Why Sydney can't pull up the drawbridge
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Why Sydney can't pull up the drawbridge

The Fairfax-ReachTel poll has found that two-thirds of Sydney's population say Sydney is full and that our growth should stop. Behind this figure, I suspect, is a concern that the growth Sydney is experiencing is bringing a different way of life to the suburban lifestyle many are used to.

While population growth is among the threats to our lifestyle there are many other factors that have changed over the past 50 years.

First, our houses have got bigger. Research by Robert Crawford and Andrew Stephan of the University of Melbourne found that the average house size in 1950 was 100 square metres but today the average house is 240 square metres. Yet the average number of people in a house has dropped significantly since 1950 when the average area was 30 square metres per person. Today this has jumped almost three times to an average of 87 square metres per person.

With this figure Australia is leading the world, according to the "Shrinkthatfootprint.com" site, which lists the US at 83 square metres per person, Denmark at 70, Germany at 59, and Britain at 35 square metres per person. We have a very affluent society with the biggest suburban houses in the world.

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An urban not a suburban model is Sydney's destiny.

An urban not a suburban model is Sydney's destiny.Credit:Peter Rae

We cannot continue this way. Having the largest houses also means they are the most expensive in the world. The housing affordability problem in Sydney is directly linked to the fact that the existing owners of large suburban homes have forced the price of the average home up to a level where the next generation cannot afford them. The two-thirds of Sydneysiders who do not want change are likely to be the ones who are comfortably living in suburban detached houses that have doubled in value over the past few years.

But what about the other third? Many of them are the people who are trying to get into affordable housing. It is these people the planners for the future of the city must consider.

There is a clear trend that many people are now trading house size for location and preferring a smaller apartment closer to the action and to jobs. These are the 22.8 per cent of respondents to the poll who agreed that Sydney is still growing and that we should continue to develop inner metropolitan Sydney. The younger demographics in the survey displayed an even higher percentage of support as they are the ones looking to the future.

Adding to the concerns of the Sydneysiders living in suburban houses are the other big changes happening in our society.

The nature of jobs has changed dramatically. Thanks to new technologies, we are becoming a more global society. Tourism is helping our economy and bringing jobs. New forms of public transport are restructuring cities with metro rail underpinning just where the new urban communities will live. The smart phone has changed how we communicate.

Add to this online shopping, Uber, Airbnb and clearly the old suburban model is being balanced by a more sharing and cosmopolitan urban model.

Those who have reaped the benefits of the suburban model of living would prefer the status quo but their children and their grandchildren are not only comfortable with change but crying out for it. Putting up the "Sydney is full" sign won't help these people – planning will.

As Sydney heads towards a population of eight million people we will reach the size that London and New York are now. These major cities have already crossed the threshold from a suburban to an urban model and this is Sydney's destiny as well.

The tensions of this transition must be managed and strong leadership is required but if Sydney is to lead Australia into the future then change is inevitable.

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The good news for Sydney is that we can keep half the city as a suburban model. We can focus the development of the urban model on specific sites around metro stations. In this way most of Sydney will not need to change but these houses will be near to a whole lot of new urban amenities, including an efficient metro rail system.

Chris Johnson chief executive Urban Taskforce

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