What’s not next for a city in knots

Sydney’s lack of long-term planning has the city in knots. It’s hard to find affordable housing, slow to get across town and cumbersome to do business between poorly connected parts.

Handling the movement of five million people across 12,000 square kilometres is indeed proving a weighty challenge. 

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Source: Google

Above all else, there’s a disparity between Sydney’s impressive physical form and its desire to be a strong global brand. Yes, the city is big and rapidly speeding up but even its most ardent supporters must admit Sydney isn’t as cohesive as say, New York or London. 

“Handling the movement of five million people across 12,000 square kilometres is indeed proving a weighty challenge.” 

Those cities comprise many pieces which fit better together and as such, mostly flow without the disruption which regularly impacts Sydney.

From one perspective, Sydney’s greatest asset – its harbour – is its greatest challenge. Indeed, bluenotes contributor Jason Murphy has argued another of Sydney’s great assets, the Harbour Bridge, was in fact a huge mistake because it allowed the splitting of the city.

Fortunately, mistakes of the past are not set in stone (even though the bridge may be). Faced with perpetual imbalance, and with the goal of making Sydney more cohesive, city leaders are now rethinking the shape of the city.

After all, new urban developments and infrastructure might further advance Sydney’s physical environment, but a true international city must offer so much more. It must be, in effect, the harmonious sum of many varied parts.

So, as the Government’s latest urban plan unfolds, Sydney’s outer suburbs and neighbouring towns are sharply in view.

Changing course

It’s hard to know what plan is right for an entire city, especially when reviewing the success of one suburb compared to the next.

These complex issues have been explored in depth in bluenotes’ Metropolis Now series.

As the American urban thinker William Fulton said, the value of a community must go beyond the street and extend across a whole region. Sydney’s urban challenges are certainly far-reaching with no clear-cut solution. But there are starting points.

For example, we know much-needed housing development and further commercial expansion are most likely to occur in Sydney’s outlying western and north-western region. Or even beyond the city limits to smaller towns like Wollongong or Newcastle.

The latter has worked in both the United States and the United Kingdom where large urban hubs were later complimented by smaller offshoots, typically known as satellites.

In Reading, just outside of London, an economy boosted by the presence of leading tech firms such as Oracle and Microsoft is growing. It’s a good place to live and easy to commute to and from.

Meanwhile, in Austin in Texas, just outside of San Antonio, big businesses such as IBM, Facebook and Cisco also have offices which have helped to enrich its economy and make Austin a favourable place to settle.

It’s uncertain, however, how Sydney’s satellites should relate to their hub city. By the same token it is unclear how Sydney’s core should relate to its outer rings and neighbouring communities. Yet the modern ideal of ‘connectivity’ is central to how the city can reconfigure itself for the future.

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The new plan

A plan based on multiple connection points can give purpose to all corners. It can invigorate outlying areas and simultaneously relive the physical strain placed on the inner rings.

For example, if outer suburbs or secondary cities offer a range of industries, employment options and well-connected transport lines, they can become self-sufficient but also serve a specific economic function for the entire region.

Such cities allow residents of those areas to enjoy all the services necessary to create and build a vibrant population, and crucially, are still within distance of the CBD.

To this end, the new plan for Sydney, known as the Three Cities strategy, moves the city away from the single hub concept it has long employed and considers the prospect of many thriving centres – a planning idea known as polycentricity.

Devised by the Greater Sydney Commission, it envisages Sydney in three parts: The Eastern City, the developing Central City and emerging Western City, including the new airport at Badgery’s Creek.

Each of these segments will have their own identity and, according to the Commission, must be planned to maximise liveability, productivity and sustainability.

The vision is all Sydneysiders will live within 30 minutes of their jobs, education, health facilities and services because those things will be available across multiple hubs – not just the singular CBD by the harbour.

Associate professor at the University of New South Wales and director of its Planning Program Simon Pinnegar says Sydney’s current challenges stem from its long-held monocentricity and up until now most activity has flowed toward the single eastern CBD. He says this has only been exacerbated by a limited public transport network which sees all train lines going into the city centre, which has led to increasing numbers of jobs in the east, while most people are moving to the west.

“There’s been a big imbalance between the jobs are and where the new housing is going and this has led to significant challenges,” Pinnegar says.

 “While there has been consolidation and densification in [inner] Sydney over recent years and a lot of apartment growth, there’s still plenty of growth in Western Sydney. This has set up a recasting of understanding special dynamics for a metropolitan area.”

Three parts

As lines on a map, the new plan makes sense. Each ‘sub-city’ represents a large geographical area which can be differentiated from the other, making it easier to pinpoint localised challenges, test solutions and improve connectivity.

It’s not clear what such differentiation will yield over the long-term. For example, will new transport connections and developing urban centres like Parramatta help bring all three areas closer together? Or is Sydney’s future destined to be one of distinctive parts?

It’s easy to get caught up in semantics. However, urban designer and national director at Urbis, James Tuma says the Three Cities idea is simply a way of conceptualising how growth will occur, rather than necessarily saying there will be three distinct cities.

“While the idea of having three cities could actually be detrimental to our global competitiveness, there are some significant trends around urban conglomeration,” Tuma says.

“Organising cities as economic units is quite a good strategy as you maintain the identity of different places using transport infrastructure and by doing so you allow for specialisation.

“I think this is where Three Cities is going. Having instinctive cultural, economic and social identities but tying it together with infrastructure. Otherwise I’m not sure how it would come to fruition.”

Tuma cites Randstad in the Netherlands as a successful model to follow, which combines multiple cities in a ‘megalopolis’. It has a political, financial and cultural capital, for example, as well as first-class international gateways such as an airport and shipping port. Unlike London or New York, Randstad has its many primary services distributed across a broad region.

This might seem a lofty concept but requires logical steps to formalise. Academics from the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands have called out three keys to the Randstad model for the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, which include ensuring:

  • Transportation and infrastructure development is closely tied to urban development strategies;
  • City clusters help yield benefits for local and metropolitan traffic; and
  • Existing capacity is maximised.

These ideas are surely top of mind among Sydney’s planners.

Similarly, China’s Pearl River Delta presents another useful case study. Its many cluster cities form the world’s largest urban conglomeration in both size and population, according to a report from the World Bank.

It includes a significant part of China’s manufacturing heartland and encompasses the cities of Shenzhen, Guangzhou, Foshan and Dongguan, as well as Hong Kong and Macau.

A rapid urbanisation plan has seen the region expand to include eight megacities in all, and in as little as 30 years it’s expected to be a mega-region of about 70 million people.

It’s an exciting example and seems to make sense for a city like Sydney which also has similar, albeit smaller, geographical hurdles to overcome.

And yet, there are still risks to this sort of plan, as outlined by the World Bank. It notes unplanned urban expansion can also exacerbate inequality.

As Sydney has found, a lack of affordable housing and efficient public transport can drive poorer people further away from opportunities – the very outcome its current planners need to avoid.

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The future is connectivity

Efficient transport with widespread connection points is therefore imperative to the new plan. So, in conjunction with the Three Cities model, Sydney’s Future Transport 2056 program includes a transportation revamp which is already under way.

It includes a potential mass transit train link from Parramatta to Kogarah, eliminating the need for travel via the Sydney CBD, a future plan to link Norwest and Parramatta by mass transit and a potential light rail extension across Sydney, Parramatta and Newcastle. Rapid bus links are also slated to service the East, Inner West, Bays area, Bankstown and Parramatta.

This is a significant shift toward a better flowing Sydney. Indeed, better transportation links, and especially high-speed rail, are vital to any urban development that includes outlying areas, says Tuma.

“The line in the sand is a significant piece of public infrastructure that will underpin the activity in the far west of Sydney,” Tuma says. “So there needs to be a bit of clarity in the new plan around the complimentary activity of the city joined together by fantastic connectivity infrastructure.”

Pinnegar agrees. While the Three Cities plan doesn’t have all the answers, she says, it lays the foundations for change and for discussions to be had. It treats Sydney and its growing population wholly, with the ideal of social equity firmly in the middle of the vision.

“The Three Cities model for the first time in a long time is treating western Sydney with the respect it deserves,” Pinnegar says. “It highlights the need to address the equity across multiple cities.”

Hopefully those many knots will start to unravel and the Sydney experience can begin to match its well-branded beauty.

Jean-Paul Pelosi is a property and technology journalist

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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