How Sydney could lose its global mojo… or keep it
Mike Brown | 2 July 2018
The concept’s easy to grasp. You’re at a party holding a half empty beer – glass, not stubby; it’s a poncey party – and the mingling host tops it up just a smidge. You think, “What a tight wad!”. Reading your mind the host winks and says, “But it’s now 20 per cent more!”
Drinking protocol demands that you walk out, but if the “drink” is Sydney you can’t, because you live in it.
The title image illustrates the issue. If we start with the middle glass, “20 per cent more” is the one to the left, yet any self-respecting partygoer would expect a refill to match the right hand glass.
We all endure urban infrastructure “hosts” just like this but for some reason we don’t notice it – or choose not to. Why are we so gullible?
Well, it’s all about the “sell”. Nobody explains how much our glass can actually hold. We therefore have no way of telling how much air is left above the refill.
Let’s explore in a bit more detail.
A favourite but deserving whipping boy for urban commentators, WestConnex, when first announced promised to deliver urbane intensive redevelopment around a calmed Parramatta Boulevard. This promise was dashed almost immediately when the delivery of road and urban development was skived off into two separate agencies. A fig leaf of coordination persists, but while the road roars on like a truck, urban redevelopment strolls more like a flaneur.
Indeed, the benefits of WestConnex are now likely to be confined mainly to those deriving from improved road connectivity. This sounds a lot like the “20 per cent more” in the introduction.
Yet, even these benefits look dubious. Not highlighted are dis-benefits that include gradually rising congestion from induced traffic demand, consequential value erosion of public investment in congestion reduction measures, loss of urban amenity near new roads, loss of existing capacity and urban form in order to accommodate those roads, steadily rising toll charges, increased quantity and concentration of motor exhaust outfalls, and higher traffic loads disgorged by WestConnex onto existing streets.
But, you plead, what is the alternative? Well here’s one example. The need to plan for inner-urban growth, and thereby sustain the national economic significance of central Sydney, has been well documented by the City of Sydney. The image below depicts where the City considers any expansion can only be accommodated – in Redfern, around the Australian Technology Park and Glebe Island.
This issue raised by the City is very serious. Though it has identified limited scope to increase density within the already developed core, the demolition and replacement of existing lower scale buildings come at a cost that can only be recouped from significantly higher rental returns.
However, higher rents are disincentives to expand business. Unfortunately, high-value globally connected financial services industries in the CBD that elect to relocate will not decant to lower cost inland locations such as Redfern, Sydney Olympic Park or Parramatta.
They will instead move to Hong Kong, Singapore or, at a pinch, central Melbourne, in order to maintain the equivalent locational advantages of central Sydney. In short, Sydney risks losing its global mojo unless new well-connected locations can be found for these valuable industries to grow into.
I have previously observed opportunities to reconfigure currently uncommitted stages of WestConnex to relieve Glebe Island of noxious roadways and thereby deliver a city building dividend. Mostly government owned, part-sale of this land to extend the CBD on the harbour’s edge would deliver immediate benefits to taxpayers that would help defray the cost of transport projects that generate that value – a direct form of “value capture”. Indirect public benefits would continue to flow through jobs growth and higher taxes drawn from greater urban productivity.
Economies of scale could also be achieved by constructing underground track for high-speed rail – or fast rail as advocated by some commentators – at the same time and along the same alignment as the Sydney to Parramatta metro. It would then facilitate more economic extension of both at some later stage – southwards to Canberra for the former and westwards to Badgerys Creek for the latter.
Interconnected by a fast metro extension to the 24-hour Western Sydney Airport and to Canberra by high-speed or fast rail, Glebe Island could well become the single “front door” to the Australian national government, international cities and Sydney’s CBD. This potential could well stimulate the more rapid expansion of Sydney’s CBD into the new precinct, thereby accelerating returns on the large up-front costs typical of new rail projects.
An international trade precinct could well evolve around this connectivity, particularly if it was eventually furnished with next-generation meeting infrastructure, once the near-new Darling Harbour facilities reach the end of their economic life in just over 20 years. Were this to occur, it would broaden Sydney’s currently brittle economic reliance on the one-trick-pony of financial services.
The combination of transport infrastructure, urban development, concentration of complementary use types, and connections to nearby professional support precincts, such as exist in Pyrmont and could develop in Balmain, would physically mirror the integrated urban economic strategies advocated by Arup’s Luke Thompson. Thus, an inner-city precinct could be developed holistically.
Already, the glass of beer that is Sydney starts to look more like the one on the right in the title image, and the WestConnex offer sounds even more like the introductory “tight wad”.
What might such a precinct look like?
As observed previously, urban design students at the University of NSW have already explored these ideas*. In the image below I offer another version, looking south over Glebe Island.
Some may object that this just looks like development gone mad; we don’t need more high-rise; Sydney is full; you can’t propose this while there is a housing shortage; this doesn’t help western Sydney; you are just looking after the already fat cats.
These sentiments are perfectly understandable but they are misplaced – the oppositional counterparts of relentless single-project “half beers” like WestConnex.
Integrated precinct-based project proposals deserve equally integrated responses from the communities they seek to serve. Clearly, Sydney needs a “both/and” approach to the development and delivery of urban projects, not the narrow “either/or” that currently seems to prevail.
In this example, the proposition is to provide room to grow economies and jobs around new public transport networks that provide ready access to those jobs westwards, not just to those fortunate and rich enough to live in leafy inner-city suburbs. It anticipates the development of other complementary precinct-wide strategies to grow housing, particularly affordable housing, that has much better access to the jobs provided in the central Sydney and Parramatta CBDs.
Returning to our introductory image, only by developing integrated precinct-wide projects – not just policies – that are underpinned by similarly integrated economic strategies, which together explain how jobs, homes and families can all grow equitably, can we then understand how much air is left in Sydney’s glass.
* Masters of Urban Design and Development students at the University of NSW examined these ideas in their final project over the last semester of 2017. Along with a number of other external contributors, this author participated as a tutor. Other NSW universities conduct similar programs that explore urban improvements holistically.
Mike Brown has worked in NSW local and state government in planning, urban design and strategic roles for 15 years. He is also a graduate of the Master of Urban Policy and Strategy program at the University of NSW.