We need to get used to Sydney being a global city

In 50 years’ time in Sydney we will live closer, share more, move differently and will have changed some of our entrenched cultural biases about living in a global city.

It’s a reality to which other world-leading cities have already adapted – older cities like London, Barcelona and New York long ago started making the changes needed to allow more people to live as comfortably as possible within the same geographical space.

Important to our city’s future is having a more constructive conversation about new approaches that will address people’s concerns over growth while still meeting the needs of a growing population.

Despite the growth and investment Sydney is currently experiencing and will see in the next 50 years, we are yet to have a meaningful, honest conversation about how the way we live may be different; from our political leaders down (with some notable exceptions like the folks at the Greater Sydney Commission) there is a failure to acknowledge that the growth we are experiencing means we must change.

Growth can be a polarising concept, it has the capacity to divide the community and is a wonderful vehicle for a political scare campaign.  The potential benefits are rarely spoken about and certainly not often by our current crop of political leaders.  But, there are benefits; a more sustainable, healthier city, greater use of public transport and even greater amenity are just a few. Why then is it so hard then to get a Sydney-sider to talk about what they want from the city’s growth rather than what they hate about it?

The sentimentality we feel for the quarter acre block, a concept introduced by Governor Arthur Phillip to provide enough room for residents to grow food and for sanitation, is a testament to how dated notions still influence our views at a deep, subconscious level.

Recent work from SGS Economics & Planning showed that Sydney, at 52 people per hectare (pph), is currently around half as densely populated as London at 97 people per hectare and is notably less dense than cities like Vancouver at 71 pph and Montreal at 65 pph.

In recent months, there has been renewed discussion about the similarities and differences between Sydney and Vancouver with the visit of Gregor Robertson that city’s mayor for the past decade.  If we want to think seriously about what Vancouver has done to ‘cope’ with growth and address housing affordability – let’s start with the obvious.  That city has nearly 40 more people per hectare than our city has.

The recent Census data shows us that despite the political rhetoric we are beginning to live differently.  There are now 15 Sydney suburbs where 90 per cent or more of the residents live in a flat or apartment. This includes very new suburbs such as Sydney Olympic Park where 99.9 per cent of people live in apartments.  That is such a difference from only a generation ago, yet the quarter acre block ‘ideal’ is still front and centre of so many discussions about what the next generation wants.

I’m not saying that growth is without its challenges nor that increased density is a silver bullet.  But what I know for sure is that if our political leaders don’t start raising solutions rather than just soundbites it will be our community that ultimately suffers.

Opposition Leader Luke Foley got it right earlier this year when he said that we must not just build apartments, but build communities. This is a useful way of framing the discussion around new development to accommodate our growth – recognising that development that not only provides a home, but also parks, playgrounds, and the opportunity for other infrastructure such as schools and hospitals is what our community wants.

The recent announcements of the Growth Infrastructure Compact model by the Greater Sydney Commission and the Priority Precincts by the Department of Planning are further evidence of concepts predicated on the belief that we must build communities with access to essential services and jobs, where land development is integrated with new infrastructure.

But there will be plot twists and turns that must be communicated clearly as we transition from how we used to live to how we will live in the future. As we build new roads, rail lines, homes and businesses; disruption is guaranteed.

Like it or not, our city is growing. Getting the best from Sydney’s growth is the real challenge.  Stopping it is not an option – it’s a political strategy, a sound bite, a scare campaign.  It won’t happen. 

So that means, for governments, it’s an immediate challenge.  It is the responsibility of the current State Government, and those that will come in the future, to communicate clearly and honestly Sydney’s growth narrative. This means both the disruption that will occur and the benefits that will be reaped. It must not be on an area by area basis, but a whole of Sydney approach where the benefits and disruption are experienced by all and the responsibility for meeting the demands of our growth shared.

Let’s not move into the future with our eyes wide shut.