Split. Connect. (Repeat if Necessary.)

Balancing, more than fitting people, is growing cities’ challenge. Problems don’t come because we are too many. Problems come when some are extremely happy and the rest feel miserable. Just like an RV family vacation: no matter how comfortable the trailer is, you won’t please everyone.

About 55% of us live in cities. By 2050, we’ll be 68%. I have no anxiety disorder. Though 30 years… ATMs, Stents, GPS, mobile phones, Tetris, internet, DNA testing: some wonders of the last 30 years. Not to mention that Elton John got married to a woman. Time passes by fast.

In Sydney, time seems to fly. In London and New York the population will grow by 30%. The Australian city will double it by 2056. But no one is freaking out.

Metropolis of Three Cities

Sydneysiders have a plan, a 40-years one: split and connect. They will split Sydney into three connected cities: Eastern Harbour, Central River, and Western Parkland. So far, it’s not rocket science but I wanted an expert’s view.

I met Paul Jones at the Sydney School of Architecture, Design and Planning. Ph.D., MURP, Masters (Development Geography), and Postgraduate Diploma in Urban Studies. Also, Dr. Jones has 30 years of professional experience in developing sustainable urban management, urban development, and planning solutions in Australia and overseas. (You’ve got the hang of it, Dr. Jones!)

A big question was whether the three cities plan is a smart move or not. On the one hand, large, compact cities are economically productive and environment-friendly.

On the other hand, proper crowd management can be hard. The infrastructure must support the massive population. There should be housing, jobs, transit, and health care for everybody. Otherwise, social inequities will arise.

I think is a smart move, answers Dr. Paul Jones. It means we are being more equitable in terms of planning. I think that’s a reasonable move. I’m not sure how long it will take to happen.

The Latte Line

Social inequities can be mapped. In Sydney, the geographic distribution of wealth follows the ‘Latte line’. It runs from the airport north-west through Parramatta. The wealthier neighborhoods are in the north and east: white-collar jobs and short travel time. If you live on the other side of the Latte line, it’s the reverse of that, explains Jones.

In the absence of proper infrastructure, the schism was unavoidable. The high costs of housing in the north part make the rest of the residents’ commute a nightmare. New white-collar jobs in the west and south would be a possible solution. Affordable housing in the north would work, too. Also, improving the transit connectivity would do wonders. But leaving the latte line is not an option. Actually, designing an equitable Sydney means getting rid of any line. No matter how posh its name is.

A Close Up of the Far West

One of the reasons for the three cities is the second airport, says Dr. Jones. They hope the Western Sydney International Airport will act as a catalyst, creating high technology jobs. The expectations are high.

When we think of airport locations, we don’t imagine walkers paradises. For this reason, the most arduous task the GSC will probably face is liveability.

Jobs, affordable housing, parks, schools, hospitals, cafes, public transport, street furniture… Where should the GSC start? I think they are all important. I don’t think you can really do one without the other. You do housing, then you gonna fit ecology. Affordability, transport, connectivity, liveability… What does liveability mean? It’s a big thing. That’s the challenge for the Sydney commission to put it all together.

The effort pays off. Urbanization results in larger cities, which create more quality infrastructure.

30’

A crucial variable of walkability is time. The concept of ‘walking distance’ makes us think of a short and pleasant promenade. Also, we assume we need nothing but our human anatomy. I’ve never heard someone saying: ‘I’ll drop my cloth at the dry cleaner, I won’t forget my propulsion devices this time!’

The GSC presented the 30 minutes city. According to the project, about 70% of residents should be able to run errands or reach work within 30 minutes.

What does ‘a 30-minutes city’ mean? And why? Dr. Paul Jones is skeptical and probably he’s right.

There seems to be an unspoken competition between cities. Which city has the shortest commutes? Melbourne, for instance, aims to create 20-minutes neighborhoods. Living locally will strengthen the local economy. Also, it will cut daily GHG emissions.

The obsession is not exclusively Australian. The NYC 2040 Agenda envisages that the average New Yorker will get to work -by transit- within 45 minutes.

There’s a difference between Melbourne’s 20 minutes and NYC’s 45. But it’s chalk and cheese when you compare them. Anyway, commute time is a good measure of the city’s equity and its walkability. Short commute time equals high life quality. Well-paying jobs and social infrastructure provide a life with dignity and security to all the residents.

Connectivity

Each center will be highly urbanized. However, part of the project consists in connecting all three, by train and buses.

2056 is a long way off. Nevertheless, Dr. Jones says the plan is running smoothly. The GSC commissions are doing good things. They are trying to make sure there’s a connection between plans and the implementation. They’ve done plans and they need to be delivered on. As he explains, the environmental study and the strategic plan at the beginning of the process were essential.

Does One Size Fit All?

Planning is good — in moderation. One size fits all! This systematic approach… This lacks some sort of flexibility, vernacular living. You can’t plan everything, especially with so much multiculturalism. I don’t wanna formalize everything, warns specialist in Informal Urbanism Dr. Paul Jones. In most cities, there’s always a combination of formally planned and something that is unplanned. Even though we think that informal urbanism is a developing country issue, we do have informal urbanism in Sydney as well, in different modes. It exists in different combinations and in different expressions.

Metropolis of One Expanded City?

Wouldn’t it be better if they expanded Sydney, rather than split it?

Two aspects of the plan make me think of alternatives. First: time. The GSC presented a 40 years long project. No matter how great the results are, people always hate roadworks. How will the Sydney commission calm down the citizens? ‘We’ll soon have three glowing cities… by 2056’ I prefer the short-term trial and error method. If something isn’t working, you just forget about it and keep trying new things.

Second, what if each of the three new cities become crowded and unbalanced? In that case, today’s solution would be tomorrow’s problem. At this rate, by the year 2078, Sydney would have turned into a metropolis of 206 cities (or so).

I think upward expansion would be a good option. Thus, new residents would be able to enjoy the already existing city center’s delights. In reverse, an outward expansion would be destructive because it would produce more social inequities. This would translate into an increase of municipal costs of providing public services. Finally, an outward expansion would damage the environment because urban development can strain natural resources. Wealthier cities grow vertically. I don’t see why Sydney shouldn’t at least try that recipe.

I travel and write about walkability.

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