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Metropolitan plans and metaphors: potential problems with Greater Sydney’s ‘three cities’

Posted by on February 28th, 2017 · Government, Wellbeing

By Dr Greg Paine, City Futures Research Centre.

The Greater Sydney Commission is currently exhibiting its proposed district (ie. sub-regional) plans. Concurrently, though with less publicity, it is exhibiting its vision for the metropolitan area itself: Towards Our Greater Sydney 2056, a set of proposed amendments to the current metropolitan strategy A Plan for Growing Sydney (2014).

Sydney has never been short of metropolitan planning documents. It has, though, always had a problem taking on the metro view when it comes to actually delivering for its population. In the documents currently on exhibition we can now judge to some extent the promise of the Commission as a much-needed fresh perspective on planning for Sydney – as a whole not just as a set of geographical and sectorial parts that has long hindered the oft-cited aspiration of a liveable city. Key is the Commission’s conceptualisation of Sydney as three cities: an ‘eastern’ city based on the current Sydney-North Sydney CBD, a ‘central’ city based on Parramatta as eventually an equivalent CBD in itself, and a ‘western’ city based on the expansion of various existing centres and an ‘aerotropolis’ around the new second city airport (which will yet again gobble up, seemingly without any regrets, precious food-growing land, here more fertile and moist than most).

The three cities approach initially sounds good. Sydney has for too-long suffered from its western sector being a blind-spot amongst planning authorities and service providers (and planners themselves) with jobs, transport and services playing perpetual catch-up with its massive population increases. Equally deficient has been a de-valuing of the cultural and intellectual resources that population possesses.

But is the ‘three cities’ conceptualisation the right one? A few years ago the Urban Research Centre at the Western Sydney University, reporting for the Penrith Business Alliance, pointed out the ‘power’ of such ‘spatial metaphors’ – and consequent limitations if your part of the city happens to not be included in its vision. In that case the concern was with the ‘global arc’, a key platform of recent metro plans and stretching from the Norwest Business Park and Macquarie University, through Epping and Chatswood and the North Sydney-Sydney CBDs to the new start-up ‘creative’ precincts of Surry Hills, Alexandria and Zetland and Sydney airport. And where, it was calculated, Sydney’s future globally-connected economy would be based. Its current iteration in A Plan for Growing Sydney includes ‘extensions’ to Parramatta and Port Botany. But what about us?, Penrith asked. And the rest of southern and western Sydney that seemed to be excluded from this overriding vision of where the principal drivers of Sydney’s future lay.

The concerns expressed then seem all too real now with the recent publicity by the Greater Sydney Commission’s Economic Commissioner of yet another metaphor – the ‘latte line’ roughly dissecting the metro area from north-west to south-east and signally a disturbing disparity in jobs, income and opportunities between those to the north of the ‘line’ (holding the ‘good life’) and those to the south (who do not). Instructively, the ‘latte line’ has a remarkable parity with the alignment of the global arc.

Should the ‘three cities’ conceptualisation be reviewed in the light of such experience? On one level it suggests a lingering difficulty with seeing Sydney as a whole.  More critically, one could ask whether ‘three cities’ has a similar potential, as with the global arc, for exclusion. Resulting in a Sydney characterised yet again by a separateness and distain for the other (of which, in Sydney, we know only too well) rather than a necessary joining-together? The risk seems all too real.

Not that such conceptualisations are inherently bad. We now know that what best captures our minds, influences our thinking and generates the necessary enthusiasm for action are feelings and seductive images, not hard data and abstract reports. Metaphors are important catalysts. But we need to choose wisely and adopt only those which are inherently comprehensive and promote connection and inclusion. So what might take the place of ‘three cities’? Fortunately we already have a home-grown example in the ‘city of cities’ model from recent metro strategies and continued also (as ‘an equitable and polycentric city’) as one of nine ‘metropolitan priorities’ proposed in Towards Our Greater Sydney 2056.

It holds the dual promise of Sydney as a single cohesive entity and at the same time polycentric; with those centres existing at different scales and, although hierarchical, closely connected and supportive in function. Each offering its own attractive nucleus surrounded by a rich variety of residential and employment land uses. Each familiar and identifiable as ‘theirs’ by those who live and work there. And collectively resulting in a metropolitan structure conducive to a ’30 minute’ accessible city (another current ‘metropolitan priority’). In a word, Sydney as networked.

It is rather like how Londoners see their huge metropolis as a series of neighbourhoods having their own character and all connected by an intricate public transport system, roughly equivalent in their case to the various villages and townships progressively subsumed in Greater London’s growth. And with the ‘Le Cinq Paris’ project from the 1990s which looked to the establishment of five interactive centres acting as growth points but with a concurrent parallel project, ‘La Mission Banlieues ‘89’ – a process of suburban renewal aimed at diffusing the long-standing and increasingly damaging privilege of central Paris. The ‘Mission’ included small-scale catalyst projects able to achieve composite goals in key localities. It was informed by detailed cognitive and functional mapping aimed at identifying those localities that were key to local identity and wellbeing – and which warrant support and if necessary ‘repair’.  Critical was the underlying conceptualisation: the need for a ‘qualitative urbanism’ to replace the quantitative analyses and zoning principles that characterise usual practice, and an understanding of the city as actually lived – as a continuous interactive spectrum of scale from the metropolis to the street corner tabac kiosk.

It is also consistent, here in Sydney, with some of the proposals arising from Joanne Jakovich’s SOUP (‘Strategic Open Urbanism Platform’) ‘innovation lab’ commissioned a few years ago by UrbanGrowth NSW to ascertain and tap into the aspirations and advices of Sydney’s younger citizens on housing in what will be (and is) after all their city. Active, interesting neighbourhoods around transit points comprising centres in their own right throughout the metropolitan area and providing affordable spaces was a key theme, possibly at odds with our current predilection for massive, centralised ‘growth corridors’.

We now know that a city that is not inclusive cannot maximise its prosperity, and liveability. In generating these goals the efficacy of the ‘three cities’ conceptualisation relative to a renewed primacy to the ‘city of cities’ approach, networked and polycentric, would seem to be worth rigorous consideration as part of the finalisation of the current draft metropolitan strategies.

One Comment so far ↓

  • Lynda Newnam

    Towards Greater Sydney 2056 requires more supporting data and analysis – future work + education/automation and climate change adaptations. Suddenly Badgerys is the silver bullet for driving growth in Western Sydney but why aren’t we looking at the whole transport landscape 40 years hence. Can’t look at Sydney Airport’s relationship to the Sydney CBD and Golden Arc in 2016 and think that Badgerys – Penrith/Parra will bear any resemblance in 2056. Agree regarding the former City of Cities pity it wasn’t supported. We need to look at how major infrastructure decisions play out. We’re watching Westconnex impacts but not recognizsing the decisions, particularly around supporting growth of Sydney Airport and Port Botany (plus intermodals), that made the upgrades inevitable. Pity the GSC doesn’t have state of the art communication tools to provide sophisticated visualizations of 2056 scenarios. If the decision-makers don’t understand/can’t justify/can’t communicate there will continue to be pushback against all major development regardless of merit.

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