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  • Franklin D Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park, Roosevelt Island, New York City – built four decades after Louis Kahn’s death. © Iwan Baan
Focus Making Sydney a successful metropolis. Text: Philip Graus

Greater Sydney Commission Challenge: Can it Integrate Money, Politics and Design?

What do progressive cities like New York, London and Chicago have in common? The answer is metropolitan level governance. Alexandros Washburn, former chief urban designer of the New York City Department of City Planning under Mayor Bloomberg, in his book The Nature of Urban Design (Island Press, 2013) states that economics, community and design, in equal measure shape effective, resilient, equitable and well-designed cities – in other words, money, politics, and design are given equal consideration and are integrated.

In the above cases, it is the metropolitan city government that has responsibility for the city; the city is managed and run by the city, for the city. While this may sound obvious, achieving an effective way of running a modern global city presents a significant challenge for all Australian cities, as our governance structure is fundamentally different when it comes to cities.

In New South Wales, like other Australian cities, the federal government is responsible for tax, defence and national highways. In essence, it has the macroeconomic levers to drive population and economic growth. The states are responsible for health and public education, public transport and set state plans, housing and job targets that local government is charged to deliver in local plans. Federal and state governments are jointly responsible for health, education and public housing.

Local government is exactly that – local. Local governments closest to the community deliver local services as well as make local zoning plans to deliver state targets. Each local government is an ‘island’ in some sense.

‘In metropolitan cities, the economic unit geographically is the region – this is not reflected in any level of government. As the global economy continues to place more emphasis on metropolitan cities, fragmented city governance will increasingly put cities like Sydney at a significant disadvantage’

There is currently no level of government with a clear responsibility for cities; responsibility for metropolitan growth, land use planning, public transport and physical civic improvement are fragmented. In metropolitan cities, the economic unit geographically is the region – this is not reflected in any level of government. As the global economy continues to place more emphasis on metropolitan cities, fragmented city governance will increasingly put cities like Sydney at a significant disadvantage.

As noted above, cities like New York, Chicago and London with a metropolitan level of government have the ability, authority and funding to manage metropolitan cities as places. Place, economics and community are integrated.

The challenge

For these reasons, the NSW Chapter of the Australian Institute of Architects has strongly supported moves to create a more integrated level of governance for metropolitan Sydney and the regions in submissions to government over the past seven years; specifically, a metropolitan commission linked to local communities with the authority to integrate public transport with forward strategic planning.

It is encouraging to see such a body being created. The greatest challenge perhaps for the Commission will be to win broad community support as an unelected body. This may not be insurmountable as commissions in cities such as Chicago are appointed rather than elected. They are however highly transparent, with strong community representation on the Commission itself. Hearings are public. They are an important link between city government and the state. The challenge for the Greater Sydney Commission will be being an effective link between multiple local bodies and the state.

Another challenge will be integrating public transport, roads, education and housing in long and medium-term planning as these sit under separate state agencies reporting to different ministers. The district plans will be crucial in bringing together the higher level strategic thinking and setting a cohesive framework for local plans, as well as integrating public transport, schools and hospitals.

Like all state bodies, the powers of the Greater Sydney Commission are limited to the extent of their remit. In the case of the GSC, it has the responsibility to deliver the district plans and approve planning proposals. Perhaps a measure of success in countering ad hoc political decisions will be the quality of the district plans and whether they actually deliver public benefits, such as the Green Grid and the much needed open space metropolitan Sydney needs as it grows.

‘Innovation district’ plans?

The changing nature of jobs in a global market presents a particular challenge to all metropolitan cities – economically as well as socially. Can the Greater Sydney Commission with commissioners dedicated to economics, social and environmental considerations bring more focus to this? Can the district commissioners, together with local government, develop district plans as ‘innovation district’ plans like the ones being developed in the US and the UK?

High productivity jobs increasingly cluster around universities, major research/teaching hospitals. Referred to as innovation districts in the US, they rely heavily on the integration of economic activity, health/research/education, accessibility and physical placemaking. The Brooklyn Naval Yard and Roosevelt Island in New York are such examples.

The UTS / Ultimo cluster together with the Goods Line and access to Central Station is such a district, as is the University of Sydney / RPA Hospital and UNSW / Prince of Wales Hospital, the latter soon to be made more accessible via light rail. The above examples are Sydney CBD centric, each including significant health and education institutions. How can the Commission better consolidate such elements together in district plans?

Achieving this will be critical to Sydney as a successful metropolitan city. There are other opportunities throughout Sydney: Westmead Hospital near Parramatta CBD and Western Sydney University is one such opportunity, as are the Liverpool and Campbelltown hospitals. We must also think at the broader metropolitan regional scale including Newcastle and Wollongong with their strong universities, hospitals and excellent placemaking potential on Australia’s coast. Integrating this level of thinking will be vital for the future of this metropolitan region.

Philip Graus is a director of COX. In 2014 he was appointed inaugural conjoint professor at UNSW Built Environment