The National Times

By Edward Blakely

In 1900, Philadelphia was the world’s richest  city, a city of glamour, promise and increasing wealth based on Pennsylvania’s oil fields and gold mines. New York City was a poor cousin. Philadelphia’s city leaders were smug and complacent. The future was theirs. A few naysayers noted that the city was making few investments in new technologies for the motor car and newly installed indoor sewerage and plumbing.

But why worry, Philadelphia was a global city as written and noted in every periodical of the time. No one could contemplate a day when the great city of Philadelphia would not be an industrial giant and attractor of global capital. This year Philadelphia was ranked among America’s poorest cities.

Sounds familiar? You have to work to become the best and work harder to stay among the best. Sydney has forgotten this simple message. Glitter and glamour will not keep Sydney a global city. Sydney is already slipping in the global rankings.

A report on capital cities by KPMG, released at the Built Environment Meets Parliament forum in Canberra today,  deals with how our major Australian cities respond to  current  and future potential needs. The report  shows Sydney  last or nearly last on every dimension from coherence in plans to delivery of key infrastructure for the  region. Adelaide is the best of our cities  in measures from planning to urban design and housing for key workers.

Its assessment were based on the Council of Australian Governments’  simple and straightforward measures of good governance and supply of good urban outcomes. Sydney failed. Sydney’s shortcomings are nothing for Melbourne or Adelaide or Brisbane to cheer. As Sydney, our biggest and wealthiest city sinks globally, so does our national economy. Almost one-third of the nation’s gross domestic product flows through Sydney. If it fails, so do we all.

Sydney is increasingly at sea with respect to leadership and direction. The state government announces projects – not goals with long-term strategic impact on where the city is and has to go. A new series of rail and transport projects and commissions have been named. To do what? Citizens are restless  as the government trudges onward with no fixed direction to mend the past problems or to recognise the new ones. For example, as we plan new Sydney rail projects we have forgotten our current airport is woefully under siege and cannot meet the  freight and passenger demands of the next 15 years. It takes about 20 to 25 years to site and build a world class airport such as Shanghai and Hong Kong. Our sea freight and rail connections are hopelessly tangled because we have not designed a simple way to move goods from the ports to marshalling yards without traversing city streets. Melbourne is solving that problem.

We have no regional governance to deal with the myriad cross-jurisdictional problems.  Lord Mayor Clover Moore favours the Vancouver model of regional collaborative governance among the cities but that would mean paring down the number of cities in the Sydney basin and giving a regional agency total planning power, as exercised by Vancouver’s regional planning organisation. Sydney is updating the incomplete Master Plan that I chaired five years ago.  I regarded this plan as doomed because it was not funded and lacked any coherent connection among the various infrastructure agencies such as roads, rail, water and energy that are required to set and maintain direction.

New York and London have achieved regional coordination so why can’t Sydney? Sydney as the nation’s economic capital has to be re-thought. New York formed the buroughs in the 1920s to have coherent governance. Philadelphia did nothing so New York became the global city and Philadelphia sank. London recently formed the Greater London Council. We have to get the organisation straight before we start pouring more money and effort into a failing entity.  

We have to do five simple things.

1. Form regional systems of governance – this can be fashioned on the Vancouver model where the cities form a new umbrella governance body to organise and coordinate all planning and infrastructure and controls delivery agencies such as rail, bus, freight, roads and water.

2. Establish a single regional planning commission in every state – similar to Portland, Oregon with the power to plan and approve plans in cities and towns in the state in keeping with an approved regional template and not subject to repeated government interference. Cities would operate within this template. Developers would no longer be planners but the implementers of plans.

3. Create a national freight plan and program that co-ordinates and funds international freight from port to intermodal terminals to include nationally funded freightways and air transport hubs.

4. Require state housing strategies for every region, especially Sydney, to deal effectively with the location and balance of jobs and housing. Each state would derive its own formula  to deal with the imbalanced locations of population so that mid-sized cities would and could grow and all cities would have to have affordable housing with access to transport. We do not need higher-rise, we need better organised suburbs with modestly sized and well positioned living accommodation for all ages and incomes. This is what Australia had and what we need to have in the future for the current 20 million or future 35 million in 2050. We need to adopt a national  community development debt bond fund, as in the US and Britain, to finance community infrastructure ranging from light rail to corridor housing and suburban centres’ improvements.

5. Develop a far better approach to the use and allocation of water in the states and regions, to control surface and underground water and reuse more of it with local and regional storage and with fewer energy-guzzling recycling plants that merely return water we pour into the oceans rather than using the clean rain that falls all around us.

Sydney must improve for the sake of the nation, for it to be a good place for us, our children and grandchildren to live in. All of our cities will have to meet COAG’s requirement for our urban future; this is not Sydney’s task alone. We do not want  Sydney or any of our cities to become the next Philadelphia.

The lesson from Philadelphia: if you try to stay put, you end up on the bottom.

Edward J Blakely is honorary professor of urban policy at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney. He is an Australian-American who is internationally known for his work on urban planning and policy issues.