Liverpool, the surprise star of Australia’s future-city planning

We know that technology is disrupting industries and services like never before. Business models are dissolving and being invented on a daily basis. What has been less noted is the way technology is disrupting cities and the way we plan for, experience and get around them.

There are huge opportunities to use digital technology to transform the productivity and liveability of Australian cities. There are also anxieties and challenges.

We need to learn a key international lesson: no smart cities without smart governance. That means the public sector must raise its game. We need a strong public vision for our cities if we are to shape technology rather than be shaped by it.

The crucial one to get right and be really smart about is transport. The proliferation of autonomous vehicles offers a great opportunity for efficient, reliable and environmentally friendly transport that could allow the repurposing of space devoted to the motor vehicle.

But if mismanaged and not adapted to serve a coherent city planning vision, autonomous vehicles could easily bring more congestion to our streets and undermine efforts to reduce the sprawl characteristic of Australian city development.

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So where are the Australian frontiers that are grappling with these challenges? Not in the obvious places. There is some innovation in various government departments, and some councils such as the City of Melbourne have been taking a lead.

But I see real smart-city thinking in places with less complex governance. Newcastle is one and, within Sydney, there is Liverpool. Yes, Liverpool, where the city council is leading Australia in its thinking and action to make its CBD a centre of urban and transport innovation. Liverpool has innovation in its DNA.

Rewind to the early 19th century when Robert Hoddle designed Melbourne’s famous city grid, tilted a few degrees off the stipulated north-south orientation so it “licked” the Yarra River. It was out-of-the box thinking at the time and the resulting “Hoddle Grid” allowed an attractive, walkable, river-oriented city to flourish.

Few people know that Hoddle laid out the streets of Liverpool, another river city, before his Melbourne commission. Much like Melbourne’s pleasing geometric lines, Liverpool has the bones for a great, engaging, walkable city – if space since devoted to the rise of the motor car can be repurposed.

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Western Sydney Airport, which will be Australia’s first fully digital international hub, has inspired a whole community and that is driving Liverpool City Council’s innovative outlook. It is investigating a trackless tram service, for instance, to connect its growing, aspirational and increasingly educated population to the new airport during its construction and operational phases.

To borrow from Hoddle, a tilt in thinking away from the car will breathe new life into the concept of the CBD. The space saved by reclaiming even part of Liverpool’s 5000 car spaces in its 25-hectare CBD would allow generous boulevards, more outdoor eating and entertainment options – true re-activation.

The city could claim as much as eight hectares of prime land for parklands, passive and active recreation, cycleways, outdoor dining and more.  Its denizens will enjoy their city again as Hoddle intended – on foot or on pushbike, getting lost on purpose in laneways and side streets. Technology will bring that 19th century dream to life again.

Sydney is a city of different places that are embracing innovation. It’s time we listened to them.

Dr Tim Williams is Australasia cities leader at the independent engineering, design and planning firm ARUP, and adjunct professor at Western Sydney University. He will be a panelist at Ideas 2170, The Future Is (Nearly) Now: Transport in the 21st Century, at WSU Liverpool on Tuesday.

Article originally published by Sydney Morning Herald

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