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In July 1909 the journal Building characterized the Royal Commission’s just-released final report as the ‘editing’ of a city. The description seems remarkably apposite. The Commission conceded that it had not produced a ‘formal’ or ‘symmetrical’ plan but rather a ‘scheme of improvement’ to the early 1930s comprising a series of individual recommendations organized under four main heads of consideration: traffic, beautification, slum areas and housing reform, and the future growth of the city. While some aesthetic flights of fancy were offered up to the Commission, the overall tone of the report is a deeply pragmatic weighing up and prioritizing of ‘practical issues’.
The Commission came at a time of Sydney’s rising national, imperial and global status. Sydney was fast heading toward ‘millionaire’ population status. The city had already increased its share of NSW’s total population from one third to nearly one half. Economically, things were looking up after the slump of the 1890s and the port of Sydney was pivotal to prosperity as the overwhelmingly critical conduit for exports and imports from and into the state. New technological advances (electricity, reinforced concrete, telecommunications) were beginning to make impacts on the built environment.
At the same time ‘growing-pains’ were evident. Expanded trade required better port facilities and access. Although there were more horses than motor vehicles in Sydney, complaints about the condition of streets (narrowness, dust, dirt, uneven surfaces, poor signage) were becoming more strident. The city’s main civic thoroughfare, Macquarie Street, had to cope with considerable traffic laden with ‘wool, hides, skins, and other merchandise’ and destined for the wharves. There was still no road or rail connection between the north and south sides of the harbor. The tramway system had ‘outgrown itself’ and proposals for a more effective city and suburban rail system had long been debated. Aesthetically, the city presented a ‘scrappy skyline’ amid parallel concerns about loss of its natural beauty. The city had already endured the crisis of bubonic plague which highlighted slum housing conditions and also faced social unrest from inner city street gangs. Administratively, JD Fitzgerald, one of the major witnesses at the Commission, described a situation of ‘civic anarchy’ and ‘planlessness’.
All manner of remodeling and improvement schemes had already been publically mooted in the media, professional meetings, and parliamentary debates. The Royal Commission afforded the opportunity to stock-take these ideas, compare and contrast competing infrastructure proposals, integrate them with projects already in train, and look ahead to future needs. A bridge or tunnel to the North Shore, reconstruction of the Circular Quay, a city underground railway, redevelopment of the Rocks, major civic spaces for central Sydney and securing of more suburban open spaces, development of major public buildings, slum clearance, numerous suggestions for new and widened roads, and greater powers over building design were some of the established hot spots and topical issues which coursed their way through the deliberations of the Commission.
Sydney City Council and other municipalities were increasingly alive to needs and challenges but there was also recognition that the problems were bigger than local governments alone and required a more synoptic approach. Although the town planning movement would be given a great fillip by the Commission’s report, it had yet to formally coalesce but some suggestions had already been made to appoint an expert committee or even a top-notch individual like the American architect Daniel Burnham. A Select Committee of Parliament was proposed in 1906 but did not get up. Businessman Thomas Hughes – both Lord Mayor of Sydney and a Member of the Legislative Council – was crucially placed to advance the cause and led a decisive deputation to Liberal Reform Premier Charles Wade in February 1908 to ask for a Royal Commission. He was rewarded with its presidency three months later.
Ten other Royal Commissioners were appointed on 14 May 1908. They were a mixture of state parliamentarians with some bi-partisan balance, men connected to the Sydney City Council as elected representatives or employees, professional people, state government bureaucrats, and businessmen. Assisting them was a Commission secretary (Daniel Quin), two engineering draftsman (Richard Wilson and Gordon Duff), one architectural draftsman (Charles Coulter), and a clerk to take shorthand notes. They were given six months to report, which proved impossible and required three extensions. A brief interim report was released in December 2008 dealing mainly with land acquisition need for improved port access.
The final report comprising 50 foolscap-sized pages was dated 25 June 1909. It was complemented by over 300,000 words of evidence, nearly 60 plans, maps and sketches, and some short statistical and technical appendices. The Commissioners assembled and refined their ideas largely from interviewing and discussing the submissions of expert witnesses. Additional reports and plans were gathered from several world cities as diverse as Chicago, Manila and Vladivostok. All the Commissioners held 90 meetings and also carried out some site inspections. The meetings were held in the offices of the Public Works Department. Some 40 witnesses were examined: leading built environment professionals, public servants, local government representatives, and sundry business people. Three of the Commissioners and four of technical staff also joined the list of witnesses. The architect John Sulman made 11 separate appearances over as many months, more than any other witness. The Commission tapped into broader community opinion via several suburban mayors, the Secretary of the Harbour Foreshores Vigilance Committee, a crusading chaplain, and a trade union representative, the latter being the only female witness.
The Commission made 40 formal recommendations, the majority of them relating to road and transport improvements. Other suggestions and endorsements of general ideas and principles are sprinkled along the way. The geographic focus was on the central and inner city rather than the outer suburbs. The major transport recommendations were for the immediate introduction of underground electric railways for the city and electrification of the suburban network along the lines recommended by TR Johnson, Chief Commissioner for the Railways. Complementing this were around 30 specific recommendations and suggestions for street widening, re-gradings, and extensions, plus completely new thoroughfares. The major ‘aesthetic’ recommendation was a new Building Act to regulate the height, style, and character of buildings to secure ‘unity of purpose and harmony of design in our architecture’. A number of specific targets were identified, the majority of these with an almost seamless overlap into road improvements. The conclusions under housing were a strong endorsement of suburban living and a call for greater resumption and remodeling powers. The balance related to enhanced municipal town planning and scenic conservation controls.
The Royal Commission’s report was released to a largely benign reception. The Sydney Morning Herald welcomed the breadth of treatment and ‘success in treating a large subject in a general way’. The major critiques came from international critics. Arthur Jemmett writing in the Journal of the Royal Institute of British Architects was disappointed ‘not only at the lack of any ruling idea or organic coherence in the scheme as a whole, but also at the inadequate architectural treatment of the various improvements shown’. The latter was a swipe at Charles Coulter, who developed his interest in city planning as a minor prize-winner of the Federal Capital design competition of 1911-13 and as an artist for JJC Bradfield in the 1920s.
In thanking Thomas Hughes for his contribution, the NSW Premier’s Office noted that ‘the Commission’s recommendations will receive the careful consideration of government at an early date’. But the Government was in no hurry to subscribe to a big-spending strategy of public works and lost power to Labor in October 1910 under JST McGowen, who had served as a Commissioner. However, although the Labor and Nationalist administrations through the 1910s would pursue some planning and local government reforms, they did not endorse the report as a whole and within a few years there were renewed calls for a comprehensive planning approach.
Selected recommendations did come true. This was almost inevitable since the most practical were either codifying longstanding projects around which a political consensus had forged and pathways to realization were emerging or else they were more piecemeal road improvements not requiring radical changes in governance or huge spending. In the short term, before World War One, came the widening of Elizabeth, College, George and Oxford Streets. In the medium term came the conversion of Randwick Road to Anzac Parade, the extension of Martin Place, and the rolling out of the city underground, harbor crossing (bridge rather than tunnel), and electrified suburban railway system. Other recommendations took many decades to realize, including statutory town planning legislation, a Circular Quay Railway Station, and other ideas which surfaced at Commission hearings rather than in the recommendations proper, such as the redevelopment of East Circular Quay and a William Street tunnel. Many recommendations did not eventuate, probably for the better. The grander physical interventions (such as an Elizabeth Street extension, removal of Pyrmont Bridge, and new roads through the Domain and to Central Railway from the eastern suburbs) were never realized.
For all its pioneering of a new mode of urban inquiry and planning awareness in Sydney, the Commission model had a fundamental weakness and that was the absence of any real attention to implementation strategies. Its largely practical recommendations were substantially responses to submissions made. But there was no clear prioritization, time schedule for improvements, or costings. Beyond generalized calls for new building and town planning legislation to augment municipal powers, nor were there developed proposals for re-organisation of government to facilitate implementation. The only hint is in the Commission’s final remark that ‘a central authority should be appointed to initiate and carry out street improvements which extend beyond the boundaries of any one municipality’. It is almost a throwaway line but may well have seeded the growing interest at the time in more far-reaching local government consolidation and reform, the subject of its own, albeit also inconclusive, Royal Commission in 1913.
Faculty of the Built Environment
University of New South Wales
The Index to the Plans Maps and Sketches can be found under "Reports" -> "3 - Plans Maps and Sketches"
The Minutes of Evidence are available in two ways:
- (a) as A single 48MB file - #7 - under the "RC 1909 - Reports" tab; and
- (b) as a large number of smaller files - day by day of the hearings under the "RC 1909 - Evidence" tab.
Those interested in the evidence of specific witnesses can locate them in the "Index of Witnesses" and then open only the Minutes of Evidence for the day(s) relevant.