Strathcona Village in Vancouver, Canada, Image by BVGlazing Systems.

OPINION: The debate about industrial and urban services land continues with the head of property development industry organisation Urban Taskforce Chris Johnson challenging the Greater Sydney Commission “troika” and arguing for a “new Sydney” that embraces mixed-used precincts.

The spirited corporate response from the Greater Sydney Commission troika of Turnbull, Roberts and Hill is a single issue support for industrial jobs at a time when the nature of work is changing dramatically around the world. The GSC support for their document “A Metropolis that Works” that freezes industrial land across metropolitan Sydney cites global examples that they say support their position.

But I Googled the same cities they quoted to find examples that demonstrated the opposite position. My research found that the nature of work is changing fast and that cities around the world are now promoting mixed-use precincts where work, living, eating and shopping are all integrated. A new urban lifestyle is taking off in global cities where younger people seamlessly integrate their multiple activities. The GSC seems to be locked into old fashioned zoning that divides uses into their own precincts. There is a work only precinct, and a live only precinct, a retail precinct and maybe a restaurant precinct.

We are not talking about concrete batching plants here. Clearly some very noisy uses need special zoning but the NSW government’s own definition of Light Industrial is only about a use “that does not interfere with the amenity of the neighbourhood by reason of noise, vibration, smell…”  Only a few years ago cafes and restaurants were seen as incompatible with residential but now planners require these active uses to be included. The rest of the world is moving to mixed-use precincts.

Portland, New York, Baltimore, Atlanta, and Vancouver are championing a new type of urban environment where uses are mixed and in Australia, Melbourne with its new Commercial 3 zone and its mixed-use zoning at Fishermans Bend, is joining the new directions. Even the normally staid city of Adelaide has put out a guide to “mixed use development” where jobs and residential uses are mixed. So why would the Greater Sydney Commission go back to the era before Jane Jacobs attacked single use zoning as the “death” of great American cities.

My reading of what the GSC is doing is supporting the pre election “over development” hype that has evolved in the lead up to the recent state election. It appears that the GSC thinks residential development in Greater Sydney is out of control and must be slowed down. Just look at the GSC comments in their Assurance Review of planning in Ryde where they were shocked by the amount of housing development at 1500 new homes a year being built, but this is exactly what the same GSC has targeted for Ryde. I think the GSC has become anti-housing in the belief that the housing industry will look after itself and therefore the GSC has defaulted to protecting jobs.

Planning of cities is a complex series of trade offs to balance where people want to live (generally inner ring suburbs) and where jobs are and how to get infrastructure on board. More recently the NSW government and the GSC have become focused on trees, parks and local character but my reading of all the promotional documents is that this is an endorsement of the suburbs. The discussion paper on local character does at least confront the issue of building height but it proposes nothing over three storeys.

It seems that the GSC troika supports a low rise suburban Sydney with separated zones for different uses. This is old Sydney and they are missing the energy of the night time economy, about Millennials living in dynamic mixed use precincts and the bustling character of a London or a New York. The GSC should also support the new Sydney where already a third of homes are apartments and high rise living is a positive and more people walk to work, shared amenities and public transport. The GSC should be about the future.

An example of the future is the Strathcona Village project in Vancouver. Here is a dynamic complex that has 5574 square metres of light industrial uses with 280 market apartments above this and 70 social housing units. The East Village project at Victoria Park in Zetland has 32,000 square metres of industrial and commercial space with a sky park surrounded by 206 new apartments above the work areas. Unfortunately, there is little chance of projects like this happening under the GSC’s ideology.

Chris Johnson is the chief executive officer of Urban Taskforce.

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  1. I think its important here to separate out two issues that are being discussed side by side, mixed use development and retention of employment lands. with regards to mixed use development I think most will generally support mixed use developments. In my experience, the issue with the market determining the ‘mix’ is that this naturally goes to the highest and most feasible commercial uses. This does not necessarily lead to good community outcomes, where a greater blend of low cost space attracts less commercial but a greater diversity of uses. in my opinion where the market determines the mix of the development, this creates a series of relatively benign but bland developments.

    Where mixed use development occurs on former employment lands the result is a significant diminution of the former diversity. Marrickville and Sydenham are good examples of this as various developers are proposing variations on mixed use development. these developments would most likely push out the very thing that brings people to both live and work in the area and also gives it a very real sense of character and identity. existing uses include food manufacturing, music and film studios, microbreweries, timber yards, car repairs, hydraulics components manufacturers, tv and theatre prop suppliers, puppet makers, etc. the commercial reality dictates that these existing uses are priced out of any future mixed use and a reduction in diversity (and gentrification) occurs.

    The second issue is that the GSC is proposing to retain important employment lands particularly around key infrastructure locations. This seems eminently sensible particularly around these key locations, including Sydney Airport, the port, intermodal terminals, etc. however it is not only this that is important, but in a fast changing world, we dont know what we will need in the fute. for example it is not only that the nature of work is changing but also patterns of consumption – and this has only just begun and where it will end up we don’t know. retaining specifically zoned lands provides more resilience and flexibility into the future, especially beyond the short term needs and horizons of most of us, developers included. this is the critical role that the GSC must play, because of the lack of any other agency in this space and because changes of zoning are effectively irreversible, taking a precautionary approach to land use changes is eminently sound. this isn’t an anti-housing approach it, it is a strategic approach to where new housing should be allowed to occur.

  2. Readers will appreciate that Chris Johnson is a paid advocate for a special interest group. Frankly the quality and impact of the development scale that has occurred since the influence of his advocacy has taken hold is not pretty in my view. For my money the GSC has a real and public interest role to play, and this will involve standing up to some of Johnson’s advocacy. The preservation and revitalisation of important employment land use is critical to our city. It is too easy to let land owners who sit on important pieces of employment land to let them run down and hope that the land use will change to pursue the more lucrative residential alternate, The city does not owe these landowners such a windfall – if they speculated on this then that is their business risk. There are some important investments being made in areas where, for example new health, tech and education precinct revitalisation is the lead piece – jobs. Yes we need key worker housing (not to be confused with social housing) which is more diverse, achievable and apropriate. For now my vote goes with the GSC. And let’s hope that the GSC has the metal to control the muted advocacy that may enable residential development under the flight path at Western Sydney Airport based on more self serving advocacy.

  3. Yes to mixed uses; living, working, eating/drinking, shopping, green spaces, recreation.
    The old zonings are from another time and context.
    Making this move does not open a door to over development.
    Those doors are already open as ‘one size fits’ all centrally decided ‘rules’ are put in place and then politicians scramble when the negative local community impacts begin to appear.
    Place based planning please!