfortunate side effect. It has made the arts focus on survival through government and agency funding, grants and sponsorship for their buildings' running costs, staffing and programming. As a result, the sector has created its own language, unique structure and reward. The arts have not engaged with the private sector except through the old-fashioned idea of sponsorship and a yearning for the tax breaks and big bucks philanthropy of the US. Like it or not, the cultural sector needs to find some form of rapprochement and common purpose with the private sector if it doesn’t want to oversee the decline of its buildings and programs.

Sydney already possesses unique and memorable neighbourhoods, but its rapid expansion requires a bold and imaginative approach to its new precincts and districts. This staged approach (‘evolutive’ might be another name) is essential to modern placemaking. More importantly, the whole idea of the creative district is to develop a language and a set of tools that everyone can use—developers, local communities, institutions, entrepreneurs, artists and residents—to help shape the district over time. Through our work with UNSW Art & Design on their GLAM + initiative, we have witnessed a subtle shift within Sydney’s cultural institutions as they explore new ways to collaborate, engage new audiences and connect their collections and programs to a changing world.

The city has an extraordinary opportunity to leverage cultural investment from the formation of new neighbourhoods and new commercial quarters. Cultural institutions and the creative community must find new ways to engage with the energy and momentum of the change in Sydney in order to ensure that a lively, enriched and culturally dynamic city emerges. Futurecity is exploring new ideas for a modern cultural district, a place of creativity, commerce and community. We look at White Bay and Parramatta to provide opportunities for radical social, economic and cultural change with culture at the centre. Occasionally special windows of opportunity open up, illuminate the world and then dim, leaving traces to delight succeeding generations: Athens in the 5th century, Florence in the 14th, London in the 16th. Could such a moment occur in Sydney in the 21st?

  1. Kevin Murray, Honorary Professor of Planning Glasgow University, 2011, ‘Whither an Academy of Urbanism?’, in Space! Place! Life!, edited by Frank McDonald, Academy of Urbanism.

  2. Sir Peter Hall, 1998, Cities in Civilisation: Culture, innovation and urban order, London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

  3. Costas Spirou and Dennis R Judd, 2016, Building the City of Spectacle: Mayor Richard M. Daley and the Re-Imagining of Chicago, Ithaca: Cornell University Press

  4. In the City of Sydney deal, Greenland will create a $25 million creative hub with 2,000 square metres and 5 storeys of adaptable creative spaces.