Open city

In the face of uncertainty the public often calls for a ‘plan’ that clearly embodies a ‘commitment’ by government to a particular design/outcome/vision/strategy. This desire for a ‘plan’ is at once an expression of distrust of government, or the at least the need for some form of ‘social contract’ expressed in the form of a plan, and a response to unsettling change and to the incomprehensibility and bewildering complexity of the city. A plan has a symbolic value; it infers that the city is knowable and controllable.

But is a plan the best mean of expressing and achieving what we want for the city? Would it be better to have a clear set of principles and values that could be introduced into decisions about what should happen where in the city? And if so, where might these principles come from?


Perhaps the most radical starting point would be the idea that the inhabitants of the city should have control over what happens in the city, including where and how both public and private investment should occur. A French theorist, Henri Lefebvre argued that all inhabitants should have ‘a right to the city’. At the grave risk of over-simplification, Lefebvre was recognising that the rights of the individual are closely bound up in where and how they live in the city, and that decisions about the city – the ‘production of space’ to use his phrase, need to be made by the inhabitants to better ensure access to what the city has to offer. Like so much French theory of the time, the arguments and propositions are at once dense, rich, evocative, and impenetrable; and herein lies their strength. By being indeterminate, his writings have left themselves open to interpretation, adoption and iteration by a wide range of groups and in particular, advocates for social justice in the exponentially urbanising conditions in the developing world.


‘The right to the city’, the rights of citizens to the services facilities and opportunities that cities offer and have been the reason for their initial emergence, as places of interaction and transaction, predating agriculture, have been formally incorporated in the constitution of Brazil and law in Colombia. In these countries, these rights are concerned with access to the most basic services, water, sanitation, and formalisation of property.


At their core, Lefebvre’s ideas are calling for a complete overturning of capitalism, property rights and governance, so the potential for interpretation and application in Sydney is limited (!). The relevance of these ‘rights’ to developed countries, and in particular the need to have them enshrined in law where there is adequate governance, accountability and democratic processes is also unclear. However, the key linkage between the control of space and social inequity is valid. It is also clear that our democratic processes allow for, and accept what might be called embedded spatial disadvantage where citizens in some parts of the city are far removed from opportunities, and the majority is prepared to let this continue, because in our privileged societies the conditions are not so bad as to cause social unrest; but that doesn’t make it right, fair or acceptable, or for that matter efficient or productive.


This has been well articulated by Tim Rieniets[1]:

The long-held image of advanced western societies that inherited statuses such as social class, ethnicity, or race are increasingly irrelevant for access to valued social locations and the attendant bundle of life’ opportunities has not proven to be true.[2] In past decades a creeping resurgence of multifarious inequalities has entered the cities of many developed countries.[3]…. These developments are confronting us with a seemingly paradoxical process: more and more people will live in cities that in turn, are expected to drive much of the world’s economic, social, and cultural development. Yet, at the same time, urban resources and opportunities are becoming scarce and unequally distributed. As a result, struggles for resources, wealth, and power among different groups and individuals may increase, and threaten the capacity of cities to be home to the majority of the worlds population and to work as powerhouses for progress. Against this prospect, the Open City is not an abstract concept, but an increasingly urgent, interdisciplinary, and highly concrete demand. This Open City has to provide equal access- spatial as well as non spatial- to all the urban resources and opportunities available; and consequently, it has to facilitate coexistence of the diverse groups and individuals sharing it”


Although the conditions in the cities in the developing and developed world are very different, the underlying motivations and strategies might be seen as very similar; that is, the powerful build the cities they want, and this is independent of the wealth of the city.

In Sydney this is evident in the continual focus on the central city, the continuing investment in cultural and social institutions and augmentation of transport networks to gain access to this concentration. Most recently, this concentration has been bookended by the proposal to build a $400M extension to the Art Gallery of NSW in the east, and the idea of an entertainment/business/liveability theme-park in the west- the so called ‘superprecinct’. The assumption is that this concentration will ‘build on strengths’ with the superprofits and overall boost to the economy being then available for redistribution to the ‘areas in need’.


But this approach is fraught. The transfer of benefits (lets assume the transfer happens, and that it is generally westward) is far from transparent and to be blunt, it is begrudged. Nor do compensatory programs build the capacity or esteem in the west for it to develop its own culture and economy and so becomes a ‘client state’ within a state. The WAY the benefits are transferred is as important as the amount.


The power of a vision for a more equitable city is that it cuts across the political divide, it is possible to see that it is in everyone’s interest.

A social justice perspective focused on access to employment, education, housing and recreational opportunities, might be contrasted with an economic development approach that conceptualises the city as a machine for wealth creation through greater efficiency, access to labour markets, improved productivity and ultimately greater ‘competitiveness’.

But these perspectives can be reconciled and intersect when achieving a more equitable city is seen to be largely, though not entirely, about access, just as it is for the productive and efficient city as well.


And access in turn is what ‘urbanity’ is all about; it is why cities exist.

It is clear that we have moved from a general notion of ‘rights’ to the specific conditions in particular cities, and that there is a spatial aspect to this, not simply an abstract transfer of wealth.

To return to the initial question; are plans the answer?


Kees Christiaanse suggests a different approach:

“The Open City cannot be designed; it has to be produced via active intervention strategies. The urban designers instrumentarium does not consist of a clear –cut urban development plan, but of a strong vision that takes the status quo as the starting point, is implemented through gradual transformation, and can react to changing circumstances. The design of the implementation process is thus as important as the actual design itself. A good process improves the integration of any traces of the pre-existing context, and its characteristic properties, as a potential for identification. Even the best vision will fail without a carefully thought out design process.”


Christiaanse goes further, to draw out the physical characteristics that might be expected:

“ on the local scale, a critical balance has to be maintained between density, combination, and scale of program and social diversity. Finally, the points of contact for interaction can be enlarged by the creation of open, lively street fronts and adequate, permeable transitions between private and public at the points where buildings and public space meet…. The Open City is neither a utopia nor a clear-cut reality, but a situation, a balance between openness and closedness, between integration and disintegration, between control and laissez-faire.”


At first glance, these reflections may appear abstract, but sharpen when applied as a set of questions or criteria.

How, for example do the proposals for Barangaroo and Darling Harbour align with these characteristics and vision?


At the metropolitan scale, how do they improve the access to the ‘goods’ of the city, or the physical and social mobility of the less advantaged? In their design where is the balance between ‘control and laissez-faire’ when the physical design, contractual arrangements and delivery are so rigidly defined that a $500M dispute can be fought and won- for an entire precinct, before it is even half built? Is the introduction of a casino evidence of a process and plan that can “react to changing circumstances” as envisaged by Christiaanse?


In conclusion, the ideal and idea of the Open City can be seen in a number of ways:

·       as a set of guiding principles leading to a more just, diverse and accessible city, leading to greater social mobility, productivity and competitiveness

·       it is an “open” also in the evolutionary sense in that it is open to changes and the emergence of new patterns, it is iterative and incremental, rather than having a fixed end state in mind, (or in contract)

·       this in turn implies a more open design and implementation process and open governance

·       lastly, there is the inference of a more open and permeable physical form and ownership pattern that is also open to change, and is open to the contributions of many participants, owners, residents and citizens

Together, these may form the basis for an expression of what is in the public interest in relation to ‘megaprojects’.


Associate Professor Rod Simpson. The University of Sydney. 


[1] Tim Rieniets, Open-City: designing co-existence

[2] Loic Wacquant, Urban outcast: a comparative sociology of advanced marginality (Cambridge:Polity, 2007.

[3] OECD ed, Growing Unequal? Income distribution and Poverty in OECD Countries (OECD 2008)

Published on by Henry Halloran Trust.


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148 City Rd
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Site Development

Photo: Rod Simpson
Design: Tammy Nicholson

The Festival
of Urbanism 6 Cities, housing, and health

2-12 September 2019Brought to you by the Henry Halloran Trust with the assistance of the University of Sydney School of Architecture, Design and Planning; Monash Urban
Planning and Design; and the Charles Perkins