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.