People of Sydney: Tell Us About Your City

Sydney is white Australia's birthplace, settled as a penal colony in 1788. Many of its first white inhabitants would be very surprised to learn that it is now often recognized as one of the world's top ten most liveable cities. Earlier this year it was ranked as the world's most favourite city by the Anholt City Brands Index. And Grist dubbed it 10th in their list of the worlds top fifteen Green Cities. And there is much to be thankful for in this city of about 4.3 million souls, which is also considered one of the globe's most cultural diverse metropolis, with around 140 different ethnic groups. Sydney is the capital city for the state of New South Wales (NSW), but contrary to popular international misinterpretation, not of the nation. That is Canberra.

Geographically Sydney has the largest natural harbour in the world, is famed for its beaches (having over 70 of them), and is blessed with mostly sunny, mild weather, lending the city a very outdoorsy lifestyle. Particularly when surrounded on three sides by national parks, one of which is the world's second oldest (after Yellowstone), and another a World Heritage area. With the Pacific Ocean taking up prime position on the fourth side, Sydney has become a victim of its own success. It has reached the limits of its natural basin, and there is no room in the inn. Land for housing and infrastructure is at a premium.

And when it is built on, the land (often agriculture acreage that had been recently productive before developers arrived with their chequebooks) suffers from the same McMansion syndrome blighting other affluent cities. Fortunately, the impact of this is being held in check, to some degree, by BASIX, the state's building sustainability index, which decrees that all new housing, (and additions or alterations over $50,000) have to show 40% less energy and water consumption than a benchmark dwelling. Though, alas, developers have successfully argued for significantly lower requirements (20-35%) for various multi-storey and high rise dwellings.

The land shortage, in tandem with a traditional preference for quarter acre building blocks, results in Sydney being Australia's most expensive city and the 21st most expensive globally. In the 13 year period to 2006 land prices shot up by 330%, so that now mortgages are 40% higher than the national median and rents 31% higher, though incomes are only 12% greater.

Whilst early urban development was along rail corridors, more recently it has been away from traditional public transport hubs, with much greater reliance on car use. Extensive road building followed, leading, of course, to greater air pollution (setting aside CO2 emissions, for the moment). At times Sydney's pollution levels which are the highest in the country, are almost 10 times higher than in other cities.

Sydney does have what has been described as one of the world's most complex rail networks. It daily moves 1,500 carriages over 2,060 km over track. To access those suburbs not directly serviced by trains the city maintains 1,900 buses, the country's largest fleet. Being water focused the city is also proud of its fleet of iconic ferries, which move 14 million passengers annually. In the past decade a limited light rail system joined this network. However what these stats don't show is that since a high point during the 2000 Olympics, when the public transport system ran like clockwork, it's performance levels have been declining. And despite continued political rhetoric, confidence and patronage has been in sharp decline. Which might indicate why there was a recorded 45% increase in bicycle traffic between 2002 and 2005 into the city's central business district (CBD), despite being renown for having a very bike commuter unfriendly road system. 500 rentable bike lockers are being rolled out at transport hubs, and the CBD has seen 200 bike rings added for city commuters to secure their steeds to.

Sydney is home to about seventeen various farmers and organic food markets, though strangely, for a city of its size, only a couple of handfuls of dedicated vegetarian restaurants/cafes. It does however have six organic food co-ops, three of which are within city universities, with roughly another 15 or so specialist commercial organic whole-food stores, and a dozen home delivery services. For those wishing to grow, not buy, there are over 30 community gardens within the city. About a dozen eco-retailers ply their trade, selling the usual solar powered gizmos, hemp clothing, and plant based paints. But to date there hasn't been a Green Map made of the city, except for two small efforts. The Scouts made one for North Sydney, just one of the more than 300 suburbs in Sydney, and the Bower Reuse Centre also completed a mini version for the Inner West region.

Sydney's water supply has been under threat during an extended drought dam levels having dropped down to about 34% of capacity, before some heavy rains this year, which have taken them just over 50%. Because the city's population is growing so fast, a secure water supply is required. The State government, in its wisdom, has opted for a very controversial desalination plant in Sydney's south. It is predicted to provide water for 15% of the city, after it is commissioned in 2010. But opponents say it is a costly ($1.76 Billion AUD) experiment, especially as it will require a large amount of energy to run. Although the plant is slated to use GreenPower, critics argue such renewal energy should be used for reducing emissions, not offsetting unwarranted new infrastructure.

Much fuss has been made internationally of the City of Sydney's aim to go climate neutral by cutting its greenhouse emissions, but in reality this one municipality has a population of only about 150,000, so is unfortunately not representative of the other 30 odd councils that make up the city as a whole.

The diminishing access to land impacts on many aspects of Sydney life, and it probably comes as a surprise to many Sydneysiders that much of their waste is transported by train, 240km out of the city, so it can be dumped in old open cut mine. And the Sydney Metropolitan Area is said to have a total annual waste problem of around 7 million tonnes. Only about 37% of which is recycled from kerbside collections (though that rate has steadily climbed from 18% in 1995.)

Going forward in a green manner will be challenging for this fast-paced city that is often recognised for its sun-tanned hedonism. But there are pinpricks of light in the tunnel. Many new commercial buildings and retrofits now vie for the prestige of earning a Green Star ratings from the Green Building Council of Australia, who happened to be headquartered in Sydney. As are many carbon reduction consultancy businesses, several of who are going gang-busters with work. CityRail is working on their $1.8 billion AUD Clearways program which they reckon will deliver fewer bottlenecks and delays. When completed in 2010, it should see 20% increased rail capacity into the CBD during peak periods. Equivalent to a 12 lane motorway into the city every hour, they say.

Speaking of the CBD, City of Sydney council has its Cycle Strategy and Action Plan that wants to make "cycling as attractive a choice of transport as walking or using public transport." The target is to "Increase the number of bicycle trips between 2 and 20 km made in the City of Sydney, as a percentage of total trips to 20% by 2016." (Sydney's Roads and Traffic Authority, RTA, also has their Action for Bikes: BikePlan 2010, but it's tough to deliver the promised 200 km of new cycleways annually, while cutting funding and proposing to instead close bike paths.) The CBD is also waiting for a $300,000 AUD report, due to be handed down in September by Danish architect, Professor Jan Gehl, who is looking at how pedestrians can wrestle control of the city from the firm hands of cars. Actioning broader lifestyle issues, the Australian Conservation Foundation, with funding from the state government, have put hundreds of Sydneysiders through their GreenHome education program and figure that in past few years they've saved about 116 Olympic sized swimming pools worth of water), reduced green house gas emissions equivalent to taking 1370 cars off the road and avoided 510 kilolitres of waste.

Much work remains to be actioned. Like providing appropriate housing for indigenous people living on the city centre fringe, providing sustainable infrastructure support for the burgeoning urban sprawl, reinvigorating discussion on urban renewal by population density consolidation, managing the extensive stormwater runoff that pollutes the beaches and waterways, while wasting precious rainwater. And heaps more that we don't have the space to invoke here.

But Sydney does have a powerful 'can do' attitude. This was clearly evident when she staged the 2000 Olympics, the first 'Green Games', causing five rings head honcho Juan Samaranch to state, "I am proud and happy to proclaim that you have presented to the world the best Olympic Games ever." The city has become lazy in the intervening years, maybe all the accolades and awards have gone to her head. Yet she has a heap of ground to cover if she wants offer her inhabitants a lifestyle that is even vaguely sustainable. Let's hope that collectively all levels of government, business, and most importantly, Sydney's citizenry, will rise to the challenge and opportunity before them.

TH Readers in Sydney: Tell us what you think about your city.

all photographs by Warren McLaren

Tags: Australia | Sydney

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