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Sydney’s deep divide and how to end it

Urgent policy action is needed to provide better health outcomes and effective job density as Sydney’s population doubles over the next 40 years, according to the Committee for Sydney.

The committee’s new report, Adding to the Dividend, Ending the Divide #3, analyses the current performance of Greater Sydney while suggesting practical ways to improve the city’s productivity, liveability and equity.

Director of policy Eamon Waterford said the report encourages a focus on innovation districts, town centre renewal, policies for active transport to improve health and the environment, and City Deals to increase effective job density.

“If we want to see the whole city gain from the benefits of good density, we need to be providing those benefits to all,” he says.

Innovation districts

The report highlights research by Washington think tank the Brookings Institution, which shows that innovation and urbanism are coming together in US cities in what is known as “innovation districts”, with dense networks of knowledge workers and entrepreneurs/start-ups congregating in mixed-use urban neighbourhoods or precincts. These precincts share common elements including:

  • public transport accessible and walkable
  • located in downtown, midtown or ex-industrial urban areas
  • physically compact
  • mixed use
  • built on brownfield sites

Western Sydney University’s new facilities in the Parramatta town centre and the University of Wollongong’s initiative in Liverpool are good examples of what’s happening locally. The Committee for Sydney would like to see more innovation districts in the key centres of Western Sydney.

Renewing town centres

As jobs have moved out of the dispersed manufacturing economy into a conglomerated knowledge economy, a couple of key sectors have a large proportion of the jobs.

“This means that increasingly people don’t live anywhere near their jobs so, instead of people commuting all over Western Sydney, you have a whole stream of people all going into the Sydney CBD and the Parramatta CBD and a couple of other key CBDs,” Waterford says.

“So one of the key elements of renewing these town centres, which are dotted around western Sydney and the rest of Sydney as well, is actually to bring jobs back into people’s local communities.

“It’s been really positive to see the Greater Sydney Commission move in that direction with their conversation around the three cities model … although Sydney will remain the major economic centre of the city, geographically it is nowhere near the centre and so there’s a need for encouraging a plurality of options that allow people to get to jobs closer to where they live.”

Cars are destroying our health

According to the report, the structure of Sydney is not only dividing us, it’s making some communities ill.

“Essentially it boils down to if you can’t walk or cycle to any essential service or any job you’re going to drive,” Waterford says. “And we know that spending a large amount of time in your car has an incredibly detrimental effect on your health.”

The amenity benefits of walkable precincts with public transport links leads to differential health outcomes. Individuals in such precincts get more than three times the amount of physical activity a day of those who don’t.

A study of a light rail project in Charlotte in the US found its introduction had significant health benefits.

People who started using light rail lost on average five kilograms a year from incidental exercise

“When they installed a light rail stop people who transitioned from driving to using light rail lost, on average, five kilograms a year as a result of the incidental exercise they were getting walking to public transport,” Waterford says.

Major land-use changes are needed to promote density to encourage a modal shift to walking, cycling and public transport. Recent Australian research assessing the impacts of government policy changes in six global cities revealed that a concerted effort to encourage compact cities through infill densification would result in significant health gains.

The Committee for Sydney wants local and state government to encourage active and public transport as a major health and environment policy, not just a transport or planning one.

A cycle-to-work scheme based on the UK’s successful program where employers are provided with tax exemptions would also be beneficial.

“This is about providing an incentive to employers to encourage staff to cycle to work on their own bikes,” Waterford says. “It would have a small cost to the government but the relatively low level of cost would be far outweighed by the positive impacts of the health benefits on the budget.”

Waterford says much can be done to increase the proportion of people cycling, whether it’s segregated bike lanes or providing a safe system of cycleways that increases confidence. Walkability can be improved through providing useful, comfortable, interesting and safe pedestrian paths alongside new and existing road infrastructure.

In addition, the Sydney of the future needs more focus on mass transit.

A City Deal focusing on job density

The report advocates for a focus on effective job density (EJD) as a goal of planning and infrastructure funding, along with associated investment in health and education, for Western Sydney. It would require different tiers of government and different departments to work collaboratively – rather than focus on siloed outcomes that do not link with other programs and spending.

“The key thing that makes the City Deal effective is you are getting all levels of government to agree to a couple of set outcomes they want to achieve,” Waterford says.

“Where they have worked really effectively in the US and the UK, primarily in the UK, is where everybody comes together and says ‘the [key performance indicator] for our city is we want to increase the number of high technology jobs’, or ‘we want to increase the number of people who can access jobs in 30 minutes’, or ‘we want to increase the number of people who get out and about more’.”

The City Deal for Western Sydney could identify EJD as its core target, pushing all other projects within the program to report on how they achieve this goal.

“And that means that any decision, any funding that happens out of a City Deal has to meet the criteria of how does it deliver this outcome?”

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