NSW

Planners take over the Sydney of the future

Starting next week, a great Sydney experiment will begin. The city will be handed to the planners.

"It is something planners have dreamed of for a long time," says Sarah Hill, the incoming chief executive of the Greater Sydney Commission, the new body set up with rare clout to shape the future development of the city.

Urban experiment: Sarah Hill is the new CEO of the Greater Sydney Commission.
Urban experiment: Sarah Hill is the new CEO of the Greater Sydney Commission. Photo: Daniel Munoz

"This is that we have a real focus on the strategic big picture issues – rather than assessing development," says Hill.

The early tasks for the commission, a concept which enjoys the support of both Labor and the Coalition, are numerous.

Planning Minister Rob Stokes has charged the body with drawing up plans for six districts across the city. The government also wants the commission to make an early focus on areas around Olympic Park, around which a tram line is to be built.

For Hill, a planner who was the lead consultant for London's Olympic Delivery Authority on design and development, the opportunity to contribute to an overhaul of the Olympic precinct is a neat fit.

"Olympic Park was established to hold the greatest show on Earth and it has had to evolve into a very different place - there is an opportunity there." 

But more broadly, the creation of the commission reflects an intention to give credentialed planners and experts more authority over the future of the city.

The City of Sydney councillor and planning lawyer John Mant has described this as the "philosopher king" model of government, and it's a description from which Hill does not shy.

"It is something we've spoken about for 100 years - and the moons have aligned and the time is right for Sydney to have this new model," she says.

"What is a really important game changer is the commissioners. Having six district commissioners and four others… you bring something new to the whole balance of ideas, abut you also bring to it some of Sydney's greatest minds."

Four commissioners have already been appointed: chair Lucy Turnbull, social commissioner Heather Nesbitt, environment commissioner Rod Simpson and Geoff Roberts as economic commissioner.

Six district commissioners will act as a bridge between local government and the commission. The six have not been named, but Ed Blakely, an honorary professor at Sydney University's United States Studies Centre and controversial former recovery boss of New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, is expected to be the district commissioner for the Parramatta region.

"It's definitely a different approach, different minds, different ways of thinking," says Hill. "I would hope that they do challenge some of things we've been doing, for the better."

The scope of the commission's authority is reflected in the criticisms it has already drawn. Hill's organisation has the power to redraw development plans submitted by local councils and, says Greens planning spokesman David Shoebridge, is remarkable for its lack of accountability.

Hill and Turnbull report to Stokes – but do not have to run their decisions by him or the parliament.

"This is an extraordinarily powerful body with zero accountability," says Shoebridge.

But for Hill, it is also a huge opportunity. "From day one we'll be talking to people about what the district plans should say, but importantly we'll be trying to do something completely different what's been done before," says Hill, who will be taking a short break before starting in the new job in late February.

She nominates the increased use of digital information and dashboards as one way to draw the public in to the process. "As an organisation we are really excited about sharing the facts and the evidence about what's happening in Sydney with people," she says. 

Sarah Hill: 

  • Incoming chief executive of the Greater Sydney Commission
  • Director of HillPDA Consulting, firm established by her land economist father
  • Adjunct professor at UTS 
  • Former Principal Planner in London
  • Created London Olympic and Paralympic Joint Planning Authority

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