Professor Sue Holliday

This is a transcript of an Utzon Lecture speech delivered by Professor Sue Holliday on 14 October. The Utzon Lecture series focuses on the presentation of ideas from leading contributors of international significance in the design, delivery and management of the built environment.

I would like to acknowledge and pay respect to the Cadigal people of the Eora nation and their elders, and recognise that we meet tonight on their ancestral lands.

The new Minister for Cities and the Built Environment, Jamie Briggs says, “We’ve got globally competitive cites.” We do. But for how long? He goes on to say that as eight out of every 10 Australian lives in a city, policies to make our cities work are crucial.

I agree.

In 1978 when I arrived in Sydney, the city was 2.5 million people. Today, its 4.5m. When I’m 100, it will be 8m people. The decisions we make today will determine the kind of city we will have then. We are at a tipping point. Either Sydney will become even more congested and less affordable, or we will transform the way our city works for us. Which do we want?

Cities are integrated entities that are changing rapidly. They cannot be managed issue by issue. Deep down, we, the community, know that this is true and that change is happening but on the whole we resist its pace and power. We also lack the ability to look ahead of the change and make decisions that will reshape the city, not just add to its past patterns. I make the argument today that Sydney, as a case study, is actually on the edge of failing as a globally competitive city: failing to keep up with the pressure of population growth; failing to provide housing that’s affordable for its citizens; failing to enable people to move around efficiently; failing to seize the opportunities for future growth; failing – in other words – to maintain liveability, sustainability and workability. Our position as the “globally competitive city” in Australia is under threat if we do not make the right decisions now.

When I first drafted tonight’s talk, the Labor opposition had nominated Anthony Albanese the opposition spokesman on Cities and Bill Shorten had committed to a Minister with those responsibilities if elected at the next election. This move was strongly welcomed by me and by those interested in these issues. Finally, there was an acknowledgement that cities were potentially on a future federal government agenda again.

Tony Abbott was Prime Minister and the federal government was opposed to any involvement in the cities debate – despite their role and responsibility for the economy, immigration numbers and funding all major infrastructure! Then four weeks ago, there was a change in leadership and overnight, the government had a Minister for Cities and Built Environment! This decision is great news and like many in my profession I look forward to working with both Jamie Briggs and Anthony Albanese. The Prime Minister now acknowledges that our cities are one of the most important economic assets of this country.

“It’s the ‘outcome’ that matters and the key outcome for a liveable city is connectivity”.

So, some of this issues I want to talk about tonight are now on the agenda rather than “ought to be on the agenda”! Tonight I want to argue that the outcome we need is action towards the long-term workability of our cities and particularly Sydney.

The village mentality paradigm

Before I move on to the factors that are bringing us to the edge, I want to ask the question about why we struggle to embrace change. When I was Director General of Planning here in NSW, I would talk with many, many communities about the changes that were on the horizon in Sydney. I would describe the growth of Sydney’s population and the consequences of that on our housing and transport needs as “a wave coming towards us – one that we could pretend was not coming but if we did, it would overwhelm us – or we could acknowledge it and try to shape how it would impact our neighbourhoods”. The response was most often – why does Sydney need to grow at all? Why can’t we stop it? And then, “I want my neighbourhood to stay just as it is today – I like it and I don’t want it to change.”

I call this phenomenon “the village paradigm” or mentality. This is not a bad thing. People bond with their places to such an extent that they cannot envisage how any change could be better. Even very poor neighbourhoods resist improvement or change. And importantly, envisioning the scale of change is very difficult.

Let me use the example of Parramatta. I moved a Department Of Planning office to Parramatta in 1983. At that time, even though Parramatta had been identified as a major centre since the Sydney Region Outline Plan in 1968, the town (and I use that word purposefully) was a sleepy place. It had been nominated as a “subregional centre” in 1968, and as a second CBD in 1988. The SROP proposed an increase in employment to 50,000 jobs and envisioned Parramatta as the key structural link between Gosford/Wyong and Campbelltown. By the mid 1980s, the planners were talking about 60,000 jobs.

The thought that this kind of growth might ever happen was inconceivable and indeed laughable to the councillors of the time. They saw their “village” as it was and couldn’t imagine that it would grow as predicted. As a result, very little was done to plan for that scale of change. But of course the change happened as the population grew and the centre of Sydney moved west. Eventually it was the joint efforts of the state and Commonwealth agencies in the ’90s that catalysed the current plans to accommodate the growth. By 2011 there were 91,000 jobs, and 13,000 apartments. So the original vision has happened and indeed has exceeded predictions. Parramatta is finally emerging now as a vibrant mixed-use city with the potential to exceed a vision set 45 years ago. Critical transport links are still missing to position Parramatta within the so called “global arc”. It definitely needs that rail link to fulfil its destiny.

The village paradigm is still alive and well in many other local councils and unfortunately in many government agencies. It blocks innovation, and it blocks imagination. And imagination is the underbelly of vision.

It is understandable that today’s residents find visioning difficult. Take Pyrmont for example. When we started planning for Pyrmont, there were squatters, chickens and feral pigs amongst the 2000 residents in 1989. The vision was for 20,000 residents and 40,000 jobs. No pigs. It was almost impossible back then to imagine how it could change that much. But in 15 short years, Pyrmont has public transport, an affordable housing program, open space, the lowest car ownership of any Sydney suburb and by all post-occupancy accounts is one of the most liveable suburbs in Sydney. The village has changed even though the pre-existing residents struggled to see how it could be better.

The same phenomenon applied to Zetland residents as the vision for Green Square started to develop; and to Rouse Hill when plans started to change a golf course to a regional centre with medium-rise apartments in the “middle of nowhere”!

I focus on these stories because imagining things differently and setting the vision to achieve that takes a rare ability to look beyond the “village” and to see 30/50 years from now. It takes leadership to help people to imagine a better place and of course it takes leadership to make sure that better place is delivered. So when we look at Sydney now, our “village”, where is the leadership to help us vision the future? Where is today’s Sydney Region Outline Plan? That plan in 1968, set the framework for 50 years of growth. We don’t want our village mentality to lock us into a series of poor decisions now that will fail the citizens of this city and lose the opportunity to set our city up for the next 50 years of outstanding outcomes.

We risk that.

Current decision making at state government level is reinforcing the current city we have and failing to see the requirements for the city in 30 or 50 years. It is my view that neither the current Metropolitan Planning Strategy nor the 2012 Transport Plan for Sydney meets the criteria for a vision for a city of eight million people

So we struggle to see how change can be for the better and resist it; and we make short term decisions about our future because we don’t have a new long term framework in front of us.

City shaping infrastructure

Much of our infrastructure is 40-50 years old and fast running out of capacity.

The City infrastructure necessary to make our city workable ranges from housing, to health and education facilities, and to transport connectivity to jobs.

I use the term “workable” in addition to and in preference to liveable and sustainable because everyone I talk to about these issues tells me that while the city is liveable – it doesn’t really work for them. There is a distinction. And why doesn’t it work? Well, mainly because they can’t afford the housing, and they can’t get around easily. The city has become too big too quickly on the back of infrastructure that is now no longer able to accommodate the growth that has happened – let alone the growth that will happen.

With the assistance of one of our many brilliant PhD students Nicola Pullen, I’ve looked at several examples of key infrastructure decisions made between the ’60s and the early 2000s and tried to see whether those decisions were made with future proofing our city in mind or whether they were made with a “village mentality” that limited the long-term capacity of those infrastructures to serve the city well into the future.

I have gone back and looked at when these investments were made and where possible I have tried to find out how many people the decision makers of the day thought they were investing for.

This part of my research has proved to be quite difficult as very little evidence is available about what population would be served. I’m very grateful to Nicola Pullen for helping me with this search.

I have chosen rather at random, the following examples:

  • Health: Westmead Hospital, St Vincent’s Hospital and the new northern Beaches hospital
  • Education: Nepean High School
  • Roads: M2, Sydney Harbour tunnel, F6 Prince’s Motorway
  • Rail: Eastern Suburbs rail, East Hills Rail and Chatswood to Epping rail

Have a look at these examples:

In the health sector, Westmead is receiving 178 per cent more admissions than the capacity for which it was planned; St Vincent’s public hospital has 155 per cent more emergencies than the capacity for which it was planned. And the new Northern Beaches hospital, before it’s even constructed, is already behind the population growth in their region with 165 per cent more admissions likely than originally planned.

In roads and rail, the pattern is the same. From the time they were planned, the growth has far exceeded the capacity originally identified as being needed.

So the Eastern suburbs rail line for example is almost 150 per cent over the target capacity of the original projections. The Chatswood to Epping line is approximately 250 per cent over the original predicted capacity! As many drivers from the North West know, the M2 takes almost 130 per cent more vehicles per day than originally planned.

These infrastructures are failing us not because they are not good enough, but because they have not been created to accommodate the next growth phase of the city. I acknowledge that we can argue about these stats. As I said, it was actually very difficult to find reliable forward population estimates for each piece of infrastructure. But it does indicate that most of these big pieces of infrastructure are funded for a shorter horizon than the 30-50 year time frame we now need. While the financial imperatives are clear (only spend what is absolutely necessary) the opportunity cost of failing to invest for the 30-50 year horizon is enormous.

The latest demographic information indicates that today, Sydney has a population of 4.8 million people. In 1971, Sydney’s population was 2.7m and in 1968 the Sydney Region Outline Plan had predicted a city of 5m by 2000. In fact, the city reached 4 million people by 2000 but by then, the household size had dropped by 20 per cent resulting in effectively the same number.

And as if to make matters worse, during that time, car ownership grew much faster than population and household growth. Each household gained more cars, and those with only one or no cars declined.

The latest Metropolitan Strategy growth projection is for 8m people by 2050. That’s only 35 years away. That’s a big city by world standards.

We have reached the full extent of the vision set 47 years ago. Sydney looks pretty much as SROP predicted. It’s hard to argue that Sydney is not a planned city! Almost all the infrastructure envisaged then has been implemented. It’s reached and exceeded its planned capacity. We are looking down the barrel of a bigger population, more cars, jobs that are more dispersed, and our housing less affordable.

There is of course another reason why past infrastructure investments lacked long-term foresight. A short-term government budget cycle and the siloed structure of government. Transport in one corner, housing in another and planning in another. It is almost unimaginable that in 2015, we still have a separate Transport and Metropolitan plans. And no metropolitan housing plan at all!

However, both Infrastructure NSW and Infrastructure Australia are steps in the right direction towards longer term funding. Infrastructure Australia also recognised the essential prerequisite of building infrastructure clearly identified in a metropolitan wide strategic plan. The Opposition have also recently announced a “concrete bank”. This and other innovative ideas for funding will be essential if we are to move ahead of the traditional funding models.

The combination of the village mentality (I can’t comprehend that this city will really grow that much) the budget processes and the structures of government have failed to provide us with a resilient city infrastructure. We are at the end of the previous vision/facing a huge urban transformation in terms of population and an even bigger growth in car ownership. Our past infrastructure is at the end of its life.

Our cities are on the edge – we have reached a tipping point.

The Tipping Point: it is defined as:

  • The critical point in a situation, process, or system beyond which a significant and often unstoppable effect or change takes place (Merriam-Webster dictionary)
  • The point at which an issue, idea, product, etc., crosses a certain threshold and gains significant momentum, triggered by some minor factor or change (
  • The point at which a series of small changes or incidents becomes significant enough to cause a larger, more important change (Oxford Dictionaries)
  • The time at which a change or an effect cannot be stopped (Cambridge Dictionaries)

There are three essential ideas here: one is about the criticality of the point in time/the moment where something happens that is irreversible; the second idea is once that point of time happens, an unstoppable effect, direction or change happens; and the third idea is that it’s small decisions or events that cause the tipping point to happen irreversibly. Malcolm Gladwell in his famous book The Tipping Point says it is “a key moment of crystallisation that unifies isolated events into a significant trend”.

Often this concept is applied to climate change, and more recently to some of the events in federal politics! I wish to apply it to city planning and to the criticality of the seemingly small decisions we make now about the future of our cities. Obviously, the title of my talk indicates that in my view we are at that critical moment in Sydney’s history.

The current growth projections were never imagined or planned for in the city structure and infrastructure that we currently have. We need a paradigm shift in our vision of how to build a city that big; and a paradigm shift in our investment strategies for housing and for connecting people with jobs. The private sector will not deliver a workable city without clear guidance. We, the community, and our governments, federal, state and local need to work with industry to shape where, what and how this next phase of our growth happens.

We have a couple of options:

  • Continue as before and patch up or duplicate the existing infrastructure to cope with the projected growth and continue to sprawl in a vain attempt to address housing supply and affordability; or
  • Look afresh at that future city, set up the right governance structures, provide strong leadership, set a new vision (a new SROP!) and start a new investment strategy in partnership (partnerships being the closest thing to bipartisanship) with all levels of government and industry.

What we do know is that:

  • Infrastructure is long-term both in its construction period and in its life term. 40-50 years
  • City building is long term
  • City building needs vision and leadership in order to overcome the village mentality and the treasury’s cautious approach to funding
  • City building needs partnerships between governments and industry

The next steps

So where does this leave us? We have a fantastic opportunity but the current approach to solving our infrastructure challenges seems to be reactive and adopts the first of the two options I referred to: duplicating or adding to that existing infrastructure and reinforcing the existing city structure. My contention is that if we do that our city will never reach its potential as a truly workable city. The tipping point has been reached and we are right on the edge of the precipice: our next decisions will be critical.

Do we, for example, just duplicate the M5 or do we rethink how people living in the south west get to where they want to go? We are building a new rail link from Epping to Rouse Hill – but does it provide the connectivity we need and recognise the shift West that is already taking place in the structure of the city, or will it continue to reinforce a crowded CBD. And how will we deliver more housing that is affordable but not stuck right out on the edge of the city with long journeys to jobs and education in an ever more congested city, and at great cost to families.

So I’m going out on a limb tonight. I want to start a conversation about commencing a new vision to accommodate the next 3.5 million people in Sydney and I’m suggesting six ideas to stop our city failing, to plan for eight million people and to start investing proactively in city shaping infrastructure for 2050. This is a long-term road map to ensure we are making the right decisions over the next 40 years.

Six things we should do now for a workable city

  1. Implement better governance and leadership
  2. Develop a genuine vision for a city of eight million people
  3. Use the Badgerys Creek Airport site as a major city reshaping opportunity
  4. Mandate affordable housing from every development
  5. Build regional connectivity by developing Circular Metro routes
  6. Implement the High Speed Rail between Badgerys Creek, Newcastle and Canberra

1. Better governance and leadership

Since I started writing this talk, The Greater Sydney Commission has been announced. Congratulations to the Minister Rob Stokes for recognising the need for integrated decision making across the metropolitan region. I like the fact that representatives of the six regions will be there – nominated by local government and that there is a balance between local appointees and government appointees with an independent Chair holding a casting vote.

But there are two missing links. The first is that the Commission does not have the role to set the vision and to provide leadership. I can see already from their terms of reference that they will become immersed in reviewing/DA decision making/assessments/monitoring and reporting.

The second missing link is the Commonwealth. I understand why. The previous Prime Minister was vehemently opposed to the participation of the federal government in cities, but now we have a Minister for Cities, and his participation should be reconsidered.

What is needed is a genuine partnership organisation – not a committee – and with a mandate and a funding mechanism to develop an integrated city vision and the authority within government to raise and allocate funds for implementation. I know that means a redistribution of power, but that’s where we should be heading. And we need senior elected representatives on this Authority. So mayors, and Ministers – decision makers with the ability to commit. A good example of this was in Queensland in the 1990s. The South East Queensland regional plan was a success because it brought together mayors, State Ministers and senior representatives of the Commonwealth Minister. That was powerful and influential and it secured funds for transformative infrastructure. That’s what we need here in Sydney.

2. Develop a genuine vision for a city of eight million people

The first job of this new governance arrangement should be to set a new vision for a city of eight million people. Bob Carr thought visions and plans were unnecessary as they might oblige the government to stick to them; John Fahey banned the word vision from being used by public servants; the ’80s and ’90s were tough times for planners. And even in 2003 when I left government, the then Minister Craig Knowles said he didn’t want a metro plan that was too specific – it might provide a guide for land speculators. As a consequence of this kind of thinking, little strategic planning was done during the ’80s, ’90s and the first decade of the 20th century. The city lost its way amid a myriad of metropolitan plans with motherhood policy statements but no clear direction for future growth.

Across the world, there is a rebalance happening in current economic thinking – the market still prevails but governments are seeing once again that they have an important role in city building and in guiding the market towards more effective investment. A Vision, or whatever you want to call it, helps set that direction. It gives clarity to investment decisions and it also helps give the broader community a chance to have their say, understand the challenges ahead and participate in thinking through the options for change. The Vision is not just a plan – or a map, although that is important – it should be a business plan for investment by industry and government. It needs to be a new Sydney Region Strategic Plan for 2050 with an implementation plan to start investing now.

3. Use the Badgerys Creek Airport site as a major reshaping opportunity

At this moment in time, there are several opportunities that provide key city shaping directions for a new plan and vision for Sydney 2050. And all of them involve the Commonwealth as an active participant. Parramatta, Badgerys Creek, HSR and the Metro. This “new” city vision requires us to think imaginatively about what a city of eight million people might look like. Now is the time to reshape the city rather than reinforce old structures. Colleagues such as Rod Simpson at University of Sydney and Chris Stapleton of Stapleton Transport and Planning are also thinking and talking about these ideas.

The purchase of the Badgerys Creek site by the Commonwealth government was one of the most strategic decisions ever made to influence the future of Sydney. Airport or not, it has protected close to 2000 hectares of land in the centre of Western Sydney. It is now available for a genuine city shaping opportunity and it is owned by the commonwealth government. A decision to locate the 2nd Sydney airport there has been made.

But I want you to imagine the use of that site in a different way.

Forget that its in the middle of empty paddocks; forget that all the suburbs in the West are just low level suburban sprawl; forget that airports are traditionally surrounded by low intensity retail and airport related logistics sheds. No, think Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam. This airport is now, in 50 years since inception, a dynamic hub of international exchange. A world trade centre, office park and Airportcity, which provides hotels, conference facilities, shops and restaurants to service the 60,000 jobs. A high speed train interchange is located under the terminal. Think of the second Sydney airport as a city and a transport interchange.

Once you have those images firmly in your head, the Badgerys Creek location for a new city makes enormous sense. It’s a large site, with no neighbours; it is well located near the M7 for freight logistics; it could be directly linked to Parramatta and the CBD with a 40 minute express metro shuttle; it is well located to provide jobs for communities in Penrith/Liverpool/ Blacktown/Parramatta. It can also provide up to half a million homes, both apartments and single homes.

With this one decision, to make the airport site a city with a transport hub – not a low density employment zone, the city structure is reshaped to accommodate 3.5 million more people. But we have to imagine – to vision – a high-rise city in the middle of the Western Sydney region where all the action will be happening. This is the cornerstone of the new vision.

4. Mandate affordable housing for every development and get the community housing sector to manage it

For a city of eight million people we will need another 1.3 million homes if the household size remains the same at 2.7 people average over the Sydney region.

As a member of the former National Housing Supply Council, I was actively involved in examining the supply and demand for housing right across Australia until that organisation was abolished by the Abbott government in 2012. Our final report found that there is a shortage of housing stock in most jurisdictions but that the group most disadvantaged were not first home buyers (although they clearly are also), but those who were poor but unable to get into public housing, and so who had to find their way in the private rental market. The NHSC found that while there may be units in the market that they could afford, all those low cost units had been snapped up by those who strictly speaking could afford more.

If we have 1.3 million more households coming to Sydney, we have to find them long-term, secure accommodation. If they are not poor enough to get into public housing, or wealthy enough to buy their own home and priced out of the lower rent private market – where do they go? Many of them will be essential workers supporting our schools, hospitals, police force, council and civil services. What do they do?

For a small public investment in initial capital costs, almost 600 units have been built in Ultimo/Pyrmont – an eight per cent target for affordable housing almost met through inclusionary zoning, and a levy on the sales of all government land. That achievement is so far the largest proportion of affordable housing ever achieved in Sydney. However, in London, well over 25 per cent of every housing development must be affordable and managed by the Community Housing sector. In the US, the taxation system is used to incentivise developers who are required to provide affordable housing (sometimes up to 50 per cent) as part of their development. Here in Australia, prior to its cancelation by the government, the National Rental Assistance Scheme system had begun to create an investment framework to encourage private sector interest in this housing asset.

We have an affordable housing crisis in Sydney and we are not taking it seriously enough. Our policies focus on getting households into home ownership when we should be aiming our policies at long term “community rental”. This is a cultural shift we need to have.

So here is a suggestion for immediate action.

  • 50 per cent of all government land for sale both local and state should be allocated for affordable housing. This will provide a supply of large enough parcels of land that developers will be interested and for the first time, super funds will find it attractive to invest in. They say they need larger development opportunities and scale to invest.
  • Inclusionary zoning should be mandated for all residential flat developments providing a fund of capital to be invested into purchasing more land for affordable housing development.
  • The government land development agency must be required to secure 25 per cent of all their developments as affordable housing.
  • The community housing sector should be given the opportunity to manage and preferably own as many properties as possible. We need to grow this sector to build experience to take on the management and development of community housing rental.
  • Oh, and of course we should examine negative gearing and land tax… but the Prime Minister and Treasurer have got that in hand…

If these policies in place, we could achieve 300,000 new affordable homes by 2050. Ambitious? Yes. But an ambition this big is of a large enough scale to encourage the superannuation sector into investment of this housing asset class – something that has eluded us so far because we have lacked the volume.

Secure, affordable housing, like fast, efficient transit to jobs, is one of the most important factors in making a city liveable and workable for people. We must address this.

5. Build regional connectivity by developing Circular Metro routes

Okay, so now we have the new city as the core of a new Sydney structure, and an affordable housing regime to deliver affordable rental homes across Sydney. We now need to connect it all up.

As many of you know I was the first person to coin the concept of the City of Cities. I still believe that it has merit. It is now reflected in the six regions within Sydney. It acknowledges that, apart from the journey to work, most people live in a regional “village” around their major centres – often their major regional shopping centre. That’s how they use the city. A family’s schooling, health services, retail therapy, sports, recreation are all regionally based. We need to ensure that policies and services around schools, hospitals, clinics, and regional bus services must focus on the regional centres. As more jobs locate within those regions, local transport services need to be restructured to deliver people from the surrounding suburbs to those centres. So the first connectivity component is for local connectivity.

The “global arc” concept in the latest metropolitan Plan for Growing Sydney picks up the reality of the employment corridor between the airport and the CBD and through to Macquarie Park. The latest plan show three new fingers – one to Norwest Business Park, one to Parramatta and one to Olympic Park. Each of these fingers needs to be connected to a modern metro system.

However, in the west, there’s a less clear structure comprising the western Sydney employment zone and a connection through to the end of the south west rail link at Leppington.

But if we agree that the new Airport city should be developed within a 20-40 year period then a lot of other ideas fall into place – citywide connectivity can actually happen.

There is considerable opportunities for more density in the West if modern, fast, regular transit can be provided. This is where the additional 3.5 million people we foresee can live to relieve congestion in the eastern and inner western areas already fully developed.

Let’s rethink the metros as the tool to connect and distribute people around the new Sydney. At the moment, the Metro plans propose a long linear line approximately 66km from Rouse Hill through the CBD to Liverpool. Once again the CBD becomes the focus of this transport initiative and, as you can see from the 2012 Transport masterplan, fails to make cross city connections.

In my view we need to think of a metro system as a circular loop connecting people and jobs and providing interchanges to link them to other transit links in the system. This kind of thinking could offer Sydneysiders a real “big city” metro running without timetable every four minutes or so.

We have a great opportunity here to move the focus of growth and connectivity west. We can of course have a circular inner metro going through Rozelle as originally conceived and linking the Olympic Park and Bankstown. It would service those job hubs and distribute people to and from other parts of the system. But for the next stage of Sydney’s development, we should extend that concept through Chatswood, Macquarie Park, Epping and to Parramatta fulfilling the ambition to link Parramatta to the “global arc”.

Finally as part of this city-wide connectivity network, an Airport City Metro would link Rouse Hill (at the end of the north west rail line) to Airport City at Badgerys Creek and then loop around to Leppington and Kingsford Smith airport and the CBD. And you have a 40-minute express link from Airport city to the CBD via Kingsford Smith airport – a similar time as between Canary Wharf and the centre of London.

This should not be a pipe dream. This kind of transit network would provide the connectivity outcomes that Prime Minister Turnbull spoke about. This network will serve a big city by reducing congestion and linking people to jobs and other activities.

6. Implement the High Speed Rail between Badgerys Creek, Newcastle and Canberra

The key to preparing Sydney for an eight million person future is developing the west. Although there are still opportunities for renewal in the inner areas, increasingly, we will need to look further west, to Parramatta and beyond. Many, if not most, of the 3.5 million new people in Sydney will head West. Airport city has the opportunity for thousands of new homes, connected to jobs through the metro system.

But will we also need other places for people to choose to live. With fast internet, we can link a network of smaller towns to Sydney so that providing choice in living and working environments is possible. As a former member of the High Speed Rail Advisory committee, it would be remiss of me not to mention the transformative nature of that investment. Canberra, Goulburn, Southern Highlands, Central Coast and Newcastle could all be with 40 minutes to an hour from Sydney. Those centres could develop as part of an employment and lifestyle network with the HSR. But without it, alternative ways of living and working outside of Sydney will not be feasible.

I firmly believe that the HSR should be supported and planned for sooner rather than later. It is my view – although not the committee’s view – that the HSR should come into Sydney from the south via an interchange at Airport city. This would be at grade and so halves the high cost of tunnelling into the CBD. It would provide fast transfers for arriving air passengers, distribute long distance rail passengers to the metro transit system, and bring those living outside of Sydney to jobs in the Sydney region.

It will transform the towns along the route into thriving economies. From Airport city, the route could go into the CBD and then north to Newcastle. It’s hard to see how to avoid tunnelling on this route but it potentially could save the costs of duplicating the F3.

In the context of visioning for a future city, and a more carbon constrained airline industry, there is a high priority to think innovatively about this option and to protect a route from further ad hoc development. No new road or road upgrades can compete with the HSR in terms of its transformative impact on the regions.


Liveable, sustainable and workable. That’s what we want for our cities. But no amount of relying on the beauty of Sydney Harbour and its national parks can take away from the fact that our city has significant issues to address.

We are growing very fast. Our car ownership is growing even faster. Our infrastructure is over-utilised, and even when relatively new, is based on inadequate patronage to accommodate the growth ahead. We haven’t done the strategic planning required for a city of eight million people. We are just backing up what we have now. We lack the leadership and governance to take us on a journey towards a new city structure that will equip us for this next growth phase. We need bold decisions. We need to invest with a big city mentality not a village mentality.

I have outlined why I think that Sydney stands on the edge. Our lifestyle will deteriorate with the decline of the city’s workability.

But at this this point in our history, we can go the other way. Decisions made now, at this tipping point, can turn us towards a more sustainable, liveable and workable city. We need to take a few imaginative and bold decisions.

A city of eight million people may be a bit frightening to many. If we only apply band-aids to our current city, it will become frightening. We have the opportunity to really rethink our structure and rethink our future. I have outlined six actions that will get that process underway. I know that these ideas are ambitious, courageous and require leadership at all levels of government. But our community and our city needs action to start now to solve the affordability and connectivity challenges ahead.

Sue Holliday is Professor of Practice, Director of Discipline – Urban Policy and Strategy at the University of NSW.

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  1. Much of this is very sensible and well overdue. The elephant in the room is the attitude of NSW Treasury to government investment in infrastructure. Over decades, l understand, they have demanded unreasonable rates of return on investments by government that has effectively stopped large-scale investment, even when our nervous leaders find the vision and get up the courage to build something.

    A proper metro is the most important item on your list, funded with a clever mechanism to capture development uplift. Much else would follow once we can get around the metropolitan area easily and quickly

  2. A timely and succinct overview of visionary and collaborative action necessary for Sydney to pull out of its nosedive into a congested, self serving urban morass….. and really set an agenda and governance platform for proactive, inspired communal and regional planning that has wings.

  3. Excellent talk. High speed rail between Wollongong – Sydney and Newcastle-Sydney is a no-brainer and worth every dollar. I would have also mentioned the importance of open space, a fundamental element of planning for city liveability.

  4. She’s back!
    At the risk of sounding like a Hollidayphile, Sue’s voice has been missing from this discourse for a few years, and with it this kind of clarion call for visionary change to process and outcome.
    The story of change in Parramatta over 40 years is particularly poignant, as is the acknowledgement of people’s bonding to place – that all-important sense of belonging and stability.
    This is the challenge for Mike Baird and Rob Stokes, and I suspect the people are now ready to think beyond. Are Mike and Rob ready to set us up for the next 50 years?

  5. Although these proposals raise a lot more questions than answers – as comments from the floor at the actual Lecture revealed – they at least seek to tackle fundamental structural issues evident in Sydney and other of our cities. By comparison the series of skyscrapers masquerading as solution as again recently proposed by Urban Taskforce seems almost juvenile by comparison. As Sue Holliday notes: The private sector will not deliver a workable city without clear guidance. We, the community, and our governments, federal, state and local need to work with industry to shape where, what and how this next phase of our growth happens. And yet, Sydney also provides a recent example of such ‘working together’ – and which has merely led to the announcement last month of yet more fringe greenfield development on food-growing lands to the south-west of Sydney following invitations from the State government for suggestions by private landowners. Some value is still missing. A ‘joined-up’ idea of sustainability maybe?

  6. “Liveable, sustainable and workable”…….sounds sensible and logical to me and critical to plan for significant growth!
    After ~9 years away from Sydney and living in another fast growing city – Denver, CO, USA – the same problems challenge here although its behind Sydney the challenges are fundamentally the same (Denver has the Rockies/ski fields, Sydney has the harbor and beaches).
    The steps Sue proposes are equally applicable and relevant if adapted to local conditions.
    Great lecture!