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Save Our Sydney Suburbs (NSW) Inc.
News Release March 2005

Seminar on Urban Consolidation, Blessing or Blight?

Hi SOS Members

This seminar was held at the Masonic Centre, organised by the Australian Institute of Urban Studies. The program had been billed as:

Dr John Roseth, Senior Commissioner, Land and Environment Court. From Policy to Detail. Cases from the court illustrating the pitfalls from policy to practice

Clr Genia McCaffery, Mayor of North Sydney and President, Local Government Assocn The Meat in the Sandwich? Charged with the task of implementing the policy Councils can find themselves forced to mediate between the State and the public.

Pat Fensham, Director, Strategic Development, Metropolitan Strategy, and Craig Allchin, Senior Urban Designer, DIPNR. Urban Renewal Approaches in the Metro Strategy. What options does Government have in the face of population pressures?

Dr Tony Recsei, President, Save Our Suburbs. The Impact of Policy on Residential Amenity. Why the public is not always happy with the outcome.

Drama commenced 24 hours before the seminar was due to commence when the the DIPNR speakers suddenly pulled out with no substitute. This was eerily reminiscent of what happened when Genia McCaffery and I spoke at a seminar on Sydney’s Population Future in 3 March 2001. The then Planning Department Director-General, Sue Holliday, withdrew at the last minute without a replacement. The Daily Telegraph labeled her "chicken".

This time the Australian Institute of Urban Studies was so persistent in demanding a replacement that the Director of Metropolitan Strategy, Alice Spizzo agreed to come instead.

Genia McCaffery described how councils were "between a rock and a hard place" in implementing urban consolidation – the community rejects the policy. In his address, Dr Roseth, Senior Commissioner, Land and Environment Court said he was the person who originated the description "Urban Consolidation". Alice Spizzo gave much detail of what her department is doing but did not comment on what options her department has in the face of population pressure.

In my address, I mainly presented overheads of statistics that showed that, contrary to the DIPNR spin, urban consolidation increases traffic congestion, air pollution and housing cost as well as overloading infrastructure. I suggested satellite cities as the best option if we have to cope with population pressure.

During the subsequent question and answer session when the speakers sat out in front, Dr Roseth made an extraordinary outburst. He said I was an advocate, my statistics were suspect, I had not done my research, I was not detached and objective and I had not told the whole story. I replied that I had spent years trying to ascertain from DIPNR the justification for their policies and the statistics presented were on the public record, available for anyone to check. Dr Roseth then lapsed into silence and did not participate in the rest of the question and answer session that proved lively and interesting.

My address is reproduced below in case anyone is interested.


I would like to discuss the impact of the Urban Consolidation Policy on residential amenity and its implications for Sydney.

Visitors to Sydney from large centres overseas have commented on the beauty and relative spaciousness of the city. In an increasingly overcrowded world, space is becoming a rare commodity. A policy of reducing this spaciousness by increasing population density needs to be very carefully thought through to ensure that the result will not be detrimental.

We are told that European cities are more dense than ours, and these are the models to which we should aspire. The State Government is at the point of forcing overseas high-density concepts onto Sydney on a large scale. There are now many instances in Sydney where suburbs of this quality are changing into this. The public are realizing that localities are losing their character and that they are all tending to look alike. It will all be more of the same. There will be little space for trees here. Most members of the community are not happy with the destruction of heritage, gardens and urban bushland. Even Sydney Harbor is changing to this.

We have to ask – why are they doing this to our city? The main reason advanced is traffic. The State Government tells us that higher densities will make public transport more viable with the result that everyone will forgo their cars and use public transport. But have they bothered to rigorously explore the relationship of density to traffic congestion? If we investigate dense cities overseas we find that traffic congestion increases with the density, and not the other way around. This accords with our common experience. I have graphed urban congestion and density in Australian cities and find exactly the same relationship as was found overseas. What is more, traffic congestion produces a serious problem. Vehicle exhausts contain dangerous microparticles. The World Health Organization calculates that 3 million people die from these particles every year - 3 times as many as from car accidents. We find that as population density increases, so does air pollution.

I visited Moscow last year. Moscow is high density – no single residential buildings are allowed. Moscow is reputed to have one of the best public transport systems in the world. Trains arrive at the many impressive stations every few minutes. There is also an extensive bus system. However Moscow traffic congestion is terrible, "crazy" as the locals describe it. This is the view from the window of our bus which took ¾ of an hour to go around the block.

This of course is a radical change from the Stalinist era. Then only the privileged could travel by car. People waited around and queued for hours, productivity was abysmal, poverty was pervasive and they lived 20 to a flat (as many still do). If you ask the Muscovites whether they would like to return to these command economy conditions they all say they prefer to put up with the traffic.

Let us consider how public transport usage in Sydney may change as urban consolidation intensifies. At present public transport share of journeys is 14%.

Copenhagen has been frequently mentioned by our planners as a city to emulate. Its population is less than half of Sydney’s but the population density is double. Much has been done over the last few decades to limit cars in the central area and facilitate bicycles, walking and public transport. Yet the public transport usage at 15% is the same as that of Sydney. Density has not helped here.

Stockholm is interesting. While the population statistics are similar to those of Copenhagen, public transport share, at 25% is 10% more. It is noteworthy that in 1952 Stockholm commenced a plan to establish satellite cities connected by fast transport. I shall say more about satellite cities later.

I attended the latest CityVisions seminar where the mayor of this South American city told us of the heroic efforts that have been made to reduce car dependence. Dedicated bus transitways with buses carrying up to 270 passengers have been built. All high-density buildings have to be along these transitways. Yet in spite these efforts and in spite of low car ownership due to poverty, public transport usage is only 30%.

For our final example let us look at Hong Kong. Hong Kong’s high density, the highest in the world, results in such severe traffic congestion that travelling by car is not an option for most people. Public transport usage is high, 80% of journeys.

If we look at world-wide trends in public transport use – they are nearly all down. Hamburg down 26% in a decade, Copenhagen down 12%, Sydney, in spite of urban consolidation policies is down 7%; world average down 13%. Realistically, as soon as people become sufficiently affluent to live in a suburb they tend to do so.

So what can we learn from these examples? It seems there are four ways by which we can reduce private car dependence:

  1. Introduce poverty so few can own a car
  2. By coercion
  3. Such a massive increase in density that congestion makes it almost impossible to travel by car
  4. Some sort of new technology by which people can get around or communicate.

Of these choices Sydney is opting for high density. But increasing density will only become effective if implemented to a really massive degree. To get to this density, all of Sydney would have to be jam-packed into an area of radius 5 km around Central Station. You can either be a car oriented low density urban area where cars work and extensive public transport doesn’t, or you can be Hong Kong, where extensive public transport works and cars don’t. Between is a no mans land where nothing really works, and that is where Sydney is headed.

And even if we were ever to get to this sort of density with everyone crammed in within 5 km of Central Station, do we really want to live like this? Why should we?

It is doubtful that the environment would be better off. There is a huge amount of embodied energy in these buildings - according to the United States Department of Energy’s Center for Sustainable Development, 40% of the world’s total energy is in buildings. When we tear down existing viable housing stock to make way for this, we unnecessarily create huge amounts of carbon dioxide. Additionally, in warm climates, high-rises use a lot of energy for air-conditioning as well as for lifts and items such as clothes driers. Consider the power blackouts we have been experiencing. And what about the air pollution from the congestion?

Lets move to another angle – that of cost. Most people think infrastructure cost is saved by high density. After all, the more dwellings attached to the power line and the sewer line, the less the infrastructure cost per dwelling. This makes sense when opening up new areas, provided the public can be persuaded to accept the higher density, but does it apply to existing suburbs? After 10 years of the application of urban consolidation to Sydney, it is becoming apparent that urban consolidation forced into existing suburbs overloads existing infrastructure and merely postpones expenditure. Traffic congestion has noticeably increased. Failures are increasingly evident in sewer systems. In Willoughby something urgent had to be done to prevent overflows. We were not told about this $10 million plus sewer that had to be installed in Chatswood using highly specialised directional drilling techniques.

Also, storm water systems, the water supply and the power supply are under increasing stress. The infrastructure of our suburbs was designed for the density of dwellings then built. Retrofitting higher density must overload infrastructure. Overloading infrastructure may postpone expenditure but the ultimate cost will be higher

In addition to infrastructure cost we need to consider the cost of housing. This report shows the cost of housing in four English speaking countries, Canada, the USA, New Zealand and Australia. In this table the cost of a house is expressed in terms of house price divided by annual household income. The more expensive the house, the more years of household income are needed to pay for it. We see that it takes 2.6 years of family income to purchase a house in Dallas, Texas, a city comparable in size with Sydney. Where are Australian cities in the list, you might ask? We find the first of the Australian cities on the next page. Darwin at 4 years of family income, is more expensive than Toronto in Canada at 3.9 years income. We may also notice that the fourth column indicates that Darwin is a city that implements urban consolidation policies. On the next and most expensive page we find Sydney – the fourth worst of the 90 odd cities listed. It takes 8.8 years of family income to buy a house in Sydney, ahead of Honolulu, San Francisco, Miami and New York. From the right hand column we notice that a characteristic of nearly all the expensive cities is the enforcement of urban consolidation policies.

So why is the price of a houses linked with urban consolidation? Well, urban consolidation restricts the supply of land and the resulting shortage pushes up the price. In 1997 the land component of the price of a house in Sydney was 32%. This component of the price has now gone up to 60%.

The long-term consequences of all this are grim. The rental of new warehouse space in Houston is only $40 per sq. meter. Sydney needs rentals of $150 per sq. meter or more to account for land costing $500 per sq. meter. In local currencies, this is nearly 4 times as much. Robert Gottliebsen writes in the Australian: that NSW is an economic disaster area. How are our industries going to be able to compete on world markets? They have to pay high wages because people have to pay excessive rents or mortgages. Additionally they have to pay excessive factory rentals. Banana drama.

A study of social trends during the past two decades shows that 83% of Australians would rather live in a free standing home. To own their own free-standing home has been a major goal of most families, notably those of low income. Living in ones own house is viewed as an important part of the Australian way of life. Detached housing gives families the room to be together without having to leave the house. Backyards allow children to play off the street, allow swimming pools, cater for pets, allow outdoor social functions and provide space for growing fruit and vegetables, for composting, for open air clothes drying, for boats and caravans.

Families with children are already finding housing choice increasing limited. Data from the Census shows, that in the inner suburban ring of Sydney the proportion of homes with children is only 30% compared to the outer ring where the proportion is about 55%. This mirrors the housing choices presented in these localities. Separate dwellings represent only 28% of homes in the inner ring and 82% in the outer ring. Densification thus is already restricting housing choice for families with children.

So what does Save Our Suburbs suggest we do to house an increasing population? Of the various city forms available, we suggest the lower one depicted in this diagram – the establishment of satellite cities. I referred earlier to the satellite city attempts in Stockholm.

But, you say – we do not have any land to build new cities. Lets look at this question from a quantitative point of view.

The diagram depicts the result of a calculation of the land that would be saved by doubling the urban density of Sydney. Looking at a map of Sydney, most of the city lies within a square of about 45-km. The residential area of a city such as Sydney comprises 40% of the total.

Doubling the population density of Sydney with its current population would save only 5 km off its 45-km cross section. If one flies out of Sydney and observes the huge expanse of land between the ranges and the sea, one realizes that this area that might be saved is negligible. It should also be pointed out that there is no evidence of a shortage of productive farmland –output has increased enormously, both here and overseas. Ask farmers about the prices they get for their produce. We have enough space to avoid the necessity of cramming in people like sardines.

Save Our Suburbs believes that, if it is necessity to accommodate an increasing population, new self-sufficient satellite cities adjacent to Sydney should be developed. These cities should have effective local public transport and be designed from scratch to encourage walking and cycling - shops, schools, recreation areas and workplaces must connect with nearby residential areas. And these cities should be sensitively sited with green belts, underground electrical cabling, energy-efficient buildings, drought-resistant plants and water reuse downstream. Further, they should be linked to Sydney by very fast transport and communication facilities.

Because it is responsible for immigration the Commonwealth must provide some leadership. The Commonwealth should fund, or significantly subsidize, necessary infrastructure and employment opportunities. There should be workable incentives like income tax concessions for those who set up a business or work in these cities.

With this type of planning we can retain our gardens, our heritage and our urban bushland.

If the public is not happy with urban consolidation and the process cannot be justified why is this imposed on us? Back in 2000 on the ABC TV Stateline program I first brought into public debate the topic of developer political donations. Large profits are made from high-density developments and part of these is recycled as political donations. This practice is now well accepted as a root cause. There is also a push for urban consolidation from some sections of academia.

How does the government get away with such an unjustified and unpopular policy? Its Planning Department, DIPNR, expertly hides behind local councils and the Land and Environment Court to implement its strategies.

In NSW, councils and the Land and Environment Court are the designated decoys for the policy of Urban Consolidation. They cop the public anger while the real perpetrators; the bureaucrats in DIPNR escape the fury their policies produce. The public is not happy with the outcome but the high density juggernaught rolls on.

Tony Recsei
Save Our Suburbs (SOS)

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