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The Political Economy of the Compact City: the Story from Sydney

Posted by on December 4th, 2015 · Cities, Government, Housing, Planning reform

By Joshua Favaloro (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

By Joshua Favaloro (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

There are few more contentious urban projects than Barangaroo, the history of which was recently described as “a quintessentially Sydney story”. It’s a description that highlights the complex and contested nature of Sydney’s urban renewal landscape, which is also revealed in a new City Futures Working Paper by Dr Raymond Bunker. Entitled The changing political economy of the compact city and higher density urban renewal in Sydney, the paper offers a detailed examination of the policies and politics shaping redevelopment efforts in Sydney in the 21st century.

The story the paper tells is both a familiar and a fascinating one. In keeping with the neoliberal political economy that has emerged from the 1980s onwards, recent state governments of both political persuasions have reconfigured the powers and relationships underpinning the development of Australia’s largest city. As the paper shows, this has been achieved through “a shift in focus from use value to exchange value in renewal projects, enhancements to the executive power of state governments, and greater interaction by governments with powerful lobbying groups and corporations.” To trace these changes, the paper considers a broad range of contributing factors, including:

  • the changing focus of Sydney’s metropolitan strategies from 2005 to 2014;
  • recent directions in infrastructure policy and funding;
  • the emergence of public development corporations; and
  • the use and reform of the planning system.

Through the analysis of these issues, the paper concludes that the evolution of higher density renewal policy in New South Wales “might best be described as initially reactive, then passive, and then vigorously proactive”. Yet while both Labor and Coalition governments have encouraged urban renewal, they have employed different methods and mechanisms to achieve their goals. The end result is “a policy landscape that remains messy and opportunistic”, giving rise to the kinds of outcomes seen in Barangaroo.

This working paper has been produced as part of an ARC Discovery Project entitled Planning in a Market Economy: The Case of the Compact City, being undertaken by Bill Randolph, Simon Pinnegar, Raymond Bunker, Hazel Easthope, Laurence Troy and Laura Crommelin. The Sydney paper will soon be accompanied by a similar working paper examining Perth’s urban renewal experience, which is itself not without controversy. Together these policy papers lay the groundwork for the project’s innovative conceptual and methodological analysis of the nature and extent of higher density urban renewal in these two cities. This analysis will include mapping of recent high density developments against housing targets and projections; an examination of the full life-cycle of high density developments in key case study areas, from planning to development to sale; and a qualitative exploration of the motivations and experiences of those involved in creating the current policy context. The project is due for completion in late 2016; check back regularly for further updates.

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