OPINION: The Greater Sydney Commission’s new policy has little discernible economic research behind it or any discussion about where jobs are going in the modern city or what jobs and services will be around in the fast arriving digital era. But it wants to abolish planning flexibility for “employment land” and will prevent the emergence of the mixed uses places to which, on evidence, modern jobs want to go.
I’m exploring where jobs are going at the moment, and what jobs there might be as we move towards the 2030s and 2040s. Some of what I’m learning keeps me awake at night even more than worrying about what new crime against good taste or tidiness my teenage daughter claims I have committed at the breakfast table. Yes, that worrying.
So I am looking at what kind of places and environments internationally are attracting investment and talent at the moment. But I’m also considering the transition to more knowledge-intensive jobs and what AI, AVs and other disruptive tech-enabled acronyms beginning with the letter “A” will do to the jobs done by mere humans. It doesn’t look pretty.
I’m turning into a luddite pessimist on what the digital universe will do to employment. Technology can of course both kill and make jobs, but even in that benign assumption we need to be clear that those who die in the process may not be the ones reborn. The first industrial revolution broke a few eggs on the way to making an omelette and some workers whose trades were abolished by technology were impoverished and never recovered.
The macro economic consequences were transformative but the micro ones were often catastrophic for individuals and families. I sense that dislocation is going to happen again but on a bigger scale. I am also less sure that new well-paid jobs will replace the old ones.
I note also that automation and AI have begun to destroy not only working class jobs but also middle class, managerial and indeed knowledge-rich jobs. We are beginning to see machine-generated legal opinions with a better evidential basis and reasoning than some lawyers can produce.
As a lapsed barrister myself, I want to joke at lawyers’ expense and say “no surprises there”. But the implications are chilling.
Professionals and leafy suburbs could also be eroded as AI moves into our lives
And not just for individuals but the professional services economy and the city districts that rely on them. It’s no longer just rustbelt areas at risk. Some currently leafy suburbs of Sydney could be under a medium to long term threat from what Joseph Schumpeter called the creative destruction of capitalism in its new “digital disruption” form.
Towns and cities with high densities of graduates are winning the battle for talent and investment over non-graduate places
As to where jobs are going now, it’s clear that certain cities and places are favoured by global talent and investment. Enrico Moretti has written about the New Geography of Jobs which shows that towns and cities with high densities of graduates are winning the battle for talent and investment over non-graduate places.
And Christopher Leinberger has done great research for every city in the US showing what kinds of places within cities are doing best economically. He sees a major shift in value and market perception, both residentially and commercially, towards what he calls “walkable urban” districts compared with “drivable suburban”.
We have seen such a shift in Sydney. Mixed use, walkable, high amenity, high public transport-accessible locations, preferably close to universities, attract top dollar and agglomerations of talent. These places – not out of town, single use, business parks – are where the top knowledge jobs are going.
This has a number of policy implications. One is that the best mode to service this knowledge economy is rail or other mass transit modes that enable a large number of workers to agglomerate in a concentrated space with as little congestion on the roads as possible. Motorway projects and such agglomeration are not natural bedfellows.
The second implication is spatial in that this agglomeration trend is leading to certain parts of towns over-heating in terms of rents and house prices. What do we do about that and the areas left behind?
The third implication is about the whole concept of “employment” or “industrial” land.
Globally and in Australia, jobs are going to mixed use “innovation districts” and other places which mix jobs, homes, retail, education, cafes and leisure activities – and employee preferences are clearly towards this model rather than single use, drivable, business parks in the middle of nowhere.
Like it or not most jobs are in the CBD
Like it or not, 50 per cent of all jobs in Australia in the last five years have been created within a few kilometres of the CBD in Sydney and Melbourne because of this fact, according to The Grattan Institute.
So why are we seeking in planning terms to draw a red line around “employment areas” just because industries have “traditionally” clustered there, when these industries may be dying and these places no longer attract talent and investment?
Or rather, why would we try and stop single use, under utilised land with jobs in disappearing sectors from moving in a more sustainable direction?
This is, of course, not an academic question in Sydney. The GSC’s “thought leadership” piece on such matters, A Metropolis That Works, was recently issued.
Some planning authorities, believing the commission’s work to be ex cathedra, are rushing to turn thought bubbles into inflexible reality
I put “thought leadership” in inverted commas because despite its modest pretensions – and equally modest evidential basis – I find that some planning authorities, believing the commission’s work to be ex cathedra [straight from the pope], are rushing to turn thought bubbles into inflexible reality.
In my view, this is happening without deep enough consultation between the GSC and the property sector about what a radical shift in planning policy entails.
In depth research needed on how to do mixed used in previously single use job-rich precincts, like in London
Nor as far as I can see is there anything like the depth of research behind the policy we find in the documentation on “strategic employment land” of the Greater London Authority, which has also, creatively, provided design guidance on how to do mixed use in previously single use job-rich precincts.
The GSC’s new policy, which as far as I can see has no economic research behind it or any discussion about where jobs are going in the modern city or what jobs and services will be around in the fast arriving digital era, wants to abolish planning flexibility for “employment land” and will prevent the emergence of the mixed uses places to which, on evidence, modern jobs want to go.
If implemented, everything outside an employment land will be flexible and amenable to changing outcomes but not land within them.
The GSC is basically saying that areas ripe for reinvention as mixed use areas, which may attract more jobs in reality than the declining single use areas, should remain sacredly inviolable.
They want to freeze such areas in what in many cases is a fallen state because they once provided lots of jobs and “urban services” for local communities.
I have been working on one such area in the so-called “Eastern City”.
It was a major local employment area now drastically reduced in job density and scale, with its once significant role in car assembly now only evident in a handful of panel beaters providing urban services when it’s not clear anyone will be owning cars after the arrival of shared cars, AVs and mobility as a service.
And the majority of the people who work there are certainly not from the local community but indeed drive in from south western Sydney (well outside the notion of a 30 minute city).
Could there be places trapped in a time warp?
This is the final irony of the policy: treating these locations with this backward approach will push residential development – not jobs – westwards when precisely the opposite balance is the core strategic aim of the GSC.
I add: there are also concerns in Western Sydney that the policy will trap certain locations there in a time-warp – places no longer successful at attracting jobs but not allowed to progress to a mixed use condition which would work better.
I hope they look at this over-simplified policy shift. I really believe more jobs and urban services can go into such places by accepting the market wants mixed use, connected and walkable locations and enabling more of them to happen. But hey, I still have a Betamax video so what do I know about technology and the future of work?
Tim Williams is a regular contributor to The Fifth Estate. He is head of cities and urban renewal at Arup and adjunct professor at Western Sydney University.
UPDATED: 25 March 2019. This article has been updated to reference the Grattan Institute for the figure quoted for employment growth in Melbourne and Sydney.
Spinifex is an opinion column open to all, so called because it’s at the “spiky” end of sustainability. Spinifex may be inconvenient or annoying at times, but in fact, it’s highly resilient in a hostile environment and essential to nurturing biodiversity and holding the topsoil together. If you would like to contribute, we require 700+ words. For a more detailed brief and style guide please email email@example.com