industrial empty warehouse
We need to fight for Sydney's sheds, and other industrial land

Nobody wants to tackle notorious congestion on a Saturday to travel vast distances to visit a manufacturer or showroom. We need these industrial land facilities “big sheds” peppered close to where we live. We also need creative and artistic enterprises to add colour and life and opportunities for jobs.  The danger is that high value residential land will swallow up these because they can pay so much more for the land and industrial land, once lost to residential, will never be regained.  

Great cities are more than their residential neighbourhoods. In a fast-growing, physically constrained city like Greater Sydney, competing pressures on the use of land are understandably intense.

But, after studying and planning industrial lands around the world for two decades, I know that it’s not a case of one or the other being given priority – it’s a balance.

You’d be forgiven for not investing a lot of thought to Greater Sydney’s industrial and urban services lands as you drive or commute past them every day. But, when we need our car serviced locally, want to purchase building supplies for home renovations, enjoy a new local microbrewery or we require concrete to build a new school or hospital, convenient local access to industrial and urban services precincts becomes very front-of-mind.

They represent just eight per cent of Greater Sydney’s urban areas yet generate 19 per cent of Greater Sydney’s jobs. In some districts this figure increases to as much as 37 per cent. A city without them in the right places, becomes a city that doesn’t work, figuratively and literally.

Today, (Thursday) the Greater Sydney Commission has released a new paper A Metropolis that Works, intended to raise awareness of the challenges Greater Sydney faces in best managing its industrial and urban services land.

As Greater Sydney is one of the most dynamic and changing cities in the world, we must find a balance between demands for housing, supporting economic growth and keeping our city functioning.

A Metropolis that works picks up from the Greater Sydney Region Plan, adopted by the NSW government in 2018, which identifies as a priority the retention, enhancement and evolution of industrial and urban services land to reflect the needs of each of Greater Sydney’s three cities.

While Greater Sydney is cementing its role as Australia’s financial capital, and we are transitioning to a global, “post-industrial”, city, it still remains the manufacturing capital of Australia, adding $21.5 billion in economic value.

So, contrary to any portrayal of it as a sector in terminal decline, our city’s manufacturing sector is robust, makes a key economic contribution and is critical to ensuring we have a metropolis that works.

In the past, substantial tracts of industrial land in the Eastern Harbour City have been converted to mixed-use residential zones. As a consequence, employment lands in the Eastern City District have decreased by 10 per cent over the last 10 years to 2017. For the same period, employment lands in the North District decreased by over 14 per cent.

In the Central River City, with Greater Parramatta at its heart, existing industrial and urban services also face pressure from residential growth, but are also transitioning to higher order employment, technology and advanced manufacturing uses.

In the Western Parkland City, much land has been allocated, but critical shortages have led to dramatic land price increases over the past two years. It will need much more industrial and urban services land if it is to meet the needs of the Western City’s growing population.

The Property Council of Australia has expressed concern that the land currently available across Greater Sydney represents less than two year’s forward supply.

Valuable industry and urban services land need protection from competing land uses such as residential development

Managing and supporting our valuable industrial and urban services lands requires a precautionary approach and, where appropriate, protection from competing land uses such as residential redevelopment.

We aren’t saying no to change. On the contrary, we are saying these areas should be managed and planned so they can evolve and embrace new uses and technologies.

More careful and thoughtful plans are required for these precincts to ensure that they remain productive, affordable and economically viable, with potential to increase the density and range of activities which can take place within them.

As Greater Sydney’s population increases, the importance of these spaces, and the types of employment they provide, will continue. However, the value of industrial and urban services lands is not only through the number and diversity of jobs they support for locals, but the critical operational role and function they play supporting our city and our lives.

For example, the concrete we need to build our homes, apartment blocks, roads network and public transport infrastructure has a shelf life of up to an hour before it needs to be poured. That’s why concrete batching plants are strategically located across the metropolitan area. They simply cannot be moved to the urban fringes.

We need convenience to shop on Saturdays and we need creative industries to add colour and life

When we need our cars repaired or serviced, or want to spend a Saturday morning looking for a new bathroom or kitchen, we value being able to do this locally, without adding to cross-city congestion. Local businesses themselves often share local networks of suppliers.

Then there are the creative industries that bring colour and life to our suburbs that, for various reasons, need to be near their customer bases and employees but would not be conducive to sharing proximity to residential premises.

Both old and new activities in such places share important characteristics central to their success, as well as the fundamentals of a functioning city: proximity to end-markets and the creation and sustaining of local networks.

Industrial and services land lost to residential land cannot be recovered

Another key challenge that industry and urban services face is competing for access to affordable land. In the Greater Sydney context, with significant population growth, that means land that has some level of protection from the speculative activity that crowds out all but medium and high-density residential use. Quite simply, industrial and urban services land that is lost to residential redevelopment, cannot be recovered.

We’re not the first to voice this need: London, San Francisco, Vancouver and New York are all strategically planning to keep their industrial and services land

We are not alone in looking at better managing these lands for the future viability of our city. Internationally, London, San Francisco, Vancouver and New York, all with similar demands to Greater Sydney, are taking a more strategic approach to ensure the economic and employment generating conditions provided by their industrial lands are supported and protected.

They have plans and strategies to ensure they continue as engines of growth into the future. That is why this is a timely consideration for Greater Sydney.

All cities need an intelligent approach to land use decisions that support the synergies and interdependencies of a functioning city. Industrial and urban services lands are an integral component: relinquishing them in the face of shorter-term imperatives is likely to be costly in the long term. Once the land has moved to a higher value use, it is highly unlikely to be converted back.

As A Metropolis that Works states, a growing city needs to be a working city. It needs spaces that allow it to function, make and create, that offer capacity for innovation, adaptability and resilience in preparing for future needs, opportunities and challenges.

I encourage you to learn more about this important challenge for our city.

Sarah Hill is chief executive officer Greater Sydney Commission, Adjunct Professor at the University of Technology, Sydney, and past president of the Planning Institute of Australia, NSW division.

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  1. Great to see this issue being raised. In 1999 we lobbied to set up the Canal Road Film Centre in Leichhardt, in the old public works depot. Fortunate enough to get a 5+5+5 yr lease, supporting 80 film &TV small businesses and short term film projects like The Sapphires, Peter Allen the Boy Next Door TV series & many more. What a pity that 20 years later tenants are in the same position again and NSW State govt seemingly unable to value and plan for jobs and industries for the future. Gld Gold Coast and other states keen to poach our industry whilst NSW Govt looks the other way and wonders which real estate to sell off next.

  2. Couldn’t agree with this more. I’m seeing this happen in a narrow corridor in Camperdown off Pyrmont Bridge Road where the Parramatta Road Strategy (Urban Growth) has earmarked the area for rezoning (industrial to residential). The current businesses are not experiencing ‘chronic traffic congestion, loud noise’ or are ‘low quality commercial premises’ unlike those right on Parramatta Road but have been caught in the net for ‘transformation’. Will be a great shame to lose the services this precinct provides which are within walk-able distance for so many locals.