By 2060, Sydney and Melbourne will boast the same population as Greater London does today. But without the same attention paid to public transport, they will be far less prosperous and cohesive, says the Property Council’s Michael Zorbas.
Delegates from the Property Council’s London Study Tour returned recently, heads swimming with ideas and inspiration, after taking in the sprawling wonders of one of the world’s great cities.
The timing was serendipitous. London turned on a spectacle as freshly-minted Prime Minister Boris Johnson was sworn into office and a city famed for its drizzle instead dazzled.
While it’s easy to be astonished by the pomp and pageantry of London, the nine-million-strong city also has much to teach Australians about successful regeneration, says Zorbas, the Property Council’s group executive of policy and advocacy.
Delegates took in a packed program, ascending Western Europe’s tallest building, The Shard, and experiencing the ear-popping six-metres-per-second lift ride, or counting the 16 cranes across a single 42-acre urban regeneration site at Battersea.
They unpacked the “delights of dereliction and the upsides of Brexit and beyond”, walked the Canary Wharf precinct connected by four distinct rail options and visited a build-to-rent project that sparked a redesign of local planning principles.
Walking tours twisted through the streets, once trodden by Shakespeare and Dickens, but lately remade for the metropolitan century. And a trip to Australia House – the first building commissioned in the world by our own Commonwealth government in 1909 – served as an “exquisite early example of urban regeneration,” Zorbas says.
What can we learn from London?
“London embraces projects at scale, and the reward is better access to better jobs,” Zorbas explains.
“It is not too harsh to say Australia remains a global public transport laggard, although more investment is now coming. But London’s regeneration projects often lead with public transport – and this allows the city to produce more jobs and create desirable public spaces over larger areas.”
Experts in precinct planning and transport, design and engineering repeatedly reinforced the opportunity for Australia, Zorbas adds.
“While London’s train lines are not always ready on time, they uplift the accessibility and jobs potential of each precinct and reduce space wastage on private transport.
“If you look at the challenges for the failed White Bay project in Sydney or Fisherman’s Bend in Melbourne, which is 480 hectares of hard-to-access land right on the shoulder of Melbourne’s CBD, the jobs and liveability bonuses that would accompany early serious rail investment become obvious.”
Jane Fitzgerald, the Property Council’s executive director in New South Wales, says London has mastered the art of creating critical mass. Part of this is achieved through the mix of residential and commercial buildings with the right tenants – “like Apple at Battersea, or Facebook and Google at Kings Cross,” she says.
Attracting the “cool kids” is also important. “London University of the Arts at Kings Cross, for example, brings 5,000 young people into the area on a daily basis,” Fitzgerald explains.
Another ingredient in the secret recipe is “well-considered place-making,” like water fountains and shade. These touches aren’t “grandiose or pompous”, Fitzgerald says, but “human and inviting” to encourage daytime idlers.
“Perhaps the greatest lesson of our tour,” Zorbas adds, “is the fact that growth and ‘growing pains’ are always going to be with us, barring recessions, just as they are present in every desirable city that attracts new residents the world over.”
Our inescapable future is one of constant evolution, Zorbas concludes.
“The greatest cities are ever-changing. They don’t and won’t stand still, like the countries and cultures that they anchor. And mature democracies must accept this as we face the challenges of the metropolitan century.”