Tim Williams

Sydney will be a city of eight million people in 2056, up from the current 4.5 million or so. To achieve this Sydney will either have to go up or out.

Most urbanists have long concluded that the best Sydney to aim for is the compact Sydney, not the city of sprawl that many Sydneysiders suffer from. The city of 30 minute journeys is what we want for more of our people – reducing the city of 60-70 minute road commutes that we currently inflict on many.

I know that the long-term position of the City of Sydney and other progressive organisations, quite correctly, is to promote the compact city of “density done well” with great public transport, great urban design and great walkability at its heart.

That’s the city I want to live in and it’s the city that the Committee for Sydney is working for. That means higher density development closer to public transport nodes. That means Waterloo – where public transport links to the city centre are already pretty good, but which the development proposed by UrbanGrowth NSW will dramatically improve – to the benefit of locals and the city overall.

Does this mean density of any quality and quantity? Of course not. Part of the reason why many Sydneysiders oppose higher density development is because it hasn’t always been done well in the past, with public and private sector failures to report. We all have to be honest about that.

Some ink has been spilled on whether the UrbanGrowth proposal matches or exceeds the average density of Honk Kong, at over 70,000 people per square kilometre.

Does the UrbanGrowth proposal mean a square kilometre of 30 storey towers in the Waterloo area, resulting in higher density than Hong Kong? I don’t think so (though, by the way, Hong Kong’s recent public transport revolution has made its higher density communities much more liveable and competitive). Remember: the UrbanGrowth proposal covers just 19 hectares – not one square kilometer, but 0.19. At 700 people a hectare the proposal in Waterloo seems to me to be only just over a quarter of what is permissible in comparable locations in Hong Kong – and is less than half the permissible density of Vancouver, which many hold up as the exemplar of a city in which density is done well.

The debate has thus far focused on raw density numbers – and it’s important we use a common measure for this. However, this is not the true measure of whether density is good or bad and if we want to encourage density done well, we must instead ask:

  • Are we building mixed communities – where rich and poor and those with diverse backgrounds are integrated?
  • Are we building communities centred around the street, not the road – and around the person not the car?
  • Are our areas mixed use, with fine grain design?
  • Is there an inherent order to the built environment, with room for variety within (think the Parisian love of five-storey buildings, each similar yet unique)?
  • Have we considered connectivity and the infrastructure – both physical and social – that bind a dense community together?

Dialogue

We need a good civic dialogue about managing growth in Sydney and the preconditions of its success. That means proper land use and transport integration. That means good cross government and integrated planning so that the school and hospital places and the enhanced public transport are provided in time to meet increased demand. Yes, it means making great places that have the public realm and community amenities – the parks and cafes – that make higher density living more liveable and acceptable. And yes, that should mean a mix of housing types, built forms and indeed densities to provide the variety and services which great places enjoy.

I am keen to have that dialogue with UrbanGrowth and anyone proposing such significant development as we cannot and must not accept – to be technical – any more crap in Sydney. And in that dialogue I know that UrbanGrowth will know that some of the best of what can be achieved in terms of density has been enabled through the skills of an excellent design led council such as the City of Sydney working to achieve not the best yield but the best place.

Tim Williams is chief executive, Committee for Sydney

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2 replies on “Tim Williams on density: we can go up or out”

  1. As a resident of Waterloo one issue is not just in the questions posed here but also keeping green space and having more traffic. At the moment Botany Road is a car park most of the time and at the weekends the traffic is ridiculous. Adding a train station at Waterloo is also going to add to this traffic. One issue that is not addressed here is roads. No matter what anyone says more people means more cars, means more traffic and pollution. There was nothing in my letterbox regarding the proposed station which is now going to be built at the end of my road. I only found out about it when it was done. We don’t need a station it’s a ten minute walk to Redfern and to Green Square for most. Surry Hills needs a station and the University more. Dumb planning from my point of view. This needs to be thought out properly. The hideous Meriton strewn apartment precincts that run along South Dowling street to McAvoy and into Zetland are a rabbit warren with extra streets but no extra arterial roads. Roads have to be considered, this has been completely ignored in the recent builds around this area. I agree better housing is needed here but so long as they are built well and planned properly I won’t have issue with it. However history shows this is not the case, money talks more than sense, especially when it comes to traffic.

  2. I took my students to look at Belsize Park in London this morning. Its one of the densest parts of London at 250 dwellings/hectare, but retains a low-rise (4-5 storeys) street and block based urbanism with a lot of big trees that is unlike much of what is done today in London or in Australia. Think Elizabeth Bay Road/Greenknowe Road in Potts Point.

    We seem unable or unwilling to reproduce the sorts of urbanism that people actually like. Same problem in London: you can’t build ‘mansion blocks’ or terrace houses any longer, yet they are the most popular solution to building dense that was ever developed in the UK. The NGO Create Streets https://www.createstreets.com/ is attempting to tackle the host of regulations that prevent new development that learns from these historic forms.

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