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  • Central Sydney Corridor diagram. Courtesy: Cox Richardson Architects and Planners

Good Governance

How do we sustain Sydney’s global city status? Philip Graus reviews the need for metropolitan governance and greater integration.

Effective governance on a metropolitan scale is a defining factor of successful global cities. What do I mean by governance? A major review1 identified six characteristics that define and measure good governance as: accountability, transparency, involvement, structure, effectiveness and power. To effectively embrace these characteristics requires a publicly accountable governance body and framework with the authority to make decisions; in the city context such a body must have the power to act on a metropolitan scale.


Successful global cities including New York, Chicago, and London have strong metropolitan scale plans, despite a political structure of national, state and local government similar to Australian cities. While metropolitan London comprises 33 local government bodies as well as Greater London, all 33 plans must accord with the Greater London Plan; to establish alignment rather than merely amalgamation. In addition, powers and funding are devolved to the metropolitan level. This model is currently being proposed for struggling cities in the United Kingdom (UK) such as Manchester, as well as in cities in the United States (US)2. Similarly greater regional plans in New York, Chicago, and San Francisco bring together multiple local plans. These plans for metropolitan governance illustrate the integration of top-down and bottom-up approaches.


Effective metropolitan governance avoids the out of date paradigm of state level top-down versus local bottom-up planning by developing a framework that integrates both. Professor Mark Tewdwr-Jones, Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales (UNSW) and Professor of Planning at the University of Newcastle, UK believes that there is an increasing demand by the community for a more local and meaningful form of participation in decisions that shape the city3. At a recent governance roundtable Tewdwr-Jones stated that citizens have lost interest and trust in traditional forms of democracy4. This cynicism and disinterest in democratic governance does not impinge upon the public’s robust interest in cities and place-making – communities are simply unable to see how they can participate in the current system.

The challenge for the architecture profession is to develop strategic design thinking and advocate for its place in metropolitan governance and city making. At the forefront should be strategies for architecture and public realms that effectively encompass economics, politics, and design. The integration of these three elements was the basis of PlaNYC, the plan for New York developed by Alex Washburn, Chief Urban Designer for New York City. This thinking can integrate the top-down need for economic growth with the bottom-up desire for physical improvement – it is not the case of one or the other. It requires macro and local scale design thinking – both are spatial – macro design thinking is strategic, while local is physical.


The London based Centre for Cities advocates urban growth that benefits as many people as possible, stressing the need for governance focussed on the objective of equity and building cities that are bigger, better, and fairer5Goran Hyden has described effective urban governance as “enhancing the legitimacy of the public realm” 6. It comes as no surprise then that cities such as New York, Chicago and Singapore have dramatically improved their public realm in recent years. While major public realm projects such as Chicago’s Millennium Park and the Highline in New York are well known, much broader metropolitan scale improvements such as the New York parks program have delivered citywide physical improvements to all income groups in the city.

Perhaps the proposed Green Grid can do the same for Sydney? To date results in Sydney have been more mixed, both with regards to public realm and infrastructure delivery. With a more integrative and strategic approach to planning, based on international models, there is the chance to see Sydney progress towards becoming a sustainable and enjoyable global city.


Aspiring global cities such as Sydney will increasingly be at a competitive disadvantage as they continue to be managed by state and local governance models that conflict and compete with each other. This is further exacerbated by the fact that state funding relies on the Commonwealth. The role of the state government in Australia is to govern the state, not establish cities or place-making. And, with 85% of taxes being collected by the Commonwealth these arrangements do not encourage investment in cities, as the Commonwealth government is not aligned to be involved in this arena either. Commonwealth taxes focus on income and consumption, not land – yet land is the basis of development and infrastructure spending. The current form of three levels of governance is not sustainable for a city like Sydney.

The recent New South Wales (NSW) budget allocated $68.6 billion on urban infrastructure, the largest investment in decades. When you combine this with the fact that Sydney is growing at an annual rate of 1.4%, one of the highest in the OECD, the need for effective governance becomes obvious, if Sydney is to grow sustainably and improve the lives of all of its citizens.


Currently the NSW Government is considering a Greater Sydney Commission. There has been strong support for a government body with meaningful representation tasked with implementing and aligning the hierarchy of strategic to local plans in the Greater Sydney Region. There are existing models for this both in Australia and abroad that should be examined for their structure and effectiveness.

There are currently planning commissions in Western Australia and the Northern Territory, with a commission also proposed in South Australia (SA). The SA proposal has been developed by an independent enquiry. If such a commission were adopted in NSW it would be the first of the larger eastern states to adopt such a structure. In all the above scenarios, there is a common view that as our cities grow and become more complex, a strong and independent planning commission could deliver and align planning policies from state to local. This would establish consultation with the range of stakeholders in a significantly less politicised environment. This approach could potentially address concerns raised by the community, business, industry groups, and local government. This integration will undeniably involve a design thinking approach and will be a key challenge for the Greater Sydney Commission as well as for architects.

Philip Graus
Director, Cox Richardson Architects and Planners
Conjoint Professor, Built Environment, UNSW
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  1. Governance: a review and synthesis of the literature, Ruthanen, Scott, Richie and Tkaczynski, UQ, Tourism Review, Vol 65. NO 4. 2010
  2. The Metropolitan Revolution, Katz and Bradley, Brookings Institution Press, 2014
  3. UNSW Built Environment, News and City Futures Blog – A Discussion on City Governance – with bite (also Fifth Estate) be.unsw.edu.au
  4. UNSW/COX Urban Conversations Roundtable 23rd April 2015
  5. UK Centre for Cities, Cities Outlook 2015, www.centreforcities.org
  6. Governance: a review and synthesis of the literature, Ruthanen, Scott, Richie and Tkaczynski, UQ, Tourism Review, Vol 65. NO 4. 2010