Exploring Sydney

March 29, 2017

Today we continue our series from the Runstad Affiliate Fellows who traveled to Australia in March to study the development growth patterns of Sydney and Melbourne. Read more about their research topic here.

Monday March 13, 2017

Today was a day of contrasts in Sydney.  I took the bike on the passenger ferry for a scenic commute into the CBD to continue exploring for a few days before the rest of the Runstad team arrives.  Like Seattle, Sydney is a city of waterfronts with ferries crisscrossing sailboats and cruise ships, all of whom navigate deep water cargo vessels.  It was a gorgeous sunny morning and the windows of multimillion dollar houses along the shoreline flashed in between stretches of public white sand beaches.  Sydney seems to have maintained a balance of publicly accessible waterfront with private ownership. Kids and tourists still enjoyed my the summer splash around in the ultimate sign of democracy: access to choice waterfront as public open space.

As we approached the ferry landing, we rounded the Sydney Opera House which is surprisingly beautiful in person with more elegant detailing and form that the distant iconic photos of Sydney Harbor show. On landing, I walked through the crowded Circular Quay with fish n chip stands preparing for the tourist lunch rush. Through to the Rocks neighborhood where gorgeous older colonial buildings sit Disney like in the foreground of large office towers just a few blocks away. The humidity, vibrant colors and wrought iron terrace railings remind me New Orleans.

And there’s strong equity contract here in this hood as there is in New Orleans.  The Rocks is home to a controversy in affordable housing. Last year, the state of New South Wales announced it would sell off 50 of its historic homes here known as Millers Point, which have provided social housing to dozens of low-income earners for decades. Within months, the tenants were evicted and NSW made hundreds of millions of dollars to private single-family home buyers, far exceeding expectations (see prior post on skyrocketting housing escalation rates). These soon to be luxury homes will face out over the new Barangaroo development project — acres of high-end office and residential towers on a what was a state owned defunct industrial waterfront (which we will be touring later this week).

These strident land-use decisions seem to go uncontested by Sydney and is a trend for the state. The papers this week are discussing another public housing project in the downtown core, beautifully located that NSW is considering demolishing and selling off (the Sirius building, see the Brutalist concrete modular tower in photo).  Interestingly Sydney produces 80% of the state’s tax revenue but receives only 20% in return in funding annually. And that’s true nationally of cities where the states have the vast majority of control leaving local government often relatively powerless to effect large scale change.  Taxes flow up to the federal level and are then largely funneled back thru to local municipalities through the state system, creating a week relatively local government.  Because of this, many of Sydney’s local neighborhood council’s have begun to consolidate in order to have greater impact but many argue that comes at a cost, reducing local representation. This debate reminded me of our recent shift back home in Seattle to a district Council and has me curious to see how well our system will do as our districts grow disproportionately.