Was Sydney’s Olympics in the wrong place?

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 (

Alan Davies — Editor of The Urbanist

Alan Davies

Editor of The Urbanist

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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5 thoughts on “Was Sydney’s Olympics in the wrong place?

  1. Alan Davies

    Kerwin Datu #4

    Kerwin, I agree spur lines aren’t ideal (although historically common enough) but Sydney built what it had to in order to support Homebush, both at the time of the Olympics and now. It was a relatively cost-effective and efficient solution. Connecting Lidcombe to Carlingford or to Epping in time for the 2000 Olympics (as proposed by EF) wouldn’t have been good policy unless (a) the additional funding that entailed were available and (b) it was the demonstrable top priority for the metro system. The fact that the Epping-Chatswood line was subsequently built suggests Governments had other priorities. Using the pressure of the Olympics to construct rail lines is not good policy unless they happen to be the ones that provide the most benefit for the city as a whole.

  2. Kerwin Datu

    Hi Alan,

    I appreciate very well the difference between a hub-and-spoke and a grid and am familiar with Jarrett Walker’s work. Whatever Farrelly’s wording which is usually too elliptic for her own good, I seriously doubt that the fundamental objection to the Olympic Park spur is that commuters have to change trains to get to it; rather that it was a piece of infrastructure laid out to so little advantage to the wider commuter network (the wider grid, if you like) that it is almost purposeless. I would have thought you could agree with that.

    If we want to talk about idealised models, I would suggest that the problem with the Sydney Olympic Park spur is not that it forces commuters to change seats but that it is a cul-de-sac in the middle of the system, which you may agree is not exactly in keeping with the spirit of a grid, where lines ought to be extended past one another as much as possible in an interwoven fashion.

    Accepting that commuters ought to transfer from line to line is one thing; forcing them to transfer on and off spurs onto a radial trunk line like the Western is another. If we want to advocate for grids, and I do, then I don’t think that advocating in support of a spur like the Sydney Olympic Park is a step in the right direction.

  3. Alan Davies

    Kerwin Datu #2:

    I’m sympathetic to what you’re saying but you’re neglecting some important issues like (a) where would the funds for your rail plans have come from? (b) would your proposals have been the best long-term use for limited transport funds? and (c) what would not have been funded, either in the transport portfolio or elsewhere in the State budget, to pay for your proposals?

    If we want to get the sort of comprehensive public transport system in our cities that I outlined here, we’ll have to stop assuming we can have a “same seat” system. Elizabeth Farrelly’s objection to the rail provision made for Sydney Olympic Park largely comes down to an assumption that travellers shouldn’t have to change trains.

    Australian cities won’t have an effective public transport system unless we think “grid”. That means a network where travellers routinely change services. It demands an emphasis on high frequencies and good interchange design.

  4. Kerwin Datu

    As an architect who grew up and studied in Sydney during its Olympics and currently lives in London, I must respectfully disagree with Alan Davies and his defence of the small-minded planning decisions made at Homebush, though I also disagree with Farrelly’s belief that it was a poor location. This is especially with regards to the transport around the Stratford site in London which Farrelly didn’t elaborate upon enough.

    While Stratford was already a suburban rail hub before London won the Games, they were used as an opportunity to upgrade the North London line into Stratford and the East London line in the east end; to build a new branch to the Docklands Light Rail improving connectivity between Stratford, City Airport, and the southeastern suburbs through Woolwich; to make it a node in a new high speed rail network for Southeast England (which of course connects to Paris, Brussels, etc.); as well as a node on the Crossrail line which will connect Heathrow Airport to the city centre.

    This is highly integrated infrastructure planning very different to the piecemeal approach undertaken by the NSW Government which the Homebush site exemplifies. Unlike Stratford which is ten kilometres out from London’s city centre (and considered a suburban gateway by most Londoners), Homebush really is the “centre of gravity of both population and employment in Sydney”, to quote Davies, and this should have made it the centrepiece of a metropolitan transport strategy that could have left Stratford’s plans for dead.

    The equivalent approach in Sydney would have been to use Homebush’s perfect location for running new rail lines from Hornsby to Parramatta and to Liverpool via Lidcombe (clearly the missing links in the current system); to build a new Light Rail along Parramatta Road and bring it through the site; to make it a hub in a new high speed rail system connecting to Sydney Airport (wherever that ends up), Canberra, the Central Coast, the Hunter Valley, and of course Melbourne and Brisbane.

    And like the Lea River Valley, the Olympics could be used to revive the whole Parramatta Road corridor from Strathfield to Parramatta with new medium-density mixed-use development, built before the Olympics arrived (whereas this is still being discussed in wistful terms in Sydney twelve years later).

  5. Steve777

    I think that Sydney’s Olympic Park was well located. As you say, we can only work with what’s there to start with. Unlike Beijing, we can’t demolish suburbs and relocate their populations. The only other alternative would have been to move to the urban-rural fringe in the far West – say the Windsor or Camden districts – 50km from the City. On the other hand Hombush Bay, formerly occupied by stockyards, polluted wetlands and declining industrial sites, about 16km from the City, provided an ideal opportunity for urban renewal after the Games. Not perfect, but when is perfect ever available? Possibly better decisions could have been made re transport, but its not too bad, with better transport options than most of Sydney.

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