Olympic beach volleyball stadium Faliro Athens

During the first week of the Olympics, architecture critic Elizabeth Farrelly wrote a piece in the Sydney Morning Herald arguing that London planned its Games better than Sydney (Where the Brits have us beaten).

The gist of her argument is London’s facilities were put in accessible locations and provided with good transport infrastructure. In Sydney, however, “an awkward, out-of-the-way site was surrounded with barriers, then planned so you could not even walk from the village to the park.”

Just as Sydney’s Darling Harbour is enclosed by “impenetrables” like motorways and car parks, Sydney’s Olympic Park is similarly surrounded by

a river, a motorway, a business park and the vast system of parks and wetlands (including Bicentennial Park, Badu Wetlands, the Brick Pit, Millennium Park and the marshy hectares along Haslams Creek) that effectively isolate Olympic Park even from its home village, Newington.

Moreover, the decision to service Olympic Park with a one-stop spur line from Lidcombe station was “idiotic”. It was fine during the Games but “now the train from Central Station runs four times a day, off-peak, and not on weekends.” The upshot, she says, is

Hassell’s Olympic Park station, prettiest in the country, sits mostly unused. It means Bruce Eeles’s Newington design for a genuine urban precinct is forever car-dependent, lacking the vibrancy that should accompany medium-density living.

I don’t know if London’s Games were better planned than Sydney’s but it wouldn’t surprise me. Certainly London should’ve benefitted from twelve years hindsight and the lessons of Sydney, Athens and Beijing. And thanks to a lottery, it had more money at its disposal for land acquisition and infrastructure than Sydney. Arguably, it had a more committed population too.

But comparing and judging cities on the basis of their physical planning for the Games is a fraught exercise. The starting points of geography and infrastructure are so different – no two cities are alike at the fine-grain level. Cities have different topographies, waterways, urban densities, existing transport systems, and so on.

Nor do Governments start with a clean slate. They have to mesh the sporting structures, athlete’s accommodation and transport infrastructure into the existing urban fabric. It’s made more complicated because these facilities have to cope with an enormous peak load for a mere two weeks but also be viable and functional after the games. Sydney’s done relatively well in the latter regard, but not all former Games cities have (see exhibit; also see here).

The choice of large sites in suitable locations is pretty much limited to what’s available at the time and what government’s can afford. Land that’s already in public ownership and would provide economic and social benefits from renewal is likely to be preferred.

I’ve no doubt Homebush has its problems, but the Olympic planners would’ve understood it’s close to the centre of gravity of both population and employment in Sydney. It also offered scope to provide other benefits, like giving Sydney’s west a major regional park – Millennium Parklands – comparable to Centennial Park.

Moreover it’s close to Lidcombe station, which is a junction for five lines (Bankstown, Western, Inner West, Southern and Olympic Park). It has 16 services per hour in each direction off-peak (that’s an average of one every four minutes each way).

According to CityRail, trains currently operate via a shuttle service between Lidcombe and Olympic Park every 10-20 minutes on weekdays and every 10 minutes on weekends. The trip takes five minutes. In addition, there are also a limited number of “same seat” services that run direct from Central (perhaps Ms Farrelly based her count solely on these), with frequencies increased for major events.

Of course it would be ideal if the former athlete’s village, Newington, had its own rail station but it’s not “forever car dependent”, nor as isolated as Ms Farrelly suggests. This is from an existing resident:

Although there’s no train station in Newington itself, public transport is quite good. There are frequent bus services to Parramatta, Strathfield, Lidcombe and to Olympic Park Wharf (for ferries to the CBD and Parramatta). Trains can be taken from Olympic Park train station, from Lidcombe station (5 min drive, ample parking) or Strathfield station (10 min drive, limited parking).

There are lots and lots of suburbs in Australia that aren’t within an easy walk of a rail station (like the entire eastern suburbs south of Bondi Junction!). The idea that they all can be – or should be – is preposterous. What matters is that residents who aren’t within walking distance can get to stations easily by other means, such as bus, bicycle or car.

In any event, I don’t see that simply providing a rail station would provide the “vibrancy” that Ms Farrelly thinks “should accompany medium density living”. Newington is not Paddington or Surry Hills or Redfern and it’s a mistake to think it should be or could be.

It’s 16 km from the CBD and, as Google Street View shows, it’s distinctly suburban in character despite being medium density. This is not the same demographic as the inner city. It takes more than density to create a sense of urbanity and more than a station to significantly reduce car use.

Nor do I see a problem with the wetlands that she says “effectively isolate” Newington from Olympic Park. Quite the opposite. I expect residents like their proximity to wetlands and welcome some distance from Olympic Park, as it’s used extensively for major events.

Olympic Park isn’t Oxford Street. It’s an event complex. Being within walking distance of major stadiums isn’t likely to be a high priority for its neighbours – I expect an effective buffer against noise would be considered much more important. Already there’s some unwelcome overflow of parking into Newington during major events.

Her criticism that Olympic Park is isolated by “a river, a motorway, a business park and the vast system of parks and wetlands” from the surrounding urban fabric is especially puzzling. It’s not often that proximity to a river, parks and wetlands is seen as a negative. Some of the most desirable parts of Sydney are largely surrounded by an “impenetrable” harbour e.g. Balmain.

Olympic Park is a facility of metropolitan significance. What matters most is that it’s accessible to the rest of the city and State and that its internal design works well. Walkability within the precinct is extremely important, but not so much with surrounding uses.

My point here isn’t that Homebush is without problems – it would be extraordinary if it were – but rather that the criticisms made by Ms Farrelly in her Sydney Morning Herald article don’t hold much water.

There are a couple of other matters she raises that I’d like to touch on but this is already too long. One is her idea the Games should’ve been held “in the city” instead. The other is the role of the urban designer of both Darling Harbour and Olympic Park, the late Barry Young. I’ll continue with part 2 another time.

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