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New South Wales

Oct 13, 2017

Sydney isn’t full. Its existing home owners just hate change.

According to many residents, Sydney has suddenly reached capacity. But the problem isn't a physical one: it's political.

Alan Davies — Editor of The Urbanist

Alan Davies

Editor of The Urbanist

A Fairfax ReachTel poll finds a majority of Sydneysiders reckon the city is full:

“More than two-thirds of people believe Sydney is full and property development should be pushed to the fringes, new polling shows, amid simmering tensions within communities and the Berejiklian government over the issue.

“With plans for hundreds of thousands of apartments in the city’s ‘priority precincts’ over the next 20 years, the ReachTel poll conducted for Fairfax Media shows 66.4% of NSW residents oppose more development in existing areas to accommodate a bigger population.”

Whatever the merits of redeveloping established areas might be, the claim that Sydney is full is patently untrue. Australia’s premier global city can continue to grow outwards and upwards as every other city throughout history has done.

Sydney isn’t especially large by world standards; there are 103 cities in the world that are larger. The Tokyo-Yokohama conurbation has 38 million residents and Osaka-Kobe-Kyoto 17 million. The New York conurbation (NY-NJ-CT) has 21 million inhabitants and Los Angeles-Riverside has 15 million.

Nor is Sydney choked by high densities. It’s the densest city in Australia, but there are 935 cities in the world with a population greater than half a million that have more residents per sq km than Sydney. Even Los Angeles, the poster child of sprawl, is denser than Sydney. All but seven of the 103 cities with a larger population than Sydney have a higher average density.

[Is the ’20-minute city’ mostly spin?]

Notwithstanding their greater size and density, many of these cities — like Paris, London, Berlin — are highly sought-after places to live and work. The bigger ones have problems associated with size but the net benefits they provide make living in them not only worthwhile but desirable.

Some of them are already much larger than the eight million population that Sydney is projected to reach sometime around 2050 e.g. New York (21.4 million), London (10.5 million), Paris (10.9 million). Sydney will necessarily be different at nearly double its current size but it won’t be “full”, not even close.

The idea that Sydney is “too crowded” is an old one, but Sydney has direct access to the resources and/or technology to provide the power, water and communications required by 8 million residents. It has sufficient prospective redevelopment sites and fringe land to easily support the projected population. It also has the wealth to build the required transport infrastructure and the brains to plan for growth.

It’ll make mistakes like it always has, but Sydney’s problem with growth isn’t about physical capacity. The problem is mostly political. While there’s an immediate issue around the pace of growth, the key problem is the bulk of residents — or more accurately, existing home owners — don’t want change.

They feel they paid for a street, neighbourhood and suburb with a set of qualities — like character and travel times — they expect won’t change for the worse from the day they move in to the day they leave. As they see it, the implicit contract didn’t allow for changes like two-storey town houses next door (much less a mid-rise apartment block!) or an extra 10 minutes driving to work. As with any consumer issue, they’re demanding they get what they reckon they bought.

The idea home owners have an entitlement to all things beyond their property boundary staying the same is wrong, but they’re right in thinking population growth inevitably means change. There was a time when the option of fringe expansion meant established residential areas could pretty much remain undisturbed as the city grew, but those days are long gone.

The fringe is too far away from the centre now for new generations of households and, in any event, many of them want a more cosmopolitan lifestyle and are prepared to trade off space for place to get it. They want to live in established areas and that means more development, more congestion, and more pressure on services.

[Four Corners hypes Australia’s property ‘bubble’]

Existing residents rightly demand better infrastructure and better policies. There are actions that must be taken to manage growth — like better public transport, congestion pricing, priority precincts — but the new world necessarily won’t be the same as the old one.

For example, even if they don’t live in a priority development area, there’s a fair chance new low-rise multi-unit developments will be built in their street, maybe even next door. Equally, it’s inevitable traffic congestion will impact more and more on their daily travel. They might find they must shift some trips from their preferred mode, driving, to public transport or, heaven forbid, walking; and pretty soon they’ll probably have to pay for the right to park their car and drive in congested conditions. There’ll be periods when local services like schools can’t cope as well as they used to with demand.

Growth and development should bring benefits in the longer term — like a stronger metropolitan economy, more local services, and improved access to housing — but residents don’t tend to appreciate them or, perhaps, are even aware of them. That’s because the benefits of development are broad, diffuse and delayed, while the pain is largely local, highly visible and immediate.

No, Sydney isn’t anything like “full”. It’s not so exceptional that it alone of numerous world cities can’t grow a lot bigger. The issue for Sydney is most existing home owners don’t want things to change for (what they see as) the worse.

We can manage growth better as I’ve discussed before, and we can even slow the pace of change, but there’s no silver bullet that will enable cities to accommodate development – whether generated by immigration, higher fertility, a shift to smaller households, or an increasing preference for cosmopolitanism — without altering what some groups have got and without changing their ways of living.

*This article was originally published at Crikey blog The Urbanist


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16 thoughts on “Sydney isn’t full. Its existing home owners just hate change.

  1. old greybearded one

    As it current;y exists, Sydney is full. The infrastructure is awful, the green space vanishing, the price of houses horrendous and the harbour misused. It could be way better, but we will have to destroy the current developer gets it all system and the Urban Task Force etc. Singapore has many lessons, one of which is the value of green.

    1. old greybearded one

      Currently you fool

    2. Myki Smith

      Totally agree. There are several debatable issues here.
      (1)”More than two-thirds of people believe Sydney is full and property development should be pushed to the fringes, new polling shows,” cannot be dismissed as simply one of :
      “existing home owners don’t want things to change for (what they see as) the worse.
      There is plenty of evidence that experts (and residents) see the changes as the downside
      of unrestrained overpopulation.
      (2) The fact that Sydney is not as densely populated as other major cities is not particularly relevant. Sydney has been popular and has grown to this point precisely because it is not like other cities. Why sacrifice the positives simply to be like London or Tokyo (no thanks!).
      (3) Extra-high density living does not have to happen in Australia. We have the space to decentralise. It is already happening at a slow pace but governments should be trying harder to pick up the pace.
      (4) I bet most residents would prefer to see their property values decrease (or at least stop rising at a fast rate) rather than see their community degraded in order to accommodate more and more people.
      In summary, residents’ opinions should count, they do not necessarily wan’t to live in a London or Tokyo, and there are options other than higher living densities. Finally, beware of “unlimited growth” proponents.
      (BTW – I live in Melbourne)

    3. Grant Doran

      Another pointless comparison between Sydney and a foreign city; this time Singapore. They have absolutely nothing in common.
      As for your claim that “The infrastructure is awful”, you need to travel more.

  2. lethell

    So, it’s a moral and an aesthetic problem as well, aesthetics having a moral dimension since there is something morally repugnant in transforming beauty into ugliness and requiring people to dwell in and alongside the ugliness.

    1. jmendelssohn

      Totally agree. If successive NSW governments had invested in high speed inter-urban travel instead of trashing it (Newcastle to Sydney is now slower than it was 40 years ago!) then people could easily commute to the CBD and live elsewhere. If they had built the new airport at Badgery’s Creek (with high speed train to both Sydney + Canberra) when it was first needed, then the surrounding infrastructure would have eliminated much of Sydney’s horrendous traffic. It’s not 10 minutes extra for the commute, its 30 minutes to an hour. It’s not medium rise developments in the old inner suburbs, it’s banks of high rise, with no increase in parks, schools or public transport.
      That’s an interesting comparison with Singapore – a well planned city with extrensive public gardens and parklands, great cultural facilities, an education system (including universities) that sets an example for all, and superb public transport. They also make life very difficult for foreigners who wish to buy real estate.

      1. Zeke

        Actually, the Newcastle to Sydney train is slower than it was NINETY years ago, and getting slower.

  3. Wallywonga

    Deterioration in lifestyle due to very poor planning. Sydney siders were almost hooked on high density living, but increased density requires lifestyle, and therapeutic vibrance to make it all worthwhile.
    Developer driven accommodation planning, and “just enough charlie” transport solutions mean all the current projects, which are causing great inconvenience, will be inadequate anyway when finished.
    Personally forced out of living in Surry Hills by the poorly positioned light rail project, cut in two what was a very charming suburb previously. Sadly also no longer much of a gay influence there which added character, Oxford St is now pathetically deserted. Once they start on Wooloomooloo and Darlinghurst there will be no unique character suburbs left.
    Yes it is political; tasteless state politicians who are just greedy for developer stamp duty, and the confusingly popular Clover Moore, with an ideological green agenda, just thinks everyone should ride a bike!

    1. Wallywonga

      New apartment size is also a huge issue. Previously there were more options; a 2 bedder might be up to 100sq with 2 car parks, storage. Lucky to get greater than 85sq these days, 1 car park only.
      This model seems to be attractive to Asian investment buyers, but not to an Australian born chosing a residence. Get that we should discourage cars on the road, but for most in Sydney cars are not to drive to work, but for recreation. Are there good public transport systems available to the beaches, and outside of the city?
      Sydney and other inner city councils have colluded with developers to enshrine this model because of whatever ideology, developers of course love it because they get more dollar to the square.
      Instead of wondering why people don’t want to embrace this as permanent residence, just look a little closer at the quality of life options that these boxes truly offer.
      Sick of Singapore being held up as perfection also by obsessive town planners – personally find the place quite sterile, and reflective of its authoritarian masters.

  4. Dog's Breakfast

    Utter straw man bullshit Alan.

    Of course Sydney isn’t full in terms of numbers, or comparative densities, or any other rubbish argument. Sydney is full because you can no longer get around, because morning peak hour merges with midday peak hour and then into afternoon peak hour, which extends into all of Saturday. The city isn’t full by numbers, it is full in terms of gridlock, and the residents know it, and that is before all these higher density areas are fully built out.

    The planned solutions, light rail that will be no more effective than the current bus system (for the eastern suburbs light rail at least) for Westconnex which is as likely to exacerbate the problem as relieve it, for developing medium density housing with appalling design, build, construct and sign-off procedures which ensure that owners of these new apartments will invariably be able to hear everything that anyone on there floor is saying (or toilet visits) and will be up for significant maintenance bills the minute that the developer is off the hook.

    Bullshit Sydney isn’t full. Given our politics, our transport systems, our development structures and everything else, Sydney is way past full.

    A silly polemic. Just blame those who don’t want change. I don’t care what is happening in the suburbs and surrounds, but if there are no parks and I can’t get out of my neighbourhood without facing major traffic snarls, then this isn’t nimbyism or a desire for no change, this is common effing sense, and every level of government has failed us, with no end is sight, because they are bought and paid for by developers.

  5. Graeski

    I guess part of the answer lies in the kind of future nation we wish to live in. Are we to be 50 million rats crammed into half a dozen cages (the capital cities), while the rest of the country is effectively de-populated due to agricultural robots and mechanised mining? Or do we take advantage of what is still one of our natural advantages: loads of empty space? If we start building/replacing city residential accommodation along the lines of, say, Tokyo, we could maybe fit ten times the current population into our capitals – but why would we want to do this? What would be the point?

  6. Woopwoop

    Hey Alan, why didn’t you mention the REALLY big cities, like Lagos, or the Pearl River Megalopolis? Would you like to live there?
    I know someone who taught in a primary school in Hong Kong. The kids had to eat their lunch at their desk, because there was no playground. Yes, people want to live there because of the “net benefits.”

  7. Matt Moran

    Yes, clearly the problem is the majority of residents who live there. If only they would just up and move out so the pro-growth lobby and their “cornucopian” counterparts can have the unsustainable Big Australia devoid of quality of life much less the rich biodiversity they inherited they so dearly want.

    Well, all I can say is that if you continue to dismiss, shame, ignore or otherwise denigrate the people who are at the coal face of this endless onslaught by discarding sensible discussion and debate, then you drive people to more extreme positions ergo the rise in popularity of divisive voices such as Pauline Hanson’s One Nation.

  8. AR

    What a strange piece, moral myopia par excellence, not to mention a total inability to understand simple physics – the application of energy for a desired outcome.
    Comparisons with Shanghai/Singapore are beyond risible – too tendentiously mendacious to be worth refuting.
    When did the author last go beyond the concrete/asphalt, if ever?

  9. mark leo

    Well Alan, given the response so far, looks like you are right…it’s all in their 50’s Romaticism heads. NIMBYism is almost an Australian pastime. Points about dodgy developers, loss of public spaces and inadequate transport infrastructure are accurate but rectifiable. Possibly the biggest fallacy is the one about backyards and places to run and play, when I wager the reality is that Australians simply live in massive homes compared to their overseas urban counterparts.

  10. Steve Hutchison

    Unwillingness to change is a big factor. A big suburban house is great for raising a family. But once the kids have grown up and moved out those that remain would be better off moving into a large apartment with the shops and services they need within walking distance. That would save having to drive everywhere and relieve congestion. It would also save having to maintain a big house and garden.

    I’m not suggesting people have to move into a tiny unit. With the wealth they have tied up in their suburban home they would be able to afford large apartment with a big balcony. It’s just a reluctance to change that is holding people and our cities back.

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