There are two aerial photographs of the Sydney CBD in the AFR today that (quite unintentionally) bring out the problem with developing the Western harbourside of the CBD. The photos are on pages 47 and 50 of Thursday’s AFR. The first looks north from a height of about 600 metres above Sydney University. It shows the harbour bridge and the massive road that comes South from the harbour bridge which is called the Western distributor. The second looks South along the Western shoreline of the Sydney CBD, which was until recently a working port.
The first shows the bridge and its southern exit road in a harsh but revealing light. The bridge is an unappealing and massive industrial structure; no more attractive than the now abandoned container wharfs on the western edge of the CBD, and the road cuts off the city completely from its western shoreline.
Many beautiful harbour cities around the world have been grotesquely disfigured by massive roadworks. This is especially true in the US where Boston, New York, Philadelphia and New Orleans come immediately to mind. The great road building programs of the New Deal and the Interstate program gave little consideration to aesthetics or the livability of cities. They just blasted those roads through the poorest neighbourhoods and along the water’s edge. In many cases cutting off access to the harbour and ocean.
A similar thing happened to Sydney with the construction of the harbour bridge. Old maps of Sydney show clearly why the city was located on Sydney cove. It was the easiest point to the harbour. But just as importantly the shoreline to the shoreline to the west of the city gave extensive access to the harbour. It was always intended in the early days of Sydney that the CBD would access the harbour principally on its west. The building of the bridge and its connecting roadworks changed that.
American cities recognise the damage done by the reckless building of interstates. Boston has spent $12 billion of mostly Federal money to reconnect itself to its water’s edge by burying roads. Sydney should also face up to the damage done in the building of the bridge and its feeder roads. The city should plan to bury the western distributor and replace the bridge with a tunnel. The harbour bridge is not beautiful. It is iconic, but not beautiful. I personally think it is clunky, overwrought, dull and ugly. That may be an extreme view, but who can honestly say that it is beautiful. It is a structure that only its creators could love.
Removing the bridge would restore the widest vista of the harbour. Burying the western distributor would make the plans for Barangaroo workable. And the city could grow down to a beautiful western shore. It would take a lot of money but it would be well worth it in the long run.