The Minns government’s approach to planning Sydney is troubling in terms of direction and substance.
The announcement that it will “fold” the Greater Cities Commission back into the Department of Planning raises several red flags for planning in New South Wales. Staff will also be transferred to the department from the Western Parkland City Authority, which was overseeing the building of a “third CBD” called Bradfield near Western Sydney Airport.
The Greater Sydney Commission (as it was originally known) was created to resolve a series of tricky planning problems. Sydney was growing and an institution to manage this growth city-wide was deemed desirable.
The approach to the city’s development had been top-down and siloed. The Department of Planning made decisions in isolation from other departments and especially local councils. This approach was not delivering a healthy, liveable, growing city.
Understanding why planning works the way it does in NSW has been part of our research agenda for ten years. What we have found, consistently, is a failure to invest real power and trust in those with the skills and mandate to make Sydney work.
The commission was not perfect, but it did make some progress towards breaking the silos between various authorities. Without a similar body that spans departments to deliver on the promise of more housing (or transport or hospitals or parks), the government is setting itself up to fail.
To demonstrate why, let’s unpack some of the challenges Sydney faces today.
Removing proper assessment processes and rushing through residential rezonings is guaranteed to create poorly designed and built housing. Speed will not increase affordability. It will, however, result in housing that is isolated, car-dependent, poorly insulated and under-serviced.
It is time the state government questioned its creed that “the market” will solve our housing crises. It needs to pay due attention to the inherent complexities of housing a growing population of more than 5 million people.
The City of Sydney is not Sydney!
The one upside of the pandemic for cities is that people began to look at the neighbourhoods around them. Suburbs started to be seen as places to be, rather than viewed from the window of the family car.
This shift could finally lead to the entrenched, monocentric view of Sydney being challenged. Questioning of the supremacy of the CBD creates an opportunity for this city’s middle and outer suburbs to thrive.
Pushing this vision forward has always been an aspiration. The true realisation of decentralisation needs more than centralised decision-making.
Sydney grew up with the assumption of a universal need for access to the private car, and it shows.
While other cities in our position have started to challenge the car’s supremacy, our governments have continued to build freeways. We have invested in public transport infrastructure that goes places, but nowhere anyone really needs to go. The A$26.6 billon Sydney West Metro, for example, connects Sydney’s two central business districts, but bypasses the residential hot spots just west of the Parramatta CBD.
Transport planning consistently fails to respond to the needs of the community it’s meant to serve. It is based on outdated notions such as the value of travel time, ignoring the fact people travel the way they do for multiple reasons. Comfort, convenience and habit will often come before a rational evaluation of whether it’s better to take the bus or the family car.
Furthermore, cost-benefit analyses fail to factor in the true costs and benefits of a sustainable transport system. The business case for investment in a bike network, for example, should includes savings to the health system from increased physical activity. And more investment in roads adds to health costs resulting from diseases related to physical inactivity, such as heart disease.
Underpinning our housing, transport and connectivity woes is the fact that our planet is heating. The way we live today in cities like Sydney is both contributing to the problem and preventing the adaptations that need to happen.
Since being elected, the Minns government has stayed silent on the risks of climate change for Sydney. Yet making the transition to a more resilient city will require skill across layers of society, including active engagement with the community and business.
So, what next?
All of these problems will only be resolved when we delve deeply into complexity. We need to respond to the diversity of urban fabrics that together form the whole vast city.
Sydney matters – as a place to live, do business and visit. It needs to be cared for by a body with its interests as its mandate. The housing shortage, car dependency, entrenched monocentricity and the climate challenge demand more than top-down, simple solutions. Middle ground is needed, and that ground is rapidly being lost.
The solution is to take the politics and functions of city planning seriously. We need to better understand that the way our cities are planned and managed determines our ability to deal with the urgent problems we face.
Planning can help us adapt to hotter climates by ensuring we have well-insulated homes powered by renewable electricity and accessible green spaces nearby. Our cities can keep us healthy by providing clean environments and local opportunities for keeping physically active and making social connections. And, of course, we depend on our planning system to collaborate on solving the housing crisis.
But none of these things happen without investments – effective planning takes time, power and funding. And these resources are best allocated to city-wide institutions that know and care about Sydney as a whole.