sydney metro station
Photo: Sydney Metro

Recent focus on how Sydney’s new train stations can help house a growing population offer an urban alternative to city of sprawl. Committee for Sydney chief executive Gabriel Metcalf told newspapers that “the metro train lines offered an opportunity to solve the city’s growth and land use problem”.

He estimated Sydney could easily fit half of the population growth forecast for the city over the next 20 years around the new train stations. Rob Stokes, former Planning Minister and now minister for Infrastructure, Cities, and Active Transport, agreed. The Emmanuel Macron of our state government, he doesn’t think density is good, he knows it is! 

The densification policies this city needs never appear or they pop their head up in draft form (such as the Sydenham to Bankstown Urban Renewal Corridor Strategy) and disappear as hard as Peng Shui after her last Weibo post. Or go missing, like Mr Stoke’s well named “missing middle” idea.

The prediction that Metro Rail is great and can be the focus of land use change is right. Real land use planning goes with infrastructure. Somewhere to be and go. And building around and on top of new Metro Rail is smart and sustainable, and there is also an ethical dimension – metropolitan and ecological equity. 

Why should a few existing households near a new Metro Rail Station get the benefit of this billion-dollar infrastructure investment, when those distant households that pay the same taxes get nothing? There is also a sweet irony if some of the city’s best NIMBY households pick up an even bigger capital gain because of this huge public investment. The perceived worth of historic streetscapes (that are mostly turn of the century project homes anyway) is dwarfed by the metropolitan inequity they represent. Old houses near new Metro Rail stations are unfair.

The ecological dimension is also becoming real. Raising the Warragamba dam wall and flooding World Heritage bushland is a direct knock-on from not embracing urban consolidation and letting metropolitan growth into the flood plain. 

The poor old koala that haplessly choose a habitat favoured by metropolitan refugees who can’t afford the coastal lifestyle is doomed too. A real urban lifestyle would have been just as attractive for those coastal wannabes if it was on offer – and would lower the risk they’d wind up voting for the Nationals or One Nation. A win for the koalas and civility.

I agree and fully support the Committee for Sydney and Mr Stokes. I want their intentions to become real.

New housing will not sprout on or around Metro Rail stations like mushrooms after rain. Local government authorities that partly control land use planning around these stations have no real interest in accommodating half of Sydney’s forecast population growth.

Local government is the big obstacle standing in the way of Metro Rail densification. Local government reform in established Sydney has long been a poison chalice for reforming state governments and a recent pattern has emerged in terms of reform of this sector.

In the early 2000s there was the Sproats inquiry (Inquiry into the structure of Local Government in Eight Council areas in the Inner City and Eastern Suburbs of Sydney by Professor Kevin Sproats) that sought a retooled Central, Inner West and Eastern Sydney. That process was rejected by all but an ambitious City of Sydney under the then Mayor Frank Sartor.

The changes that happened were just a takeover of parts of the old Leichhardt Council and a full takeover of South Sydney Council. The Sproats dream was an eight-into-four council amalgamation reform for central Sydney.

Figure 1: The K Sproats Dream 2001.

The more recent attempt at local government reform from 2010 to 2017 (Final Report of the NSW Independent Local Government Review Panel by Professor Graham Sansom, 2013) followed a similar path. Kind of successful but not really. Many of the local government areas that might be expected to take part in Metro Rail densification avoided reform and kept their 19th century ward based political structures in place. And the two biggest amalgamated councils on Metro Rail, the Inner West and Canterbury Bankstown, seemed to have morphed into even bigger resisters of density.

The Inner West has become Greater Leichhardt Council and Canterbury Bankstown, scared by an Independent Commission Against Corruption inquiry, has lost its taste for development. The structure of local government in established Sydney is there to resist Metro Rail densification.

Figure 2: The G Sansom Dream 2013.

Figure 3: The reality. The names that don’t fit on the map are the councils that got away, some of which are getting Metro Rail soon.

The obstacles facing Metro Rail densification are also embedded in the culture of land use planning in established Sydney. A quick summary of land use planning history tells the story well.

The glorious Environmental Planning and Assessment Act was introduced in 1979 and required all local authorities to make Local Environmental Plans (LEPs).

Their predecessors Interim Development Orders (IDOs) and Planning Schemes were deemed to be LEPs and persisted into the 1990s (some IDOs still exist in long deferred and forgotten places). 

Sydney has zonings that are often more deserving of heritage listing than some of the shonky heritage areas that seem to pop up near proposed Metro Rail stations.

In established Sydney the first round of land use planning largely recognised what was there, main streets got a commercial zoning, areas with a lot of residential flats probably got a zoning that allowed that but not always etcetera.

There was a noble code of handing down the old zonings and preserving the status quo. It’s a common view in much of established Sydney that they have done their bit for density.

Incursions into the status quo were not pleasing. Bob Car was state Labor’s 1980s planning minister and urban consolidation was the official policy. The bits of that policy that reached into established single dwelling precincts, such as dual occupancy policy, were deeply unpopular.

In the 1990s the then Department of Planning pushed local government to consolidate its disparate LEPs and IDOs into single city or shire wide LEPs.

The incentive was that these authorities didn’t have to do a proper environmental study into what was really needed out of these new zonings. Mostly old zones just got a new name, and the function of these areas stayed the same. This started a trend of expediency in land use planning to achieve an often-desirable administrative outcome.

In the early 2000s it was the template LEP (no real Environmental Study required again) and then to the current phase of consolidating LEPs after council amalgamations. And those councils that didn’t get amalgamated, well you don’t have to do land use reform either. So here we are, a land use planning culture in established Sydney that has little collective experience in how to respond to change. 

Local land use planning in established Sydney is more of an archival project than a future looking one. And here comes Metro Rail and the complexities of the post COVID city.

The good news is that this city is full of money and ready for the tap to be turned on. If only there were real opportunities for redevelopment near or on new Metro Rail stations.

There is though one heritage line I would not cross. That is the destruction of Sydney’s historic land subdivision pattern.

Rather than repeating the site amalgamated, buildings from nowhere of the recent past (see parts of Canterbury and Parramatta Roads and just about any recent building over three-storeys in suburbs such as Auburn and Hurstville), I suggest keeping the subdivision pattern. 

Commemoration of the past can be compatible with density. By retaining the historic subdivision, by in effect shifting the heritage listing from the buildings to the land subdivision pattern, a fair heritage deal is struck. This great building block of our city can provide a link to our past and promote a human scale in our future. 

Site amalgamations are great for the big end of town, basement car parks, and towering buildings of economies of scale but terrible for a human scale and architectural diversity.

Figure 4: The sweet fruit of site amalgamation, where am I? (images from google streetview)

There is just more opportunity for different players and buildings, if the historic small lot subdivision is retained.

A large, amalgamated site of five lots will likely get one average large building, whereas five medium sized buildings on those lots is more likely to get at least one outstanding building and meaningful retention of historic buildings.

From my industry experience, redevelopments that accept the historic subdivision work harder architecturally, the buildings are smaller, have less cars and are grounded more in their place. These buildings, because of these factors, just look better.

Figure 5: Someone forgot to buy the site next door! (Hill Thalis Architects and images The Guthrie Project)

I suggest the state government puts its technocratic boots on and make some of these strategies real. There isn’t the time for local government reform now, it’s just too hard. The state government can take densification away from local government and let them get on with what they do best, managing domestic development disputes.

If you’re lucky enough to own a house in Sydney, who cares if it takes a year to get a first-floor addition approved and I kind of like that I have the right to stuff up my neighbour’s additions after we fell out.

I am told the Sydenham to Bankstown Urban Renewal Corridor Strategy is hiding out in a secure compound in Beijing and would very much like to return if its safety is guaranteed.

Philip Bull manages Civic Assessments, a planning consultancy that undertakes metropolitan and regional projects.

Philip Bull, Civic Assessment

Philip Bull is the principal of Civic Assessment a development consulting business, focused on development and social impact assessment. He has worked in the planning departments of Woollahra, Botany, South Sydney, Randwick, the City of Sydney and Waverley Councils. More by Philip Bull, Civic Assessment

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  1. Hi Philip, I like this argument, but many don’t. I wrote a paper called ” supermodel housing, long thin and dense ” in response to the opportunities the Missing Middle was missing. I still believe that exactly as you have stated, the amalgamation of sites and the loss of historical land subdivision greatly changes the character of a place and is making densification around the metro hard, more challenging within the current planning framework.

  2. Great start to this article, but then it fails to deliver at the end by wanting to preserve subdivision boundaries within present blocks. Across Australia this has failed as you only get ‘battle-axe subdivisions’ or infill that removes all trees and gives nothing but a few more houses and more cars. In our new book ‘Greening the Greyfields: New Models for Regenerating the Middle Suburbs of Low-Density Cities, which is a free e-book from Palgrave,
    we show that the first step towards good urban regeneration is to focus on a precinct scale. All the best developments in the inner city and outer area are precincts because of former industry or rural land being possible to redevelop at that scale. Its possible to create precincts around stations and along new tram routes with design guidelines that enable net zero, affordable and attractive density. This is the planning agenda we need to address the loss of momentum on density.

    1. Thanks for the feedback Peter, I admire your work. Sydney’s historic subdivision is quirky and fine-grain and when it’s used as a basis for redevelopment the new buildings retain that character. And did I mention, its a pre-car subdivision too.