Reflecting on Sydney's Transformation with Jan Gehl

On November 15 I held a reception for Jan Gehl at Sydney Town Hall, reflecting on the journey Sydney has been on since I became Lord Mayor in 2004 and we first began working together. 

Reflecting on Sydney's Transformation with Jan Gehl

In the snap City of Sydney council election brought by the State Government in 2004 after it sacked and amalgamated South Sydney and Sydney councils, our Independent Community team won on a platform of light rail, a city of villages, and a long-term vision for Sydney.

Back then Sydney was at breaking point, unable to cope with traffic volumes and gradually being choked in fumes and noise. It had a history of ad hoc interventions rather than considered long-term planning. I wanted to transform the city and its surrounds with a vision and a plan for achieving it. 

We commissioned SGS as well as a number of architects and planners for our work at a City level. But what we also needed was to work and to influence at a much higher level.

That’s when Jan Gehl came onto the scene. Jan’s 2007 study, Public Spaces and Public Life Sydney, produced evidence and data showing how people were using our city, its shortfalls and the ways it could be transformed.

The advice concluded that George Street should become a 2.5 kilometre pedestrian boulevard with light rail as its centrepiece and no cars; and three large civic squares off George Street – at Circular Quay involving the removal of the Cahill Expressway, Town Hall and Central Station.

It was timely and, along with the largest consultation in the history of the City involving close to 180,000 individuals and businesses, it contributed to the development of Sydney’s first long-term strategic vision since the 70s, Sustainable Sydney 2030.

This was the strategy that allowed us to realise Sydney’s potential as a green, global and connected city; and a city for people.

And just as Jan updated Public Spaces and Public Life Sydney in 2020, we have also updated our vision and strategic plan with Sustainable Sydney 2030–2050 Continuing the Vision. 

City for walking

Delivering the light rail on George Street took years of lobbying, negotiating and fighting hard. Jan was a great asset. He had gravitas and was so well regarded by politicians and business leaders.

I organised a meeting with the Opposition spokesperson for Transport, Gladys Berejiklian. And after years of work and lobbying, on June 4, 2014, the Transport Minister Berejiklian announced the approval of the $1.6 billion CBD and South East Light Rail – the final price was almost double that. And I announced that, for our part, the City would deliver public domain improvements with a final cost of more than $300 million.

The Minister said light rail would deliver $4 billion worth of economic benefits. She underestimated that as well. The final figure is double that – $8 billion of investment. In fact, the private sector started investing in George Street almost the day after the announcement.

And now you see that a street that was once clogged with noisy, polluting buses and souvenir shops has transformed into a tree-lined boulevard with new paving, lighting, street furniture, interesting laneways and celebrated businesses the likes of Paspaley, Cartier, Louis Vuitton, Burberry as well as Ernst and Young and Salesforce to name a few showing off their coveted George Street address. 

The George Street boulevard has been extended south to Central Station, and we are finalising work on the northern part of the boulevard to Circular Quay.

Not only have we planted 100 extra trees, but we have provided 20,000 square metres of new public space with wide, granite-paved footpaths, modern street furniture and lighting. And most importantly there are people everywhere – on our seats, having conversations, on their devices, or just enjoying watching the madding crowd.

Jan always showed the politicians slides of people sitting and watching people go by, and they can do that now in Sydney. 

Across central Sydney, many major streets have already upgraded so they are more people friendly.

Back in 2007, Jan was shocked that people had to press a button – ask permission – to cross the road. And when you do ask for permission, you have to wait, and wait.

But often the work the State needs to do – because it controls State roads and transport – takes too long. We have lobbied for years, and are still lobbying, for countdown timers. I travelled to cities in China with former Premier Morris Iemma and pointed out their countdown timers – on every street.

Residents and businesses in our villages now enjoy the benefits of upgraded high streets with works at Macleay Street in Potts Point completed. We are currently upgrading Crown Street in Surry Hills which, when completed, will have gardens and street trees, bubblers and bike racks, and widened, paved footpaths creating permanent on-street dining areas and other opportunities for businesses.

We have a walking culture in Sydney now. Walking has become convenient, easy, safe and interesting. Most days I walk from Redfern, along Bourke Street, to Town Hall and I feel great joy watching families, adults and children cycling along the separated cycleway – one of our first.

City for cycling

And while here in Sydney we had plans for cycleways, Copenhagen was a generation ahead of us and Jan was able to share his experiences as well as his knowledge.

Monica Barone and I met Jan on a trip to Copenhagen in 2009. We were there for a C40 meeting of Mayors on the sidelines of COP15. It was December and it was snowing, and Jan took us the plaza in front of Copenhagen’s Town Hall where people were eating and drinking, rugged up under heaters.

Also during the COP, I went with the Lord Mayor of Copenhagen to an Earth Hour event, and gave a short speech. And as soon as we turned off the lights it started to snow, and people simply brushed the snow off their bikes and rode home.

In the morning city workers were clearing the snow from the bike lanes before they cleared the roads. That demonstrated Copenhagen’s priorities.

It takes time to change car culture. In Sydney, people were obsessed with driving when we started our work. As Jan said, ‘you do it one car at a time’.

Now in Sydney we have a cycling culture that is growing.

In 2004, there were no separated cycleways in Sydney and there was hysterical opposition against building them from the Government and powerful sections of the media. By powerful I mean the media that influenced governments like Alan Jones on 2GB and the Daily Telegraph.

Now Sydney has 25 kilometres of safe, separated cycleways, 60 kilometres of shared paths and 40 kilometres of other cycling infrastructure across all parts of the local area. And bike trips have more than doubled since 2010 when independent counts began.

Earlier this year, I reopened the College Street cycleway. ‘Reopened’ because, eight years ago, it had been demolished by the State government – even though it was one of our most heavily used cycleways connecting cyclists to the north, south, east and west of central Sydney.

It was reopened in time for the visit to Sydney of Princess Mary of Denmark who rode along its route to Circular Quay where she also rode on the light rail.

Our work has changed attitudes to cycling. Now the State Government is partnering as we complete the bike network across the City; and businesses have invested $57 million in end-of-trip facilities to encourage their staff to ride. 

Our traffic calming measures are making it safer and more appealing for people to walk and cycle. After years of advocacy with successive governments, about 75 per cent of our roads have limits of 40 kilometres an hour and we are now looking at reducing speed limits to 30 kilometres an hour in the city centre and our villages.

By prioritising walking and cycling, advocating for more public transport and calming traffic we have transformed people’s attitudes to mobility; and we have reinforced that streets and roads are for people – they are destinations, not just thoroughfares.

In Jan’s own words: ‘By being sweet to the pedestrian and the cyclist you hit five birds with one stone – you get a lively city, you get an attractive city, you get a safe city, you get a sustainable city, and you get a city that’s good for your health. These are all things we are very concerned about at this time in history.’

Thank you Jan

The City of Sydney will continue to be a city for people. And for that Jan, we are all profoundly grateful for your inspirational advice.

In 2017, I presented you with the Key to the City. It is the highest honour a city can confer and one that is reserved for those who have made a truly outstanding contribution. Jan, your legacy is as significant as that of your predecessor, Jorn Utzon, who was presented with the Key to the City in 1998.

Big ideas change cities.

Thank you, Jan, for your vital contribution to the transformation of our city.

We are pursuing our advocacy for the removal of the Cahill Expressway. And to those who say it will never happen, I think, that’s what they said about light rail on George Street.