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.”
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.