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A tale of three cities: Sydney as sprawling behemoth, or part of a city region?

The Greater Sydney Commission (GSC) has settled on the idea that Sydney will become three connected 30-minute cities. As well as conforming to the rule of three, the plan shows Sydney is still on the journey started in the 1950s to look beyond a one-dimensional and monocentric pattern of growth. We need to ask though: will the three city plan be a win for the sprawlers or a win for the (connected) city region advocates?

Professors Rob Roggema and Peter Bishop have called into question the merits of a third Sydney– the Western Parkland City, which includes an “aerotropolis” at Badgerys Creek. One reason, they said, was that we need to get the second city right first – to build on what already exists and improve the quality of Sydney’s growth rather than expand low-to-medium-intensity development into valuable green and productive surrounds.

Exploring the idea of concentrating growth within existing urban areas leads to consideration of a networked NSW city region where the eastern city (current centre of economic activity), the central city (with the ambitious Parramatta at the core), and Gosford, Newcastle and Wollongong act as one economic region.

At the recent annual Zunz Lecture: a tale of three cities, one of the questions from the floor was about the potential to establish and invest in the concept of economic clustering for a powerful city region in NSW. And no good question about city regions would be complete without a reference to the Randstad – a network of urban agglomerations in the Netherlands, including Amsterdam, Rotterdam, The Hague and Utrecht.

The response: let’s just focus on getting Sydney right first. Let’s control what we can control now. Let’s not overreach.

Sydney’s three cities are less real than the various cities in the Randstad and will only become part of a genuine city region when you can get from the current city centre to the new airport in the west in 30 minutes.

Thinking about the possibility of a city region that concentrates economic activity in existing urban areas of NSW definitely prompts the question: why are we doing an “aerotropolis” in the far west of Sydney? Wollongong has a large amount of brownfield land on the coast, connected by rail and perfect for development. It’s potentially less than an hour from the geographic centre of Sydney and any airport infrastructure investment could be better off somewhere close by.

The city region argument needs deeper consideration. Evidence from the Randstad says promoting a city region is likely to be one of the strategies that would help the central city be the economic powerhouse the GSC and others in the NSW government want it to be.

The eight-million-person Randstad is “the most attractive region of the world”, according to Professor Greg Clark, global cities expert with the OECD and Brookings Institution, who knows a thing or two about city regions.

The connectivity of a global city to its surrounding urban centres – creating a functionally complementary city region – is a powerful process associated with improved liveability and economic performance.

If Sydney were to learn something about city regions from the Randstad, we could start by asking why the Randstad boasted the lowest amount of travel time lost due to traffic jams in 2016 of any European city (potentially the best of the best).

The answer is fairly simple in theory – integrated transport and land use policy. The largest travel time by rail between city centres in the Randstad is the roughly 45 minutes (80 km) between Amsterdam and Rotterdam.

When you get to a city in the Randstad you can ride safely to anywhere in the city. The Dutch approach to urban bicycle infrastructure can be summarised easily: every street is a part of the bicycle network. Consequently the magic one hour travel budget gets you between most places in the Randstad – and the places you need to go are more often than not mixed-use developments surrounding major train stations.

Sydney Central Station to Wollongong (or Gosford) by train, roughly the same distance as Amsterdam-Rotterdam, will take around 90 minutes out of your day. Parramatta to Wollongong takes more than 130 minutes, all going well. The door-to-door journey could easily be double that time. It’s true one of the reasons for the difference is challenging topography. Another reason is the sprawling and set to become sprawling-er suburbs where housing is delivered further and further from jobs.

Some questions: Why bother with integrated transport and land use at the city region scale? Why would government focus on transport infrastructure and improving public places?

The Randstad is now the fourth largest economy in Europe after London, Paris and the Rhine-Ruhr. After London and Paris, the Randstad ranks as the most important location for multinationals in Fortune’s Global 500. It ranks number two in the world for foreign direct investment according to IBM’s Global Location Trends 2017 report and showed a 10 per cent increase in inward investment.

Even though the cities in the Randstad act as one economic region, they have maintained their own unique offer culturally, economically and in their built environment. The cities have not sprawled into and consumed one another – they are connected in time not space.

The Randstad has advantages over Sydney in three important areas: connectivity, innovation and liveability. Learning from the success of the Randstad, what should the emerging NSW city region be doing?

  1. Investing in regional fast rail to connect the city region (centre to centre) in under an hour
  2. Talking about the city region: an annual Randstad Monitor is produced to compare economic and liveability performance to the top 20 metropolitan areas in Europe
  3. Establishing a city region governance model and economic development plan
  4. Promoting compact growth around regional fast rail infrastructure that preserves what is unique about the existing places and encourages specifically targeted agglomerations
  5. Protecting the individual city fringes from opportunistic development

Hugh Gardner is a senior consultant at Arup.

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