The radical plan to split Sydney into three

“A relaxed and confidently lovely city, where locals are just as likely as tourists to embrace its restaurants-with-a-view” … a cafe in Sydney’s inner western suburbs. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

A plan to reshape the Sydney region aims to capitalise on its rapid growth by breaking the pull of the harbour. But will it work?

Poet Kenneth Slessor called it a “dispersed and vaguer Venice”; journalist John Birmingham, a “Leviathan”. From its earliest days, Sydney has wrestled with its history as an “unplanned” but naturally blessed city, where unchecked development competes with liveability and beauty.

It was only in the late 1980s, when the tourist industry poured millions of dollars into “brand Sydney”, that the balance tipped towards the beautiful and it began its current life as a place of lifestyle and spectacle, where the annual New Year’s Eve fireworks, stretching along its once-industrial harbour past the Opera House, attract 1.6 million people each year. Over these last decades, Sydney has projected an image to the world of a brash, relaxed and confidently lovely city, where locals are just as likely as tourists to embrace its restaurants-with-a-view or paid climbs over the Harbour Bridge.

But that self-image that Sydney has held on to so fiercely since then is teetering in the face of accelerated growth. Parks and streetscapes are being destroyed for major highway extensions, and new apartment complexes tower over old low-rise housing. Suburbs that have been left to sprawl for decades, especially at the city’s edges, are coming up hard against a lack of infrastructure.

Sydney’s suburbs have been left to sprawl for decades, resulting in a city that for many residents is as car-centred as LA. Photograph: Peter Harrison/Getty Images

The result is a metropolis as car-centred as Los Angeles for the majority of its residents, with one of the 10 highest costs of living in the world; where unaffordable house prices dominate conversation, schools are overcrowded, workers commute long distances, and public transport breaks down when it rains. In the last year testimonials by disenchanted residents fleeing for more liveable cities have become a new micro-genre in its newspapers: “Sydney, I love you, but you’re meaner than ever”; “Why I’m leaving Sydney: the city that actively punishes people for living in it.”

The city is on a path to nearly double its population of 4.7 million by 2056; by contrast London and New York are expected to grow by 30% over the same period. That growth has been uneven. Of the 1.7 million more people expected in the city by 2036, two-thirds are expected to settle in the 6,300 sprawling square kilometres of more multicultural, less prosperous Greater Western Sydney. Meanwhile jobs and wealth (two thirds of the state’s economic growth in 2015-16) continue to be concentrated largely in the east, in a narrow “Eastern Economic Corridor,” stretching from Macquarie Park north of the Harbour Bridge to the international airport in the south.

This inequality between centre and periphery is not peculiar to Sydney. It is also part of a global trend, in which populations are deserting leafier areas for the attractions of a denser inner city.

Central Sydney in 1910. Seven years later JD Fitzgerald described it as “A city without a plan, save whatever planning was due to an errant goat.” Photograph: City of Sydney Archives

At the same time, local history compounds the challenges Sydney faces: its notorious battle between chaos and control dates back to tensions between the convicts who built their own higgledy-piggledly houses on the cliffs to the west of the city’s early water source, and the colonial administrators to the east. “A city without a plan, save whatever planning was due to an errant goat,” was how town planning advocate J D Fitzgerald described Sydney in 1917.

That is the context into which the Greater Sydney Commission (GSC) has just released its strategic regional plan, a vision for how the city can smooth those lines out over the next 40 years of growth and deliver the benefits more equally. It presents the region’s rapid expansion as an opportunity for “transformative urban renewal” that, if proactively harnessed, starting now, could ensure the Sydney of the not-too-distant future remains a global city which is both culturally diverse and an economic powerhouse.

The language is positive, but what it proposes is radical. It will divide Sydney from one city, into three.

Reshaping the city

Under the ambitious plan for “A Metropolis of Three Cities”, Sydney is to be reshaped into three separate but linked urban centres: an Eastern Harbour City focused on the existing central business district (CBD), a Central River City at its geographical centre to the west and, further west still, the Western Parkland City.

The GSC’s proposal aims to rebalance the city from its historic orientation around its original CBD and into three connected but independently flourishing cities. Ideally, most residents will live within 30 minutes of their jobs, schools, healthcare and essential services. Affordable housing and improved mass transit will stimulate investment and jobs in new economic corridors.

“I think it’s a really brave plan,” says architect and urban designer Craig Allchin, who worked on the 2005 and 2010 metropolitan strategies that preceded it. “Everyone in the urban planning world is following its development because it’s such a fundamental rethinking.

“It’s trying to solve all the things we’re worried about in the city: housing affordability, liveability, demographic change, population growth, climate change.”

However, while the three-city metropolis may look like an about-turn in Sydney’s traditional orientation, it has roots that predate colonisation, according to the GSC’s chief commissioner. In her introduction, Lucy Turnbull writes that the city’s redrawn boundaries reflect Indigenous people’s relationships to the land as “saltwater country” (Eastern Harbour City), “muddy river country” (Central River City), and “running water country” (Western Parkland City).

Everyone in the urban planning world is following its development because it’s such a fundamental rethinking Craig Allchin, architect

The three-city metropolis is a shared vision, writes Turnbull, “bringing the depth of Aboriginal culture and custodianship to the fore in the future planning of Greater Sydney”.

But guiding such a major rethinking into reality will require unprecedented collaboration and investment from all tiers of government. The GSC plan is unusual in the level of administrative reform that has already been put in place. Most significant is the Western Sydney City Deal agreed upon by federal, state and local governments. The single largest planning, investment and delivery partnership in Australia’s history, and aimed at delivering the new airport and connecting infrastructure in the Western Parkland City, it has genuine potential to counterbalance the pull of the eastern city.

The Western City Deal seeks to counterbalance the lure of the eastern city with its beaches, international airport and central business district. Photograph: Mick Tsikas/EPA

It is this third, westernmost city that is the real game-changer. With three urban centres circling a planned second airport and “aerotropolis”, its mission is to be the most connected place in Australia. The GSC claims the Western Sydney airport will act as a catalyst for a new “Western Economic Corridor”, providing 28,000 direct and indirect jobs within five years of its 2026 opening. State and federal government have committed to at least the first phase of new mass transport routes. In particular, a new rail link running through the extended airport to its north and south will act, says architect Allchin, as “a kind of spine” for the new Western Parkland City.

The whole endeavour is a huge proposition, he says, because by making the west a more affordable, diverse and attractive place to live, Sydney has the potential to be unique among global cities, by breaking the pull of a primary city centre.

The ‘30-minute city’ lifestyle

Judith Ridge is already experiencing the benefits of the “30-minute city” lifestyle envisaged by the GSC. Nearly eight years ago she moved to Windsor, an early colonial settlement on the edge of the proposed Western Parkland City, to escape the gridlock of the inner west. Working as a teacher, she is saving the $80 a week she used to spend on tolls driving to work.

She says the area is changing: its older, white and working-class population has been joined by inner-city renters, a handful of queer couples, and residents originally from China and Vietnam. Here on the semi-rural Sydney outskirts, they can afford to buy “an actual house”, says Ridge. While Windsor is economically depressed compared to the gentrifying suburbs nearby, it’s also escaped the encroachment of “cheek-by-jowl, shake-hands-with-your neighbour” housing estates, she notes – and she can see the stars at night.

More than two-thirds of the city’s growth is expected to centre on more multicultural and less prosperous western suburbs. Photograph: Bloomberg via Getty Images

It may not last. In a city still strongly commited to growth, the population of Western Parkland City is projected to increase from 740,000 in 2016 to well over 1.5m by 2056, transformed into a “thriving, productive and sustainable area”, starting with the 24-hour, seven-day international airport.

Yet, notes Prof Robert Freestone from the department of planning at the University of New South Wales, it remains unclear if the airport will be the vaunted catalyst for an economic boom – or even if it will attract domestic or international commercial airlines or freight. He has questioned how it can be expected to compete with the established Kingsford Smith Airport, one of the big earners along the Eastern Economic Corridor; Sydney Airport Group has already turned down the first option to operate it. Details of the surrounding “aerotropolis” remain sketchy.

Demand for new housing will also come at the expense of the space western Sydney currently offers. With the western district due to bear the brunt of the population growth, the plan has identified a need for 184,500 new homes there by 2036, and proposes releasing large tracts of land to form new walkable neighbourhoods close to public transport.

A housing development in Oran Park, western Sydney. The plan has identified a need for 184,500 new homes in the city’s west by 2036. Photograph: David Gray/Reuters

These would be made up of “a range of housing types, tenures and price points” to provide for the different needs of the community, it specifies, with view to bringing prices down.

But the enormous number of new houses needed to meet demand – 725,000 across the region by 2036, a minimum of 36,250 every year – will inevitably mean knocking down huge swathes of detached buildings to make room for more apartments. This is also the case for the Eastern Harbour City, where there are just 31 people per hectare; by contrast, New York City’s five boroughs have an average density of 109 people per hectare.

Building more apartments “can be perfectly valid, if people are given time to think about it and be part of the process”, says Allchin, but the plan does not spell it out explicitly and so misses the opportunity to lead from the front. The GSC envisages compact and innovative forms of housing on smaller lots than the traditional suburban quarter-acre block, but Allchin worries that the overall footprints of these new buildings tend to be bigger, meaning a sacrifice of green garden space. He would like to see bolder, more imaginative planning. “Really dense housing with lots of landscape around it”, for example, could become a world-leading new Sydney model.

But convincing Sydneysiders to embrace apartments will be fraught, when there is already intense local resistance to galloping high-density housing, especially in the city’s much-loved inner enclaves and leafy garden suburbs. “Marrickville, not Mirvacville” runs one local campaign, playing on the name of a major developer, and nodding to the anxiety that Sydney’s very sense of place is at stake from a perceived long history of governments’ favouring developers over residents.

Missing stories

Few locals, reading the GSC’s plans, will be able to put aside the stories of overdevelopment and graft that are a powerful thread in the city’s mythology: the dark side of its self-image. But there are other stories the plan omits. First, there is the question of whether its population boom is in fact inevitable. And the plan largely ignores sea-rise – a failure of imagination shared by most of the world’s coastal cities, but an incongruous one, given the breezy emphasis on other measures to increase resilience and adapting to climate change threats such as extreme heat.

Last year the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association predicted global sea levels could rise by two metres by 2100 if greenhouse gas emissions remain at their current levels. With 500 gigalitres of harbour stretching through its centre, this is potentially enough to make catastrophically literal the Australian poet Kenneth Slessor’s charming comparison of 1950s Sydney to Venice.

Luxury properties surrounding Rushcutters Bay. The new plan largely ignores potential sea level rises – which could be catastrophic for a city with 500 gigalitres of harbour running through its centre. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

Yet sea-rise rates just one mention on a single page of the plan, while the state government’s draft “coastal management plan” places a soothing emphasis on “adapting” to “pressures”. While the GSC at least commits to increasing the tree canopy of western Sydney, and preserving Indigenous heritage, farmland and natural landscapes, a fully imagined future plan for Sydney might have looked backwards to before the last glacier melt 21,000 years ago, when its coast stretched 26km further to the east, and the harbour was a steep river valley.

That last inundation is still remembered in Indigenous oral history, says Dennis Foley, a professor at Canberra University and Gai-mariagal author of Repossession of Our Spirit, a personal history of the clans of Sydney’s northern beaches. Once there were eight clans, he says, but when the water rose two “never came in – so we don’t talk about them”.

These days most public events in Australia begin with a “Welcome to Country” from an Indigenous person, or an “Acknowledgement of Country” as part of a growing respect for traditional ownership. “Country” is a complex term, denoting Indigenous Australians’ land, sea, sky, rivers, seasons, plants, animals, belonging, and spirituality: to speak of one’s country is to speak of place, but also a spiritual connection. “Always was, always will be Aboriginal land” has become a rallying cry for recognition of land rights.

Turnbull’s attempt to root the GSC’s plan in Indigenous knowledge may appear an attempt to make the huge changes being foisted on the city by the plan sound inevitable because they are historic. But when asked if the GSC’s three city divisions map onto Indigenous knowledge, Foley says they “absolutely” do, in the sense that they reflect the fact that “the Sydney basin is a mixture of fresh and saltwater law, based in matrilineal law”.

Unlike the central and western Aboriginal nations across the continent, which are mostly based on a patrilineal belief system, the eastern coastal Aboriginal Nations are matrilineal. “A complicated system of traditions exists within a small geographic area that includes the Georges, Parramatta and Lane Cove Rivers, where ecological convergence occurs between fresh water and salt water by natural occurring rock weirs,” says Foley. “The ecological convergence brings together two differing Aboriginal belief systems.”

At the same time, he cautions against assuming a direct equivalence between Indigenous borders and the western concept of land boundaries. “For Aboriginal people, the concept of a border or division is a moving, fluid site that can alter with natural phenomena, and the merger of Aboriginal groups due to marriage, drought, and more recently the violence and extirpation of culture by colonisation.”

Prof Jakelin Troy, director of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander research at the University of Sydney, says Turnbull’s three terms for country – saltwater, muddy river and running water country – are “news to her”. Aboriginal people, she says, usually talk about themselves as being from “salt”, “freshwater”, or “desert” country – or even “ice”, as her Ngarigu family’s country around the Snowy River is referred to. Nor, as far as she can remember, do these terms appear in the extinct local Sydney language, which she has revived from notebooks from the colony’s first years.

The attempt to root the plan in Indigenous knowledge is controversial. Photograph: Torsten Blackwood/AFP/Getty Images

“I think it’s a whitefella notion that’s potentially mapped onto the way people use [Indigenous] country,” she says. A GSC spokesman could only tell me that “an Elder” had made the observation to Turnbull.

Even if, Troy says cautiously, some Indigenous Sydneysiders are identifying through these terms, it would only be one of the great range of ways Aboriginal people talk about themselves after being forced to adjust territorial groupings by the violence of European invasion.

The emphasis placed by both Foley and Troy on resilience in the face of great change suggests that Indigenous knowledge has a lot more to offer in guiding discussions of Sydney’s future than as an “original vision”, which, Turnbull claims, the GSC’s plan will fulfil.

A more genuine attempt to mirror the Indigenous relationship with Sydney, Troy says, would be to ask, “What is Sydney for Aboriginal people now – to ask them about caring for country and loving country, and still having sovereignty.”

A model of detachment?

It may be that the greater ambition of the three-city plan is to model detachment in fast-paced and uncertain times, softening us up to change itself through abstraction. In the language of the GSC, bush becomes “open space”, suburbs are “metropolitan clusters”, and creeks “green corridors”.

Even the clinical poetry of the three new city names suggests its architects are envisaging a level of change more appropriate to the world’s masterplanned new insta-cities – Tbilisi Sea New City, Abdullah Economic City in Saudi Arabia, or Malaysia’s Forest City – and a future Sydney that, for all the talk of preserving its “Great Places”, will have to bid goodbye to its old self-image.

Sydney has long divided itself into territories that are as much psychological as geographical, with the Eastern Suburbs standing as shorthand for “wealthy and self-involved” and the Inner West for “gentrified and left-wing” while the western suburbs – at least to outsiders – have been seen as Sydney’s disadvantaged, ethnically divided, crime ridden id. The GSC plans to drastically alter these old divisions.

Street artist Nitsua completes a newly commissioned street artwork on a terrace house in Newtown, part of the city’s gentrified inner west. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

And yet, thanks partly to bigger changes sweeping the world, they are already giving way to new divisions, especially a wider divide between rich and poor.

Twenty-three kilometres west of downtown Sydney, Parramatta has been busy for some time transforming from Australia’s oldest inland city into a second metropolitan centre that will anchor the Central River City. High-rise around its large metro railway station, its long, bright streets also incorporate a convict prison, old fibro cottages and some of the colony’s earliest farms.

Author Felicity Castagna lives here with her husband and two children. Once, she said, you would have been able to get the best feel for this vibrant, well-established suburb of old and new immigrants by sitting at the top of the pedestrianised main street. But now it is a hole, slated for a $2bn high-rise development of the City Square, as the city rebuilds itself around a “reactivated” river.

High-rise development in Parramatta, which will anchor the proposed ‘Central River City’. Photograph: Steve Christo – Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images

“Even with all the new building, most work is being done by big corporations that have their own suite of people,” says Castagna, which cuts out local tradespeople.

The development is not all bad – as a writer, it brings her in touch with more audiences, she says, which has been wonderful – but she mourns the working-class suburb of old. “Some of the families who live here used to have backyards – now they’re living seven to eight in apartment blocks, while apartments on the river are going for $3m.”

One decked out in Versace furniture rents out for $500 a night. “You can pay extra money for people to come and serve you champagne,” she notes.

Castagna has set two acclaimed novels in Parramatta, and has been a member of writing groups with a mission to reclaim the western suburbs from outside perceptions of it as a cultural wasteland.

Castagna says western Sydney authors wrote first from a defensive desire to shine a positive light on the region, but more recently, have “started to work towards showing western Sydney in its massive socioeconomic and religious diversity, as very modern and contemporary”. And yet, interviewers sometimes still ask her: “How will readers relate to the west?”

It remains to be seen how much the Sydney of 40 years’ time resembles the one set out by the GSC. But by proposing a plan that does not focus on its postcard harbour and CBD, and investing in areas it has previously left casually to spread, A Metropolis of Three Cities may see the old imaginative boundaries of Sydney disappear forever.

Source: Delia Falconer, “The radical plan to split Sydney into three”, The Guardian, April 10, 2018

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The radical plan to split Sydney into three