The development industry was in defence mode this week over a poll published in the Sydney Morning Herald, with two-thirds of residents declaring the city full, and that the 1.74 million extra people we’re expecting over the next 20 years be pushed to the outskirts.

It was an unsurprising result given the framing of the question, but the sentiment was one the city’s development lobbies couldn’t take lying down.

Urban Taskforce’s Chris Johnson said the results avoided the reality of an unstoppable transformation from a suburban to an urban city, with the naysayers wanting to block provision of affordable housing.

“The two-thirds of Sydneysiders who oppose more development in Sydney are likely to be those that own suburban houses while those who support the development of inner metropolitan Sydney are likely to be those looking for affordable homes,” he said.

The Property Council’s NSW executive director Jane Fitzgerald said the results were an echo of former premier Bob Carr’s claims Sydney was full, which led to a housing shortfall.

“Sydney is growing whether we like it or not and we need to make sure this growth delivers as many benefits as possible,” she said. “Burying our heads in the sand and simply saying ‘we’re full’ didn’t work in the past, and it won’t work now.”

Is it really “growth” we’re worried about?

They’re right too. It’s true. Growth is going to happen like it or not, and to limit urban sprawl we need the vast majority of development to occur in exisiting areas. But is it really growth people are fed up with?

The Fifth Estate ran two opinion pieces that were slightly different takes with the same conclusion: Sydney’s not full; it’s full of shit.

Both Tim Williams, the outgoing head of the Committee for Sydney, and Jeanette Brokman, said the development occurring in Sydney just wasn’t up to scratch.

“Sydneysiders are not against development – they are against bad development,” Williams said. “They don’t like development that clashes with the existing fabric of the neighbourhood. They don’t like buildings that are too tall, or which overwhelm the local streets. They don’t like development that is poorly designed, ugly or boring.”

He argued we hadn’t seen any good high-density development in Sydney since the 1930s. Ouch.

Brokman provided myriad examples of where development had exceeded what any reasonable community member could judge as acceptable – wholesale rezoning of low-density areas to accommodate 25-storey towers; inappropriate high-density apartments placed next to single-storey homes; and the ability of communities to respond taken away.

Brokman said the vast scale of what’s being proposed makes it near impossible to trust NSW planning minister Anthony Roberts’ promise to “recognise local character, and deliver more open and active recreation space”.

“The bullshit meter is well and truly on,” she said.

We too have seen some horrendous examples of proposed development through the government’s ever-growing priority precincts. Marrickville for example, where a thriving creative/industrial precinct could be replaced with high-rise towers over 100 metres, threatening 150 businesses and 1400 jobs.

Or in Rhodes East, where tight space means a “vertical primary school” will need a bridge built across a six-lane road to a “shared use” park for recreational space.

So while we need to increase density, does it need to happen at this scale, with sub-par outcomes and by sidelining community input?

It’s not just the scale; it’s the support

While our opinion pieces picked up on concerns around scale and quality of development, there’s another reason people think Sydney is full. It’s congested. It feels full.

Anyone that drives to work or even catches public transport in peak hour knows we haven’t kept up with demand. And while the NSW government does deserve credit for upping the game in the infrastructure stakes, it’s just not enough.

Yes, we’re putting in metros and light rail. But we’re also wasting billions on WestConnex, despite transport planners and engineers telling us it won’t solve congestion. We’re inexplicably preferencing road projects over rail, such as with the F6 extension.

And it’s not just transport where we’re failing. We’re failing to plan for schools, for necessary green space, and don’t start on the huge numbers of affordable housing we’ve shamefully neglected.

In Parliament, state member for Newtown Jenny Leong said her electorate had the highest density of anywhere in NSW, and she did not believe the city was full.

“I believe that we are not full; we are being failed,” she said. “There is a big difference between those two things.”

Leong, like Williams, said that having the highest density in Sydney was “far from a bad thing” for the area.

“The neighbourhoods that make up the electorate of Newtown – like much of Sydney – are vibrant, bustling places and that is what we love about living in our city.”

What was bad was the lack of government action on what was needed to support that density.

“To the two-thirds of people who say that Sydney is full, I say that it only feels full,” Leong said.

“It feels full because the government is failing to address the things our community needs to make our cities work and thrive. Yes, our trains are crowded, our roads are congested, our classrooms are full, our hospital waiting lists are dismal, our green spaces are shrinking and we need more recreational places, but that does not mean that we are full.

“It means that Premier Gladys Berejiklian, the Liberal government and previous governments have let Sydney become a playground for property developers.”

Her solution? Community-led development.

Brisbane Greens pushing for a new way forward

It’s something the Greens are making a strong platform up in Brisbane, where they are actively trying to unseat current transport, infrastructure and planning minister and deputy premier Jackie Trad.

While in Sydney we’re wresting decision-making away from councils and the communities they represent, through priority precincts and Independent Hearing and Assessment Panels, up there the Greens have a vision of community-led development, where citizen juries would be established to draft neighbourhood plans setting building heights, which would be binding and non-negotiable, along with binding mandatory requirements for trees and green space.

Sounds fanciful. But it probably shouldn’t.

What’s clear is that services needed to support booms in populations must be planned and committed. And the community needs to be involved in saying what growth looks like. With successive governments failing to provide the services to accommodate growth, and communities being shafted rather than included in the development of their neighbourhoods, it’s no wonder people are fed up, and consequently say the city’s full.

But it’s clear to us that Sydney isn’t full; it’s just got a bad case of congestion.

6 replies on “News from the front desk: Issue No 360 – On whether Sydney’s full or if it’s just a bad case of congestion”

  1. Id like to see Jenny Leong and Jon get together and map out a community-lead plan for Newtown, AND more than one community rep on the IHAP to boot. Then see it replicated throughout all Councils.

  2. Whether or not Sydney is full, some bad development will continue as an unfortunate consequence of poor design and failure of the planning approval process to manage the path to design excellence – and this does not have to compromise sustainable features or increase costs.

    There are moves by the GSC and Government Architect’s Office to address this through competitions and design review panels. My experience on several of these with local councils has shown there is a lot of scope for design resolution and value adding on many projects prior to their determination.

    This can do a lot to regain community confidence and show that the consequences of urban density can be mitigated by thoughtful review and better consideration of projects in their broader context. As well as the recent introduction of IHAPs, all councils should be required to have a design review process.

  3. The question shouldn’t be whether Sydney could potentially support a higher population (quite likely it can), but whether it can keep absorbing people at the rate it is without destroying the living standards of the existing population. Clearly it is failing at this, and population growth needs to be slowed.

    Planning controls and democracy itself have been tossed aside in a mad rush to build as many apartments as developers think they can sell. Infrastructure is only being planned as a ruse to house more people along the route, not to better serve the existing population. We have lost control of our city to a cabal of multinational construction companies and property developers.

    It is nice to think having a “greener” government in power might deliver a better outcome, but while the imperative is to build as quickly as possible it will be developers and construction giants running the show. Government of all persuasions will bow to their demands to build higher, more densely, and with massive cost overruns on infrastructure.

  4. You appear to take it as a given that “Growth is going to happen like it or not”. I would like to see this statement unpacked and examined.

    Why it is inevitable that growth will continue?
    How much more growth is going to happen?
    When will is stop?
    Who is all this growth actually benefiting? (I bet it’s not the 2/3 of people who feel that Sydney is “full”.)

    1. This is a really good point. It’s quite obvious that Sydney’s growth has changed in composition a lot over the last 20 years. The suburban response put in place by the SROP in the late 60s was for groups that were, largely, permanent. We now have a large, and churning, semi permanent form of demand.
      Catering for this group isn’t about rolling out the same cookie cutter approach to density everywhere…some will stick around and require family appropriate housing. Monumental density cannot cater for this…hence the $$ million 3 bed apartments.

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