If the character Marty McFly from "Back to the Future" were to get in a time machine in Sydney and travel forward 40 years to 2056, he may or may not find that we have invented hoverboards.

Should all parts of the revised Our Greater Sydney draft plan launched recently by the Greater Sydney Commission come to pass, however, Planning Institute of Australia NSW State President Jenny Rudolph says, he would notice significant areas of change.

First, the ‘bones’ of Badgerys Airport would have altered how Western Sydney is seen and developed and we would have new employment opportunities (both high-end and industrial) in and around the airport.

The Sydney Metro Project linking Rouse Hill in the north-west with Bankstown in the south would be complete and would provide residents from the north and south with greater connectivity as well as giving people from the west a greater ability to link with both northern and southern parts of the city including Paramatta, Penrith, Liverpool and even as far as Greater Macarthur in the far south-west.

The Outer Sydney Orbital corridor running 80 kilometres between Box Hill in the north and the Hume Motorway in the south would probably not yet be built but might well be underway in terms of planning and thinking about how this might improve freight distribution.

Moving inward, there would be a greater diversity of housing types and choice in and around the ‘missing middle.’ On the environment, the Sydney Green Grid would be delivering a network of green space connecting town centres, transport hubs and major residential areas.

Further, there would be greater coordination between urban and transport planning, as evidenced by the release of a long-term infrastructure plan shortly after the revised draft was released.

Launched in October, the revised draft plan spans 40 years and aims to facilitate creation of an extra 725,000 new dwellings and 817,000 jobs over the next tow decades as well as to respond to the unique geography associated with the Greater Sydney Basin and to respect the places and communities which people like throughout the Greater Sydney Metropolitan Area.

It reimagines the Greater Sydney Area into not one but three cities.

First, there is the Eastern Harbour City situated around the existing CBD and its surrounds. Already the powerhouse of economic activity, the City will build on its credentials, leverage its financial, professional, health and education sectors, and extend its capabilities with an innovation precinct that will boost productivity and global connections. Large and small-scale urban renewal will respond to local identity, amenity and the famous Harbour and coastal setting.

Easily the most climatically comfortable of the three cities (compared with the landscape of the proposed Western Parkland City, it has double the existing urban area tree canopy, almost double the rainfall and an average of only three days per year of temperatures which exceed 35 degrees Celsius compared with 20 days in Penrith), it will continue to account for more than half (53.5 per cent) of all dwellings within the Greater Sydney Area by 2036 – a number that is down from 58.5 per cent now.

Next, centred around Parramatta, the Central River City will capitalise on its location in the centre of Greater Sydney. With improved transport links, this City will continue developing its health, education and research institutions as well as its finance, business services and administration sectors and will seek to match urban renewal and new neighbourhoods will feature public places, green spaces and infrastructure to attract skilled workers and top 100 businesses.

Finally, and most profoundly, there is the emerging Western Parkland City, where the Western Sydney Airport and Badgerys Creek Aerotropolis will provide a catalyst for the city cluster around the trade, logistics, advanced manufacturing, health, education and science sectors and will be the most connected place in Australia. The focus on this area is the generation of knowledge intensive employment close to new walkable neighbourhoods. With limited tree canopy coverage, more trees will be needed in this area to provide shade.

Five Districts at a Glance

The overall draft plan is supported by draft plans across five districts: Eastern City, North, South, Central City and Western City.

By far the area where the most significant transformation will take place, the Western City district is part of the Western Parkland City and connects to the Central River City through Blacktown and Fairfield local government areas.

The plan centres around the anticipated boom in and around the Western Sydney Airport and Badgerys Creek Aerotropolis. Building on that, it plans to transform the area from dormitory neighbourhoods to a thriving district based on a combination of industrial and knowledge intensive employment which capitalises on its airport connections through logistics and knowledge intensive jobs.

It will account for almost a quarter of Greater Sydney’s population and housing growth over the next 20 years.

The district will be polycentric, and there will be collaboration between Liverpool, Greater Penrith and Campbelltown-Macarthur reinforced by the emerging Badgerys Creek Aerotropolis.

Significant transport investments will provide links for people and freight between these centres and to Greater Sydney’s north and south as well as to the traditional economic ‘anchor’ in the east.

The South Creek, Georges River and Hawkesbury-Nepean River systems will become the spatial framework for the district and will provide walking and cycling paths as well as bushland and a green urban landscape framed by the Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area.

Urban tree canopy is planned to mitigate urban heat island effects.

Major new land releases for housing and social infrastructure are expected in and around the airport area in places such as Leppington, whilst a priority growth area is under investigation in and around the cities of St Mary’s and Penrith.

Transformation will also occur in the rapidly growing Central City district which is envisioned as a hub for transport and services as well as diverse communities.

The draft plan aims to help capitalise on investment in transport, public domain, sporting and cultural institution investment. Transport connections will radiate in each direction from the Parramatta CBD. The Westmead health and education precinct will expand and become a key district of innovation and knowledge intensive industry. As well, there will be a new clean-tech and advanced manufacturing cluster in precincts such as Camellia, Rydalmere, Silverwater and Auburn. Protection of natural landscapes will be enhanced through the green grid whilst the quality of the Central City District’s waterways such as the Paramatta River, Duck River and South Creek will be enhanced.

An economic corridor will run from Sydney Olympic Park to Great Parramatta, whilst there will be significant transit oriented developments along the new rail corridor at Epping, Castle Hill, Norwest and Rouse Hill. Major new land releases will centre around the north-west areas of Marsden Park and Rouse Hill.

Taking in the heart of the existing CBD and Harbour and stretching south of the Harbour as far west as Rhodes and down south to the Sydney Airport and Port Botany, the Eastern City district already accounts for 37 per cent of the City’s employment and 45 per cent of its economic activity. The traditional CBD and Harbour will retain its place as the city’s economic, social and cultural heart through comprising the heart of the Eastern City.

The draft plan seeds to guide the districts growth by escalating the role of the traditional CBD into a Harbour CBD that incorporates the Sydney CBD, North Sydney CBD, Barangaroo, Darling Harbour, Pyrmont, The Bays Precinct, Camperdown-Ultimo, Central to Eveleigh and parts of Surry Hills and Sydney East with policy settings that support innovative and creative industries and a night-time economy.

It seeks to expand innovation and the knowledge economy by expanding offerings at the Camperdown-Ultimo and Randwick health and education precincts and the strategic centres of Green Square-Mascot, Rhodes, Bondi Junction, Burwood and Eastgardens-Maroubra.

Freight routes, especially from the gateways of Sydney Airport and Botany Bay, will be protected, and industrial and urban service land will have protection from residential encroachment.

Given the iconic and established nature of this area, much of the plan’s focus revolves around urban renewal, recreation, culture and sustainability. In this regard, the plan emphasises well-designed housing in neighbourhoods which are close to transport, parkways and walking/cycling routes, and better use of recreational facilities through shared facilities such as schoolgrounds and golf courses. By using rooftops, cultural assets will be more highly valued and low carbon living and urban design will be emphasised.

North of the Harbour, the Northern District takes in areas which include St Leonards, Chatswood, Macquarie Park, Hornsby, Frenchs Forest, Manly and Mona Vale and possesses expansive national parks, waterways and beaches.

The emphasis of the plan in this area revolves around protecting these ‘lifestyle’, natural and heritage areas and having a vibrant economy which coexists with the natural landscapes.

Housing and employment will be targeted in set areas, especially along the Sydney Metro areas, with economic growth being targeted in strategic centres of St Leonards, Chatswood, Macquarie Park, Brookvale-Dee Why, Hornsby and in Manly and Mona Vale, along with a boost in the healthcare centre by the Northern Beaches Hospital.

New networks for walking and cycling will be created within and between strategic centres, along roads and along the coast from Manly to Palm Beach. This will be complemented by networks of open space and urban tree canopy as the Greater Sydney Grid is developed.

Again part of the Easter Harbour City, the South District connects to the Central River City through the Canterbury-Bankstown Local Government Area. The South Districts is an area which combines natural beauty, diverse communities, good access to employment and a variety of housing forms and affordability levels.

A critical part of the plan in this area revolves around new infrastructure supporting a more diverse range of housing choices with urban renewal throughout areas such as the Sydenham to Bankstown Corridor, the Campsie-Canterbury Belmore-Lakemba and Riverwood priority precincts as well as precincts close to centres and railway stations. A significant area of urban renewal stretches along the Metro rail corridor from Campsie to Bankstown.

Close to Sydney Airport, Port Botany as well as the Illawarra and Port Kembla, critical infrastructure investments include the F6 Extension, M5 Motorway and Sydney Metro City & Southwest. The district is also set to benefit from Bankstown Airport, its connections to Parramatta, and eventually its connections to Liverpool and the Western Sydney Airport.

New employment centres will focus around knowledge-intensive industries. Examples of this include the collaboration area focused on the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation, the Kogarah health and education precinct and the emerging health and education precinct at Bankstown-Lidcombe.

Rudolph says the plan will deliver change in several areas. Just as the development of areas such as Marsden Park has delivered new housing supply, employment opportunities and communities in the north-west, a similar phenomenon will occur across the south west where areas such as Campbelltown will no longer be rural but will have housing releases, rail lines, upgraded roads and respect for the environment around the river areas. In short, a number of the rural areas which are there now will no longer be rural. This, Rudolph says, is partially but not entirely because of the new airport.

In addition, the potential for greater urbanisation in and around Penrith will see greater numbers of people in the area either working locally or commuting to Parramatta rather than commuting to the CBD as employment opportunities shift further west. Arrangements regarding flood evacuation in and around rivers will need to be carefully considered before this happens, however.

Positives and Negatives

According to Rudolph, there is a fair amount to like about the plan. Compared with the previous draft, the latest draft has a greater emphasis on retaining commercial and industrial land. The PIA also likes a target outlined in the plan for five per cent social and affordable housing. Whereas previous plans have not involved much integration, the GSC engaged in considerable effort toward getting cross government agencies and local councils working together.

Finally, having it more integrated with transport and infrastructure planning underscores much greater confidence for the development industry in respect of the plan.

Nevertheless, there are some drawbacks. Greater detail could have given more guidance and direction to councils whose buy-in will be needed to implement a number of the actions from within the plan. This could pose greater challenges in bringing the council and the community along.

In addition, whilst the long-term plan captures almost all of the proposed developments and initiatives which are underway at the moment, much of the area contained in the plan aside from that is essentially shown as being green areas. Some of these are close to roads and public transport. Whilst the PIA supports suitable measures to protect the environment, Rudolph says this needs to be balanced with suitable forms of development. Greater investigation as to how some of these areas might be used for things such as parkland or social facilities would have been useful and might have provided greater flexibility for these areas.

Moreover, for the plan to succeed, Rudolph says challenges must be addressed across a few areas. First, there is governance. Greater clarity is needed as to the role of the Commission as well as that of state government planning departments compared to local councils and the issue of who should be coordinating the plan in terms of its implementation. With the state already suffering from a shortage of planners, the ability to be able to undertake and resource all 137 action points in the plan will be challenging.

Whilst she is certainly not suggesting that the development sector is not supportive of the plan, Rudolph says it will be critical to ensure that the economics of the plan from match up from a demand and supply perspective and that the development industry is in on the plan. Finally, the issue of who will implement the proposed green growth and open spaces and where the money to fund this will come from remains unclear and will need to be worked through.

In 2056, Marty McFly may or may not be riding hoverboards.

What he will find, however, is a substantially changed environment in the City of Sydney.