Paris Metro overlaid on Sydney train network. Green circle is 15 km radius (source: Tipping Point)

Writing in the Sydney Morning Herald, architect Phillip Vivian reckons Sydneysiders should look to the history of Paris – specifically to the wholesale changes wrought by Baron Haussmann – for inspiration on the Sydney of the future (Think London or Paris, not Blade Runner, for your Sydney of the future):

If the Sydney of tomorrow sounds more like cities such as Paris and London than the Blade Runner dystopian vision often touted, that is because infrastructure makes positive evolution possible. I foresee a rapid-transport-led renaissance in the 21st century.

Mr Vivian tells us how he hopes Sydney will turn out in the future. He trusts it will have largely turned its back on the car by 2050 and embraced walkable neighbourhoods connected by rapid public transport.

If planned around infrastructure, 21st century Sydney will be a more humane city in which people – out of cars – live healthier, more connected lives. It will also be a quieter, less polluted city with more space for alternative transport, including walking and cycling, and autonomous and electric vehicles.

The idea that today’s Paris might be a model for the Sydney of 2050 is seductive. After all, Paris is one of the world’s most beautiful cities with outstanding public transport and very high levels of walking. It’s bound to be an appealing aspiration, but by itself it doesn’t take us very far.

Mr Vivian only tells us what he wants Sydney to be in the future. He doesn’t tell us how realistic this future is, how we might get there, what the downsides are, what it will cost, what the risks are, what we’ll have to forego, or who’ll win and who’ll lose. It’s like a 20-year old expecting a comfortable and worry-free retirement, while remaining oblivious to the effort and sacrifices necessary to make it happen.

Is it a sensible way to look at how Sydney should develop over the next 30 years?

Consider the exhibit, which superimposes Paris’s Metro on Sydney’s rail network. The Metro has some extensions out to 10 km, but the bulk of it services the old area of Paris that tourists find so beguiling. That’s the area within the ring road (Boulevard Périphérique), roughly a radius of 6 km.

The Paris Metro has 15 lines and 303 stations within an area where Sydney has around 30 stations. The Paris metropolitan area is also served by the suburban RER system, which is similar to Sydney’s rail system. The RER has 257 stations, compared to Sydney’s 176.

Funding transport infrastructure on the scale of Paris looks like a monumental task given Sydney’s planned Metro West with 10 to 12 stations is expected to cost circa $20 – 25 billion. Coincidentally, the Herald reported on the same day that while the NSW government is ramping up infrastructure spending, it’s facing falling stamp duty and GST revenue.

The density of the Paris Metro makes sense because it’s in one of the densest cities in the world. There are 2.4 million residents in central Paris. The buildings are uniformly composed of 5 – 7 storey buildings in small blocks, with ground floor businesses.

France is also the world’s most visited country, so Paris accommodates huge numbers of tourists in summer. Then there are the jobs in a metropolitan area that houses 11 million people, double the size of Sydney.

In comparison, Sydney has just 0.6 million residents within an area equivalent to central Paris, mostly living in one and two storey buildings and scattered clumps of medium and high-rise. It’s a long way from the density that supports high levels of walking in Paris and warrants investment in one of the world’s ‘thickest’ metro systems.

Writers like to invoke the ideal of Paris because they know we find its look and feel irresistible; who wouldn’t want Sydney to look like and be like Paris? But what makes Paris “look like Paris” is unlikely to be emulated in Sydney or anywhere else.

What differentiates it from other cities, including other European cities with similar built form, derives largely from a set of stylistic building elements that comprise the visual minutiae of daily urban life. It’s those characteristic doors, balconies, windows with railings, street signs and lampposts (see Paris – what’s that certain something?).

Sydney in 2050 will likely be a denser place where walking and public transport have a much higher mode share than at present, but it won’t look or function much like Paris. It’s legacy of built form is different and demands its own solution; it’ll necessarily be different to Paris, probably very different.

We can learn lessons from cities like Paris, but we must be wary of the dangers in importing solutions that might work well elsewhere but are inappropriate to local circumstances.