How Sydney is tackling the demands of big city living

Article by JP Pelosi
Sydney during rush hour
Image credit: Shutterstock

Ever since Sydney marked its place on the world stage with the 2000 Olympics, Australia’s biggest city has been rapidly growing – both in terms of its size and economy.

Yet its success has also brought challenges – in particular how to meet the urgent housing and infrastructure needs of a rising global city, while maintaining its world-renowned quality of life.

Dr Yang Liang Chua, Head of Research for Southeast Asia at JLL, says that while many cities today compete on measures of liveability and density, the two are largely independent.

“Higher density is a factor driven by economics,” he says. “Whereas, liveability is about the quality of life and is a concept that is subjective, depending on the measurements and factors used to define it. Liveability in a city is arguably quite different from that in a town.”

Redefining the lifestyle

Sydney is a sprawling mass of suburbs across more than 12,000 kilometres. It wasn’t built with density in mind, but rather with the idealism of the Great Australian Dream – large family houses on spacious quarter- acre blocks.

As such, 67 percent of people living in Sydney drive into work, according to the Australasian Railways Association, many coming in to the CBD from suburbs which can be as far as 55 kilometres away. Now, with more than 4.5 million residents, traffic jams and multi-hour commutes have become common for many Sydneysiders.

The New South Wales government is taking action with plans to accelerate Sydney’s housing supply in infill, greenfield and underused areas, as well as building more in suburbs suited to being medium density areas.

Such projects are long underway, mostly along existing suburban train lines and where new light rail links are being built. But demand still heavily outweighs supply and this strong competition is also hampering the city’s ability to provide affordable housing options.

New one-bedroom units close to the CBD can come with a high price tag, and while larger housing developments have been popping up, the escalating cost of Sydney’s land means these houses can also sell well above median price of AUS$1 million.

Additionally, new development proposals are limited by Sydney’s natural borders, its harbor, extensive parklands and several waterways. Creative thinking is therefore needed.

With many global cities now focused on sustainability, developing along major transit lines is a good option, says Dr Chua, giving residents a transport option other than automobiles.

“Having a myriad of housing options along these train lines is important to cater to housing demand,” he says. “I would stress developing along major transit routes and infill developments first, before setting out to develop on new virgin land.”

Successful approaches to density

There are, at least, lessons to be learned from other cities in handling density. Projects in many European cities have mixed-use buildings that offer enjoyable places to live in modern urban environments, according to a report from the Urban Land Institute (ULI) in Europe. The planning is anchored by a vision for a better city experience.

In Stockholm, nine centres previously built at the edges of the city have gradually been redefined by densification. The streamlining of three or four areas in particular, has helped the city attract businesses and cultural institutions to these neighbourhoods, creating a sense of destination and vitality.

Meanwhile, Manchester has been leading the charge on city center living in the UK. With its flourishing city center economy boosted by strong growth in private sector jobs, many young professionals wanted to be in the heart of the action. As a result, the number of city-based residents rose by 20,000 in the decade to 2011 – an increase of 83 percent. Over the same period, Manchester saw a boom in apartment building with around 7,000 new homes sold.

Creating a new vibe

Higher rise living may gradually be on the increase in Europe yet in many Asian cities like Hong Kong and Singapore, it’s very much the norm. Soaring residential towers are well supported by activity on the street – shops, restaurants, bars and gyms, all within a short walk of apartments.

Sydney could do the same but has already fallen behind other Australian cities when it comes to building tall towers. Melbourne, Brisbane and the Gold Coast are all building upward at a faster rate, which has prompted the City of Sydney to create a new plan to reshape the city’s skyline.

Head of Research for JLL in Australia, Andrew Ballantyne, says that while the Sydney CBD has natural barriers to the North, West (harbour) and East (parkland) limited space for growth on all sides, new proposals will allow for additional building heights in strategic locations.

“The expansion of a CBD resident population is important ingredient in making Sydney more liveable,” he says. “To accommodate the underlying demand for commercial and population growth residents, the CBD will require increased density.”

Yet while vertical living has its place in city development, Dr Chua says that the quality of space – especially communal space – shouldn’t be compromised.

“I would defer that the Hong Kong density is the only solution” he says. “I believe higher density is acceptable but what is more important is the treatment of the space between buildings.

“The provision of adequate living space per person and community spaces need special attention as urban density rises. These are issues that urban planners, developers and city government need to play additional focus.”

With the population growing faster than new housing and infrastructure can be built, planning is more important than ever before. Yet it’s far from straightforward; a combination of strategies is needed to not only increase the city’s density but to also help retain the enjoyable lifestyle that has long made Sydney famous.

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