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Growing pains: Some Sydneysiders are losing sight of what makes a city great

Photo: Alex Wong
Photo: Alex Wong

There are only a handful of cities around the world where one picture can immediately place you. See the Eiffel Tower, and you know you are in Paris. Similarly, Big Ben in London or the Empire State Building in New York. Our Opera House against the backdrop of the Harbour Bridge is an instantly recognisable symbol of one of the world’s best cities. 

Sydneysiders are justifiably proud of their home. But like any other admired metropolis, its reputation and prosperity are not just about its landmarks and tourist attractions. It is also about being the home of a thriving population of industrious people pursuing opportunity and a better way of life – and giving back in return.

This is why recent commentary about Sydney’s expansion is stirring up sentiment about what some believe is unbridled development that threatens the heritage and liveability of the city. The Save Sydney Coalition says it wants a debate about how big Sydney should be because it is concerned that green spaces and heritage sites will be lost to make way for charmless high-density housing. The coalition also maintains that while it supports affordable housing, it wants development curbed.

Some are raising objections when they feel questions remain unanswered as to whether adequate facilities and amenities have been factored in alongside new developments. Scrutiny of any development plans is important, as is consultation with local people to get it right. However, some of the views we’re seeing expressed in this public debate simply sound a lot like NIMBYism – not in my backyard – an attitude that fundamentally undermines the very reason Sydney is today one of the world’s great cities.

Sydney’s expansion is a direct result of its success – the more prosperous it becomes, the more people it attracts. Current forecasts suggest more than 1.7 million additional people across the income spectrum will be living in Sydney by 2036, requiring around a quarter of a million new homes.

Of course, we have all heard that Sydney is bulging at the seams due to immigrants from other countries. There is no doubt that the quality of life Sydney offers has made it a global attraction. In truth, however, Sydneys swelling population is predominantly affected by people living longer lives, having more babies, or moving from interstate. When we surveyed our tenants, 68 per cent of them identified as Australian and 8.5 per cent were Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islanders.

Growth in Sydney has fuelled the real estate market – Sydneys legendary house prices have become perfect fodder for newspaper headlines. But behind the scaremongering that whole generations will never afford their own homes, there is a dismal reality. If Sydney wants to maintain its appeal to talented people who help the city continue to flourish and play a leading role in the national fortunes of the country, it needs to provide more housing, not only for those who can afford to pay market prices but options for people on low to moderate incomes.

To be clear, this is not a social welfare exercise. Providing liveable options to people in the lower half of the income scale reaps economic rewards that benefit everyone, including those who feel their way of life is under threat. We house more than 150 essential workers. Thats the nurses, police officers and paramedics who wouldnt be able to live and work in Central Sydney while they serve our communities.

Every little bit helps. The NSW governments land and development agency Landcom has a mandate to improve the supply, diversity and affordability of new housing. The Greater Sydney Commission also recognises the need to provide diversity of housing across the housing continuum and the dual social and economic role housing can play. Their affordable rental housing target of 5-10 per cent of new residential floor space in nominated urban renewal areas is a step in the right direction. If just five per cent of the governments planned 60,000 housing completions each year were affordable that would be 3000 more homes affordable for people on lower incomes – homes that would enable them to live close to their place of work or to family and community supports.

In addition to the benefits to the individuals themselves, research suggests that diverse communities contribute positively to the wellbeing and quality of life for all people who live in those communities.

The citys rapidly expanding population has contributed to a development boom that has unfortunately fuelled growing tension between the needs of an evolving city and the concerns of those whose quality of life is premised on maintaining the old status quo.

Sydney is no different to any global city in facing these challenges. We know the answer does not lie in prioritising one need over another. It is clear that Sydney needs more housing – but more housing that meets the breadth of housing needs. If Sydney is to transform, develop and improve it needs to welcome new residents as much as it values its long-established communities.

The impulse to make development a dirty word is unhelpful to everyone involved in this debate. We need to talk, and we need to collaborate because there is a lot at stake. Most affordable housing projects are made possible by a coalition of partners, from community providers like us to the private sector and government. We need to balance current needs and future demands, and recognise that no one communitys aspirations are more important than any others. A sense of shared destiny will help Sydney remain one of the best places to live.

Leonie King is chief executive of affordable housing provider City West Housing.

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