Urban Consolidation in Sydney

Today I am sharing with you an academic exercise I undertook in 2012. Please note since the time of writing, there have been a number of planning reforms proposed in New South Wales (NSW). More on this can be found here and is the topic of a blog I am currently working on. Nevertheless, the issues surrounding urban consolidation policies for Sydney still remain valid.

1. Introduction
Urban Consolidation has become one of the dominant strategic planning paradigms across Australian cities amidst growing concerns about urban sprawl, climate change, and population growth (Forster 2006, Searle & Filion 2011, Ruming et al. 2012). It became one of the foundation stones of a new metropolitan strategy released in 1988, Sydney into its Third Century. Urban consolidation is the process of increasing or maintaining the density of housing in established residential areas with an aim to reduce development on the fringe areas of the city (Smith & Wales 1997). By the 1980s, the high cost of providing new infrastructure services to periphery areas was acknowledged (Smith & Wales 1997). ‘Consolidation’, ‘densification’ and ‘containment’ have been touted as the compact forms of urban development that can curb such suburban sprawl. The concern for these compact forms arose from the worst overseas experiences of rampant suburbanisation such as Detroit, London and Liverpool (Mcloughlin 1991).

Strong population growth1, changing household structures2, the development of a multicultural society through strong immigration from overseas, and the impact of globalization (Murphy & Watson 1994, Searle 1996, Baum 1997, Bunker et al. 2005, NSW Government 2010) have resulted in socio-spatial complexities in various parts of Sydney. Concerns about housing Sydney’s growing population3, the high cost of providing and operating infrastructure for low-density development4, increasing car-dependence, and the topographical and environmental constraints limiting Sydney’s growth options has resulted in Sydney’s focus on urban consolidation (Gray et al. 2010). To address these challenges, the Sydney Metropolitan Plan 2036 [Herein called the ‘Metropolitan Plan’] proposes growing and renewing centres (NSW Government 2010). Some of the goals noted to grow and renew centres include (i) locate at least 80% of all new homes within the walking catchments of existing and planned centres of all sizes with good public transport (ii) focus activity in accessible centres (iii) plan for centres to grow and change over time (iv) plan for new centres in existing urban areas and greenfield release areas (v) plan for urban renewal in identified centres and (vi) support clustering of businesses and knowledge-based activities in major centres and specialised centres (NSW Government 2010). These policies, however, are insufficient on their own; to achieve urban consolidation goals, land prices, distribution of employment and access to transport are key factors that influence where people choose to live.

2. Urban Consolidation Policy Responses
Urban consolidation policy responses have been in place since at least the 1980s. In 1982 the State government placed a draft State Environmental Planning Policy to permit medium density housing in all residential areas on public exhibition. The policy was met with widespread opposition from local government and communities (Searle 2007), and was withdrawn on the understanding that councils would pursue their own urban consolidation initiatives (Smith & Wales 1997). However, local councils were still reluctant to introduce their own initiatives to increase housing densities5. Some of the policy responses initiated are listed in the table below:

These policy responses led to an increase in dual occupancy development. However, the increasing frequency of dual occupancy developments, many of bad design, led to an increasing outcry6 from affected people (Smith & Wales 1997). These policies were then replaced by council targets for medium density dwellings. Still the overall net effect on Sydney’s housing structure was minimal (Searle 2007). The reason for the limited success of urban consolidation policies was due to suburban resistance through local councils over concerns of loss of privacy, overshadowing of adjoining properties, poor address to street, loss of property values and increased traffic development.

At the end of the 1980s, housing unaffordability due to increased migration and imperatives from environmental crises resulted in another push towards urban consolidation (Searle 2007). Urban consolidation had also not been previously encouraged in areas where there was good access to employment, transport and community facilities. Instead, speculative dual occupancies occurred largely on the urban fringe. The 1988 metropolitan strategy argued for concentrated development, based on transport-land use modelling that demonstrated increased transport accessibility with such development (Department of Planning 1989).

A rethinking of policies was subsequently undertaken in the mid 90s with a greater focus on reduced reliance on new urban fringe development, improved design and accessibility, urban consolidation in areas with good access to transport, employment and community facilities, improving air quality and a whole of government approach to decision making on urban management (Smith & Wales 1997, Searle 2007). The state government then focused on industrial sites such as Pyrmont-Ultimo to increase density and there was a move away from direct confrontation with local government. State planning policies allowing subdivision of dual occupancy development and town house and villa house development in all residential zones were repealed.

This was followed by the government redirecting its land development agency, Landcom, to sell most of its outer suburban land holdings, and buy and amalgamate land in inner city areas to make them attractive for private sector urban consolidation (Searle 2007). One of the most important sites for Landcom was Green Square which was developed by the South Sydney Development Corporation. This was followed by the state government’s gazettal of a regional environmental plan in late 1999 to allow construction of 3,000 apartments up to 10 storeys high at Rhodes after 2000. In other areas, resistance continued to increase over the quantity of residential development. In some instances, the state government intervened such as the rezoning of six sites along the North Shore rail corridor (Searle 2007). The government subsequently responded to such opposition through a series of measures to improve residential flat design which led to the State Environmental Planning Policy (SEPP) No. 65 – Design Quality of Residential Development. All these measures led to an increase in the number of non-detached dwellings7.

3. Housing needs and the role of urban consolidation
The vision of any metropolitan strategy ought to be around sustainable growth which delivers a city that is liveable, productive and socially equitable (Campbell 1996). The Metropolitan Plan states that by 2036, Sydney will be a more compact, networked city with improved accessibility, capable of supporting more jobs, homes and lifestyle opportunities within the existing urban footprint (NSW Government 2010) (see Figure 1). If this is to become a reality, Sydney’s enduring urban issues such as social inequality, spatial segregation, rising housing costs, substantial and growing transport network congestion, shortfalls in social and community infrastructure and social tension (Randolph & Holloway 2005b) need to be explicitly addressed in the new metropolitan strategy. Urban disadvantage in Sydney is no longer confined to pockets in the inner city or in public housing estates, but is increasingly manifest across low-income, private-rental areas characterized by run-down housing, limited job and education opportunities and inadequate transport services (Randolph & Holloway 2005a).

Figure 1: Sydney Metropolitan City (Source: Metropolitan Plan 2036)

Recent planning programs promoting urban consolidation have drawn heavily from the notion of Transit-Oriented Design, where development is grouped around transit nodes, supposedly reducing the energy consumption and private transportation (Kenworthy, 2006). Towards this, the Metropolitan Plan states that 70% of housing will be provided in existing centres. The Sydney over the next 20 years. A Discussion Paper [Herein called the ‘Discussion Paper’] makes statements regarding the provision of more housing to cater to continuing population growth demands (pages 6, 12-13), with the view to supplying the ‘right types of houses in places where people want to live’. If this is the case, urban consolidation will require increased building of ‘attached’ dwellings in both medium-density and high-density configurations. The socio-spatial implications of the impact of such consolidation on existing infrastructure and on whether such attached dwellings cater for the needs of Sydney’s inhabitants must be considered.

Sydney is witnessing the impacts of a reduction in household size8 and corresponding average household incomes (NSW Government 2010); an uneven impact of differential asset accumulation through property ownership and inter-generational wealth transfer (Badcock 1984); a strong association between certain immigrant streams and localities of disadvantage; and emerging cultural and gender divisions that have generated locality based impacts on the polarisation process (Gibson et al. 1996, Murphy and Watson 1997). The spatial polarisation of the eastern and northern parts of Sydney versus the south western and western parts is a manifestation of various socio-economic forces at work such as inner city densification and gentrification, emergent professional workforce as well as the concentration of highest-income households in the most prestigious inner-city and north shore suburbs over this same period (Stilwell 1989, Raskall 2002), and concentration of new economy jobs in the so-called ‘Global Arc’ (See Figure 2).

Figure 2: Median Household Income (Source: ABS Census 2001/2006)

Locations of urban disadvantage have now shifted to the middle suburbs (Randolph and Holloway 2005a, Latham 2003). The middle suburbs have become ‘the netherworlds of the private rental market, studded with decrepit housing stock and generally wearing the mantle of public neglect’ (Gleeson, 2006, p.46). The middle suburbs, built largely between 1940 and 1970, have experienced large concentrations of disadvantage over the last 30 years. Disadvantage is concentrated in the local government areas of Bankstown, Fairfield, and Liverpool in the middle west suburbs, as well as peripheral public housing estates built in the 1960s and 1970s in the western and south-western ‘arms’ of the city (See figure 3). These suburbs are characterized by a decline in relative incomes, an increase in first or second generation overseas born immigrants from diverse backgrounds and with lack of fluency in English, an increase in mobile renters and lower-income households, a remaining aging population, lack of a balanced social mix (e.g. few higher-end incomes and stable households to hold the community together and bring income to the area) and physical fabric that is wearing out with much of this poor-quality housing stock being passed into the private rental market.

Figure 3: Socio Economic Indexes for Areas of Advantage/Disadvantage (Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics)

These socio-economic indicators have resulted in a diverse housing market – market driven monster homes that are not compatible with their settings, where land use zoning allows two- or three-story block of walk-up apartments, particularly around rail stations and town centres, plots subdivided for town houses and the remaining aging and dilapidated housing stock. An increased dependence of low-income households on a diminishing supply of low-cost private rental housing in inappropriate, ill-favoured locations is evident. Strategic thinking on how to implement urban consolidation policies in the future will be needed to reshape these areas and prevent further decline.

4. Effectiveness of Urban Consolidation policies
Urban consolidation policies have been ongoing for the last thirty years. A question should now be raised as to whether policies of urban consolidation in Sydney have considered the housing needs of a diverse and changing population (Bunker et al. 2005). The strategies have demonstrated little understanding of how links between housing, employment and transport policies effect social exclusion (Gleeson & Randolph 2002), and poor appreciation of the policy changes needed for urban regeneration. In the case of Sydney, it is claimed that urban consolidation will limit urban sprawl, making houses more affordable, economise on infrastructure, increase public transport usage, reduce natural resources use in the form of energy and water demand, and widen housing choices (Department of Environment and Planning 1984). Yet others have argued that many of these presumed outcomes need to be qualified, or may better be achieved by or in conjunction with other policy measures (Bunker 1989, Searle 2004, Troy 1996, McLoughlin 1991).

Based on related research on housing sub-markets and social disadvantage in Sydney (Randolph and Holloway 2005a, 2005b), the need for a reconceptualization of current urban consolidation policy to provide residential environments and housing conditions that are socially optimal is evident. While urban consolidation may have led to more choice and variation in housing supply in Sydney, planning for additional higher density housing must fully take into account the local socio-spatial context in which this development will take place. The placement of higher density housing into already stressed areas may not produce sustainable social outcomes over the longer term (Healey and Birrell 2004). A much more nuanced policy is needed if Sydney is not to worsen its current, already existing spatial polarisation.

5. Way Forward
As industrial sites are developed, there will be increasing concerns over how urban consolidation policies will be accommodated as local infrastructure becomes more constrained. The social impacts of urban consolidation are becoming evident and to address this, local realities will need to be better understood. Finer grained research will need to be undertaken in the form qualitative research such as household interviews and focus groups. In Europe, area-based policies have been used to address the complex causes of social exclusion at the local or neighbourhood level. Practical approaches to generate more inclusive communities and neighbourhoods where disadvantaged households are better able to access mainstream resources and opportunities available to the bulk of the population will need to be conceptualised (Randolph 2004). There may well be local opportunities to plan and design for potential sub-markets for the elderly, or for more transient younger people or middle-aged adults in appropriate locations (Bunker et al. 2005). Such parameters would also be of help to developers, enabling them to expand and better ground their feasibility studies. Urbangrowth NSW should lead development in key renewal precincts identified in the strategy in cooperative partnership with stakeholders – helping bring new housing to the market to meet the significant pent up demand which has contributed to Sydney’s rising house prices.

Such renewal strategies, however, are not sufficient to address existing socio-spatial inequities and can only bring about disconnected and ad hoc change. Supplementary measures and incentives such as innovative taxation and investment incentives are needed to effectively target profiles of demand and need. Assistance will be required to reconfigure and renew old subdivision patterns. In the current climate where sites of densification are becoming sites of community resistance and conflict centred on opposition to urban consolidation (Ruming et al. 2011), new forms of local governance may also be needed and new processes of state, federal and local intervention to further urban consolidation (Randolph 2004). Greater cooperation between various levels of government will be required to implement urban consolidation policies. The recent A new planning system for NSW – green paper, NSW Government (NSW Government 2012b) proposes a greater focus on strategic planning at the outset and it would be expected that this process will provide a platform for multi level governance coordination and closer engagement with stakeholders.

6. References
Badcock, B 1984, Unfairly Structured Cities, Basil Blackwell, Oxford.

Baum, S 1997, Sydney, Australia: a global city? Testing the social polarisation thesis. Urban Studies, vol. 34, no.11, pp. 1881-1902.

Bunker, R 1989, A decade of urban consolidation, Working Paper No. 11, Urban Research Unit, Australian National University, Canberra.

Bunker, R, Holloway, D & Randolph, B 2005, Building the connection between housing needs and metropolitan planning in Sydney, Australia. Housing Studies, vol. 20, no. 5, pp. 771-794.

Campbell, S 1996, Green cities, growing cities, just cities?: Urban planning and the contradictions of sustainable development. Journal of the American Planning Association, vol. 62, no. 3, pp. 296-312.

Department of Environment and Planning 1984, Planning Issues in the Sydney Region: Urban Consolidation, Department of Environment and Planning, Sydney.

Department of Planning 1989, Metropolitan strategy for the Sydney region: Background Report, Department of Planning, Sydney.

Department of Planning 2005, City of cities: A plan for Sydney’s future, Department of Planning, Sydney.

Forster, C 2006, The challenge of change: Australian cities and urban planning in the new millennium. Geographical Research, vol. 44, no. 2, pp. 173-182.

Gibson, K et al. 1996, Restructuring difference: social polarisation and the city, Working Paper No. 6, Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute, Melbourne.

Gleeson, B 2006, Australian heartlands: making space for hope in the suburbs, Allen & Unwin, Sydney.

Gleeson, B & Randolph, B 2002, Social disadvantage and planning in the Sydney context, Urban Policy and Research, vol. 20, no. 1, pp. 101-107.

Gray, R, Gleeson, B & Burke, M 2010, Urban consolidation, household greenhouse emissions and the role of planning. Urban Policy and Research, vol. 28, no. 3, pp. 335–346

Healey, E & Birrell, B 2004, Housing communities in the compact city. Positioning Paper, Australian Housing and Research Institute, Melbourne.

Kirwan R 1992, Urban consolidation: the economic potential, Australian Planner, Vol. 30, no.1, pp.13-19.

Latham, M 2003, From the Suburbs: building a Nation from Our Neighbourhoods, Pluto Press, Annandale.

Mcloughlin, B.1991, Urban consolidation and urban sprawl: a question of density, Urban Policy and Research, vol. 9, no. 3, pp. 148-156.

Murphy, P & Watson, S 1994, Social polarization and Australian cities. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, vol. 18, no. 4, pp. 573-590.

Murphy, P & Watson, S 1997, Surface city: Sydney at the millennium, Pluto Press, Australia.

NSW Government 2010, Metropolitan Plan for Sydney 2036, NSW Government.

NSW Government 2012a, Sydney over the next 20 years. A Discussion Paper, NSW Government.

NSW Government 2012b, A new planning system for NSW – green paper, NSW Government.

Randolph, B 2004, Social inclusion and place-focused initiatives in Western Sydney: a review of current practice. Australian Journal of Social Issues, vol 39, no. 1, pp. 63-78.

Randolph, B & Holloway, D 2005a, The suburbanisation of disadvantage in Sydney: new problems, new policies, Opolis, vol. 1, no. 1, pp. 49-65.

Randolph, B & Holloway, D 2005b, Social disadvantage, tenure and location: an analysis of Sydney and Melbourne. Urban Policy and Research, vol. 23, no.2, pp.173-201.

Raskall, P 2002, Equity issues in the ‘new prosperity’ of the 1990s: the case of Sydney, Australian Geographer, vol. 33, no. 3, pp. 281–299.

Ruming, K, Houston, D & Amati, M 2012, Multiple suburban publics: rethinking community opposition to consolidation in Sydney, Geographical Research

Searle, G 1996, Sydney as a global city, NSW Department of Urban Affairs and Planning.

Searle, G 2004, The limits to urban consolidation: a framework to assessing limits, Australian Planner, vol. 41, no.1, pp. 42–48.

Searle, G. 2007, Sydney’s urban consolidation experience: power, politics and community, Urban Research Program, Research Paper 12, Griffith University.

Searle, G & Filion, P 2011, Planning context and urban intensification outcomes Sydney versus Toronto, Urban studies, vol. 48, no. 7, pp. 1419-1438.

Smith, S & Wales N S 1997 Urban consolidation: current developments, NSW Parliamentary Library.

State Planning Authority of New South Wales 1968, The Sydney region outline plan, State Planning Authority of New South Wales.

Stilwell, F 1989, Structural change and spatial equity in Sydney, Urban Policy and Research, vol. 7, no. 1, pp. 3-14.

Troy, P 1996, The Perils of urban consolidation, Federation Press, Annandale NSW.


1 Sydney’s population is growing faster than previously expected. Revised NSW forecasts show Sydney’s population is expected to grow by 1.7 million people between 2006 and 2036 to 6 million – an average annual rise of 56, 650.

2 The composition of the population is changing due to increasing life expectancy. By 2036, the number of people aged 65 and above will more than double to just over one million, requiring new, varied housing, social infrastructure and community services.

3 770,000 additional homes—a 46 per cent increase on the current 1.68 million homes—will be required by 2036 (NSW Government 2010)

4 The NSW Government commissioned an independent report into the benefits and costs of alternative growth paths to meet Sydney’s population needs over the next 30 years. The analysis compared compact growth scenarios with more expansive greenfield development. It found growth paths accommodating more than 70% of new dwellings in existing urban areas had the greatest net benefits to society. Growth paths where more than 30% of dwellings were in greenfield areas raised social, environmental and infrastructure costs (especially transport and water) while not necessarily providing dwellings where people preferred to live (NSW Government 2010).

5 Kuring-gai Council, for instance, still had only five per cent of its residential area zoned for multi-unit housing by 1992 (Kirwan 1992).

6 13,000 submissions were made with at least 90 per cent of them critical of the policy (Searle 2007).

7 Approvals for non-detached dwellings were 55 per cent of all Sydney dwelling approvals between 1996 and 2001.

8 There is a growing trend towards smaller households with a number of one–person households, for example, expected to grow by 69 per cent or 260,000 by 2036 (NSW Government 2010).


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