I’ve recently found myself lying awake at night, and this insomnia has nothing to do with the usual worries swirling around my head: job security, the myriad educational choices presented to my children, or the fortunes of the Wallabies in a World Cup year.
Rather, I’ve been staring at the ceiling pondering the city-defining opportunities Sydney is at risk of missing through being overly bureaucratic and small-minded in its outlook.
Visionary planning of Sydney’s second airport and the Bays Precinct could make Sydney one of the most well-planned cities in the world, but are we in the position to make these compelling visions a reality?
Right about now, you might be thinking, ‘this guy really does need some sleep,’ but bear with me. I can’t sleep at night because Sydney’s evolution depends on having the right people on the ground to get the job done, and it’s my feeling the Harbour city needs to up its game when it comes to attracting and retaining a productive population.
We’re well aware of the rapid urbanisation occurring across the globe over the past 50 years. The historical point where more people live in cities than rural areas was reached in 2008, and we now see an even more rapid progression to a future of city dwellers; Australia has one of the highest rates of urbanisation, seeing 89 per cent of our population living in cities.
With the rapid transition of people into cities, we need to ensure the next phase of movement is geographic mobility – mobility driven through the career-defining opportunities presented to an agile workforce as a result of living in progressive, connected and exciting cities.
The notion that cities – rather than countries – are now competing with each other for labour and resources is not a new one. This is evidenced through the multitude of city index measures being tossed around mainstream media at present. A new one seems to pop up every other week ranking cities’ happiness, productivity, resilience, or economic prosperity. I for one keenly look for my hometown of Sydney and pray it sits firmly in the upper rankings, and always question what it is that makes other cities more liveable (particularly Melbourne, which was named by The Economics Intelligence Unit as the world’s most liveable city just last week.)
What is going to attract and retain the best talent in this city, on this competitive world stage? In Sydney’s case, the current renaissance in planning and delivery of major infrastructure and urban development projects is not only a big drawing card for skilled workers, it’s important for the future of this city. Having recently mapped all urban renewal, growth centres and major pieces of road, rail and air infrastructure planned for the city, we know there is an estimated total planned investment of $139 billion dollars. That’s a big pie.
To ensure a return on this massive investment, however, we need bold leadership to embrace and progress Sydney’s potential as a gateway global city. Connectivity, dynamism, safety, transparency, cleanliness, health and resiliency are themes that will do this for us, but one of the biggest risks is becoming bogged down in compromise on the major pieces of planned infrastructure like Sydney’s second airport, The Bays Precinct, or Central to Eveleigh.
If we get stuck in a debate about the scale and connectivity of the airport, we stand to compromise the opportunity to attract new waves of industry to our Western Suburbs, which currently stands as Australia’s third-largest economy.
If we falter on tough decisions like the future of port operations in the Bays precinct, we risk delivering an urban regeneration precinct that can’t be optimised to deliver all of the great things that are emerging from mixed-use urban precincts around the world. We can’t afford to take baby steps here, and in this regard I’m reminded of the boldness of the Singaporean government in planning to move and consolidate its port facilities to make the city state more efficient and better placed to deliver an optimised city outcome.
Are we trying to regenerate the Central to Eveleigh precinct in Sydney without a commitment to transformational activators like a fast train to either Parramatta or our proposed Second Airport, or the mother of all fast trains, a commitment to the nation-building high speed rail? China and Japan are clamouring to fund, construct and operate Indonesia’s first high speed rail between Jakarta and Bandung. Indonesia sees commitment to nation building infrastructure as a key component to becoming a trillion-dollar economy.
A city is, of course, an interrelated organism, and if we compromise through insane bureaucracy on any number of the exciting investments being made, I fear we will be left with a sad city, one which nearly reached an historic pinnacle and became the happiest place on earth; a Sydney that was able to attract the world’s best talent and industries and deliver tremendous opportunities for future generations. The very real risk of stumbling on our way to this utopia is what keeps me up at night. Just writing this piece has been cathartic; thanks for hearing me out.
Good night, and sleep well.