Musing on urban development

A few days ago Paddy McGuinness published a rant in the SMH that stuck in my memory. It touched on urban development strategies, and in particular the vogue topic of “urban consolidation”: –

Roads and other infrastructure, even waste disposal, can no longer be left to conflicting local interests. Nor can housing standards or residential density, since local interests will always try to hold population down and push rising housing demand further and further away from the city centres.

Not all planning, whether on local or higher levels, is, of course, well thought out. Planners have their fads and fashions, and some of the worst urban planning disasters have been produced by well-meaning architects and planners.

Here’s a thoughtful discussion paper about urban consolidation by UTS academic Glen Searle, and another rather more negative piece by Tony Recsei.

Urban consolidation is a topic seldom covered intelligently in the mainstream media. Medium-high density inner urban developments are either presented by developers and town planners as heralding the approach of paradise on earth, or by NIMBY-ish local resident groups as cynical money-making exercises by greedy corporate bandits in league with Satan. The truth is usually somewhere in between.

Urban consolidation is certainly wildly popular with developers, because it allows them to make bigger profits by increasing the density of permitted residential development. It’s equally popular with governments and local councils, because they can service population growth within existing urban areas, thereby saving on building new public infrastructure (roads, power, water, sewerage, telephone etc). It’s even popular with many greenies and social planners, because it reduces the endless ugly urban sprawl, which would otherwise continue gobbling bushland on the fringes of growing cities especially Sydney and Melbourne.

Well-planned urban consolidation is also popular with residents. It creates exciting, cosmopolitan communities, where people’s homes are in convenient walking distance of schools, shops, restaurants and the whole range of community facilities. That’s much more attractive to my way of thinking than living in a soulless outer suburb far from facilities and employment opportunities.

However, the key word is “well-planned”. Too often State governments and local councils embrace urban consolidation without making any attempt to assess whether existing public infrastructure can cope with such increased population pressure, and with no intention whatever of spending money on upgrading that infrastructure. Without proper planning, “urban consolidation” can be merely a buzzword disguising short-sighted decisions that will increase traffic congestion and air and noise pollution, eliminate remnant inner urban bushland, and create the slums of the future.

The northern beaches of Sydney, where I grew up and where my extended family all still live, is a textbook example. While I haven’t seen precise figures, I reckon the population has just about doubled since I was a kid in Manly. But the roads in and out of the place haven’t changed at all since the Roseville Bridge was built way back in the late 1960s. There’s no railway and plans for a new Warringah Expressway were abandoned years ago and the land flogged off for development. In fact access to the northern beaches has actually deteriorated if anything. The ferry service to Manly is still pretty good, but the jetcat service is continually being scaled back, and last I heard was going to be closed down completely.

I suspect that the northern beaches is a fairly extreme example. It’s a mostly affluent area that invariably returns Coalition MPs at both State and federal levels, so there’s no political imperative whatever for a Labor State government to allocate funds. Nevertheless, it highlights the dangers of naive advocacy of urban consolidation as a panacea. In fact it’s anything but a cheap solution to urban planning dilemmas for governments keen on saving money.

Sometimes local resident action groups protesting against new developments are just selfish NIMBY types who deserve to be ignored. That was certainly the case with a couple of resident groups that recently successfully opposed an entirely appropriate medium density development at Coconut Grove near where I live, and another one further north at Brinkin. The Martin Labor government buckled at the knees and imposed a 3-storey limit on developments on all R3 blocks adjacent to R1 areas, irrespective of the fact that most such blocks have been zoned that way for 30 years or more.

But there are other situations where concerns about traffic density, residential amenity and inadequate infrastructure are perfectly reasonable. Like most areas of public policy, there’s no universal correct answer. Nor is there any magical political decision-making structure that will ensure the ideal balance is struck between optimal development and legitimate local resident concerns. I suspect that, in a place like NSW, Paddy McGuinness may be correct in asserting that the State government is better placed to resist self-interested parochial pressures and make planning decisions in the broader public interest. However, the northern beaches example suggests it’s a far from perfect solution. And in a place as small as the NT, where the Territory government represents a population no larger than some local government areas elsewhere, vesting planning powers in that level of government does nothing at all to elevate decision-making above the parochial.

I suspect that planning in most parts of Australia is likely to remain fairly muddled and ad hoc for the foreseeable future. Fortunately, and despite the mess, most parts of both Darwin and Sydney’s northern beaches continue to be very pleasant urban environments by world standards.

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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Michael Jennings
2024 years ago

The Northern Beaches (along with a lot of Sydney north of the harbour) has the added feature of being in an area where the physical geography is really quite extreme. Roads and railways in such an area are either very windy and slow, or they involve immense numbers of roads and tunnels and are extremely expensive to build. While this is not an excuse – better infrastructure should have been built anyway – one tends to think it would have been built regardless of the other issues if the area had been flat.

It’s interesting to look at what is now going on in Hong Kong in that regard. There is an amazing scheme of road and rail building going on in what is possibly the major city with the most extreme physical geography of any in the world. The bridges and tunnels and viaducts and links between these things being built there are just amazing.

(And Neville Wran’s flogging off of certain corridors of land that had been reserved for freeways but that he was not going to build himself was a dreadful act of vandalism).

2024 years ago


I’m glad someone else remembers Neville Wran’s civic vandalism in flogging off transport corridor land as part of his quest to raise easy money by exploiting “hollow logs”

Dave Ricardo
Dave Ricardo
2024 years ago

Instead of arguing for more hideously expensive infrastructure for the northern beaches area why not accept that there are only so many people that you can fit into a hilly and geographically isolated peninsula. Building better transport access will only encourage even more people to move there and will be self defeating.

Bob Carr is right about this. There are geographic limits to how many people you can fit comfortably into Sydney. The northern beaches peninsula is full – unless you want to raze every piece of bush and pave the place with roads – and what will that ahieve?

There is still room to fill the Cumberland plain out to the Blue Mountains if you want 3000 square kilometres of new estates. You could do that, I suppose, if you want to turn Sydney into Mexico City, but I’d rather not, thanks all the same.

David Tiley
2024 years ago

Mexico City… hmmm… there’s an idea.
Drain the harbour. heaps of real estate.


2024 years ago

A decent public transport link to the northern beaches is not about expanding the peninsula’s population. It’s about reducing congestion and pollution across Sydney.

Bob Carr is terrific at identifying problems but his solutions (even on the rare occasions he actually implements anything) are vacuous past believing. Sadly the liberals’ Sydney plans are actually worse.

Mind you, most urban solutions require the actual spending of money so they’re naturally unlikely o be adopted.