Oct 11, 2017

Is Sydney really full to the brim?

It’ll make mistakes like it always has, but Sydney’s problem with growth isn’t about physical capacity. The issue is most existing home owners don’t want things to change

Alan Davies — Editor of The Urbanist

Alan Davies

Editor of The Urbanist

St Leonards and Crows Nest Priority Precinct (source:DPE)

A Fairfax ReachTel poll finds a majority of Sydneysiders reckon the city is full:

More than two-thirds of people believe Sydney is full and property development should be pushed to the fringes, new polling shows, amid simmering tensions within communities and the Berejiklian government over the issue.

With plans for hundreds of thousands of apartments in the city’s “priority precincts” over the next 20 years, the ReachTel poll conducted for Fairfax Media shows 66.4 per cent of NSW residents oppose more development in existing areas to accommodate a bigger population.

What ever the merits of redeveloping established areas might be, the claim that Sydney is full is patently untrue. Australia’s premier global city can continue to grow outwards and upwards as every other city throughout history has done.

Sydney isn’t especially large by world standards; there are 103 cities in the world that are larger. The Tokyo-Yokohama conurbation has 38 million residents and Osaka-Kobe-Kyoto 17 million. The New York conurbation (NY-NJ-CT) has 21 million inhabitants and Los Angeles-Riverside has 15 million.

Nor is Sydney choked by high densities. It’s the densest city in Australia, but there are 935 cities in the world with a population greater than half a million that have more residents per sq km than Sydney. Even Los Angeles, the poster child of sprawl, is denser than Sydney. All but seven of the 103 cities with a larger population than Sydney have a higher average density.

Notwithstanding their greater size and density, many of these cities – like Paris, London, Berlin – are highly sought-after as places to live and work. The bigger ones have problems associated with size but the net benefits they provide make living in them not only worthwhile but desirable.

Some of them are already much larger than the eight million population that Sydney is projected to reach sometime around 2050 e.g. New York (21.4 million), London (10.5 million), Paris (10.9 million). Sydney will necessarily be different at nearly double its current size but it won’t be “full”, not even close.

The idea that Sydney is “too crowded” is an old one, but Sydney has direct access to the resources and/or technology to provide the power, water and communications required by eight million residents. It has sufficient prospective redevelopment sites and fringe land to easily support the projected population. It also has the wealth to build the required transport infrastructure and the brains to plan for growth.

It’ll make mistakes like it always has, but Sydney’s problem with growth isn’t about physical capacity. The problem is mostly political. While there’s an immediate issue around the pace of growth, the key problem is the bulk of residents – or more accurately, existing homeowners – don’t want change.

They feel they paid for a street, neighbourhood and suburb with a set of qualities – like character and travel times – they expect won’t change for the worse from the day they move in to the day they leave. As they see it, the implicit contract didn’t allow for changes like two-storey town houses next door (much less a mid-rise apartment block!) or an extra 10 minutes driving to work. As with any consumer issue, they’re demanding they get what they reckon they bought.

The idea homeowners have an entitlement to all things beyond their property boundary staying the same is wrong, but they’re right in thinking population growth inevitably means change. There was a time when the option of fringe expansion meant established residential areas could pretty much remain undisturbed as the city grew, but those days are long gone.

The fringe is too far away from the centre now for new generations of households and, in any event, many of them want a more cosmopolitan lifestyle and are prepared to trade-off space for place to get it. They want to live in established areas and that means more development, more congestion, and more pressure on services.

Existing residents rightly demand better infrastructure and better policies. There are actions that must be taken to manage growth – like better public transport, congestion pricing, priority precincts – but the new world necessarily won’t be the same as the old one.

For example, even if they don’t live in a priority development area, there’s a fair chance new low-rise multi-unit developments will be built in their street, maybe even next door. Equally, it’s inevitable traffic congestion will impact more and more on their daily travel. They might find they must shift some trips from their preferred mode, driving, to public transport or, heaven forbid, walking; and pretty soon they’ll probably have to pay for the right to park their car and drive in congested conditions. There’ll be periods when local services like schools can’t cope as well as they used to with demand.

Growth and development should bring benefits in the longer term – like a stronger metropolitan economy, more local services, and improved access to housing – but residents don’t tend to appreciate them or, perhaps, are even aware of them. That’s because the benefits of development are broad, diffuse and delayed, while the pain is largely local, highly visible and immediate (see Why do inner suburban residents oppose development?).

No, Sydney isn’t anything like “full”. It’s not so exceptional that it alone of numerous world cities can’t grow a lot bigger. The issue for Sydney is most existing home owners don’t want things to change for (what they see as) the worse.

We can manage growth better as I’ve discussed before (e.g. see Is public transport the only solution to congestion?), and we can even slow the pace of change (e.g. see Is immigration ruining our cities?), but there’s no silver bullet that will enable cities to accommodate development – whether generated by immigration, higher fertility, a shift to smaller households, or an increasing preference for cosmopolitanism – without altering what some groups have got and without changing their ways of living.

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16 thoughts on “Is Sydney really full to the brim?

  1. Elle

    More density equals more money for planning consultants.

  2. Simon

    …..but everyone seems to LOVE Paris… Don’t see too many sky-scraping residential blocks there.. (OOoooh! But DO that, and you’ll wreck the ‘character’ and amenity that people enjoy they reckon. Just sayin’.

  3. Jacob HSR

    Not every city has a growing population. Japan and Portugal have shrinking populations. And South Korea will from 2032 onward.

    Berlin? Even Germany had a shrinking population from 1997 to 2015!

    London is a desirable place to live?

    Richard Hammond lives at Bollitree Farm, Weston under Penyard – 189 km from London. Jeremy Clarkson lives in Cotswold – 139 km from London. James May lives in Hammersmith – 12 km from London.

    So 2 out of the 3 rich men live far away from London. There is actually an exodus from expensive Sydney to Queensland and Victoria.

  4. Anthony

    The main challenge for Sydney in growing is its geography. The demographic centre of Sydney is near Parramatta which is about 20km west from the CBD. Less than 10km east of the CBD is the ocean so most growth will occur in western Sydney.
    However most employment occurs in the eastern half of Sydney. Cultural events and education centres are mostly located in the eastern half as well. Most of the main decision makers in businesss, the law, the arts and education live in the eastern half. Despite efforts by the State government most development has continued in the eastern half. For example Parramatta has long been seen as the second CBD but in reality most of the jobs created here are from the relocation of government departments.

    1. Tom the first and best

      Sydney is certainly the most geographically constrained metropolis in Australia because it has the sea close on the east and mountains and/or national parks on the other 3 cardinal direction sides and it was started comparatively close to the sea.

      Further development of Parramatta may help balance employment and cultural activities a bit better but it may well be still mainly government activities and it may require big steps like moving the NSW Parliament for the maximum shift.

      1. Interested

        Actually the NAB has committed about 45,000 sqm in a new building in Parramatta, at Parramatta Square.
        PWC is also taking up commercial space in the new Western Sydney University City Campus building next door.

        There is a rumor that large private organisation is also relocating its HQ to Parramatta.

        Sheraton and QT hotels have also been confirmed for the CBD.
        Private sector investment is increasing.

        This follows the commitment by the NSW State Government of about 1,500 Dept of Education staff moving to a new building (now topped out), and about 4,500 other department staff moving to new buildings in Parramatta Square.

        The Parramatta CBD has also matched this commercial growth with residential components; there could be as many as 10,000 new apartments built in and around the CBD, with many currently under construction or complete.

        The Powerhouse Museum is also being relocated to Parramatta, close to a possibly expanded Riverside Theatre.

        This decentralisation of commercial office space, services and cultural institutions, matched with high density residential growth, is almost unique to Greater Sydney.

        This is where most of Sydney’s growth will be coming from, rather than from the fringes.
        Other key centres around Sydney’s greater west, north and south will also see an increase in residential density, though not necessarily to the extent of Parramatta.

      2. Density

        People keep talking about the sea and the mountains – but the conurbation doesn’t even reach there. Large parts of that is farmland or mostly empty.

  5. Jonathan

    Don’t people in a city have a right to say how they would like their city to remain? Wonder why it is always economists and multiculturalists that spruik the growth? Grow the economy or grow the ethnic minority….
    Sure we may become a BIGGER city but I don’t see any of those aforementioned cities on a list of the world’s most livable cities.
    That’s because after you get past a few million, one sacrifices livability for size.

  6. Density

    Cue comments from the “sustainable population” lobby and “anti-immigration” and “anti-growth” people.

    1. Woopwoop

      Well you’ve already brilliantly refuted their arguments by merely mentioning them, haven’t you?

  7. david roman

    While much of what you state Alan is “logically correct”, it fails to argue the critical point that many residents of Sydney (especially those living in “targetted precinct” areas!”) would like to see everyone/every area sharing the load of higher densities/developments of whatever style to accomodate growth. When I see , for example suburbs including Point Piper/Woollahra/Woolwich/the northern beaches stretch from Mona Vale to Palm Beach being included in some category of “growth precinct” to accomodate future growth for higher density etc , then i might be convinced that the Planners and their supporters are heading in the right direction to “spread” the load equitably!

    1. Alan Davies

      David, to the extent that’s driven by political leverage it’s deplorable, but even in the absence of ‘politics’, I wouldn’t expect development to be geographically even. In general, low intensity stuff such as dual occupancy and two-storey town houses can be built most anywhere, but higher intensity development like that envisaged in the priority precincts should be located around existing rail infrastructure. Some suburbs are less prospective for intensive development for a range of reasons e.g. no rail line, high % heritage buildings, high % strata titled dwellings, high % very small lots.

        1. Alan Davies

          Tom The First and Best

          Sure, but still requires 75% of lots in favour, no?

          1. Tom the first and best

            Yes 75% is still required but it is still a lot easier than the unanimity required previously.

      1. david roman

        Alan off course I was being provocative! ie Urban Economics 1 lesson critical location factors for higher density developpment etc My point was that Govt/Planners often fail miserably in trying to explain to the community why particular planning decisions are taken ie precinct development decisions And most importantly the winners/losers argument particularly how to compensate losers (in this case the local community, not just those benfiting from upzoning!) In Sydney, its perception! that undermines “sound” planning decisions in that , most people strongly believe politicians/planners make decisions that largely benefit “developers” and leave the community breathless, frustrated and angry regarding the “joke” that is “community consultation” in that in many parts of Sydney, communities believe they have no say in how their communities grow!

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