Save Our Sydney!
Prior to British settlement, there may have been a thousand Eora people living around Sydney in a relative utopia. Governor Arthur Phillip estimated that around 1,500 Aboriginal people existed within a ten-mile radius of Port Jackson in 1788. Then came the city building, starting with the convicts and followed by an administrative and trading port centre. Today, a mere 230 years later, Sydney is a city of global significance and a favoured destination for tourism and commerce.
Planners, academics and thinkers are tossing around some big population numbers for Sydney. Currently we are at 5 million, and some have suggested 8 million in the near future. This is scary stuff for those who love the beaches and the natural wonders of Sydney.
It’s a topical subject as we’ve been growing at 80,000 to 100,000 people per year; the city has become gridlocked at peak times and train capacity and other services – physical and social – are stretched. The NSW Government’s Greater Sydney Planning Commission has a new Three Cities Plan to deal with it, supposedly, all within the Sydney basin.
Migration is driving the growth – people want to live in clean, safe, prosperous Sydney. Governments love the numbers because they generate growth and employment and save them having to think of other ways to manage the post-mining economy. Planners find excuses for the politicians: the military ones say we are a vulnerable territory with a small population that needs to expand, and the town planners repeat the fashionable mantra that a city has to be big to be competitive globally.
A sense of scale is required. There are numerous cities that have the entire population of Australia within them. Examples include Tokyo (38 million), Delhi (26 million) and Shanghai (24 million). But there are tensions and contradictions here. The Mercer Quality of Living Survey of the world’s most liveable cities for employees working abroad is dominated by small cities. Sydney, at tenth, is by far the largest of that group. Our fabulous beaches and harbour put it there.
It begs the question as to what is Sydney’s optimal population size to maintain the wonderful geography we have and to be resilient against bushfires and climate change. Do we keep growing and fall down the index? Cities do not live forever. There are many once great cities reclaimed by the forests of Cambodia and Central America. Some just crumble away like Cairo and Naples.
There are alternatives to endless growth. There is the concept of growth poles and decentralisation. The great US port cities of New York and San Francisco, recognising how skewed to the sea they were becoming, sent their state capitals inland for balance. Bathurst could become our Sacramento or Albany, as some previous leaders have proposed. Where is the high speed rail that could make alternative growth poles to Sydney like Newcastle, Goulburn, Canberra, Wagga and Albury?
Whatever happened to the decentralisation policy we once had? Surely the National Party must be interested? France has it as a national cultural objective to keep people close to their food and spirit and to maintain the beauty of Paris by restricting its size.
What does this potential nightmare population growth scenario mean for us eastern beachside lovers? We may be able to resist the high-rise but land values will increase. Everyone wants to live here, squeezing out our kids and workers in need of low cost accommodation. The demand for beaches, parks, public transport and carparks could double.
And what of the hidden pipelines that pump Sydney’s crudely treated liquid wastes out to sea at Malabar and Bondi, originating from as far away as Campbelltown? This antediluvian, unsustainable and frankly embarrassing dumping into our precious ocean will likely double.
Great leaders have capped cities’ growth with bold unilateral strokes such as greenbelts, height restrictions, creating alternate growth poles and sending their navies and parliaments out of town.
There needs to be some new decisive directions, not urban planning platitudes, to Save our Sydney (SOS). Australia is the most urbanised continent on Earth with 80 per cent of our population living along the coast, mainly around the behemoth metropoles of Sydney and Melbourne.
There are now seven billion people on the planet and our land, air and oceans are groaning from their impact. Cities are where they are living, but do we need to be like the rest and threaten our stunning environment? Maybe we need to take a stand.