Sydney’s urban growth history

Posted: April 16, 2014 in Urban planning
Tags: , ,

Video: The expansion of built up urban land in Sydney (1808-2000), NYU Stern Urbanization Project

The growth of Sydney’s urban fringe, as well as that of other cities, has been documented recently by the NYU Stern Urbanization Project in a series of YouTube videos. In Sydney’s case, it can also be seen in a map produced by the Department of Planning in 2005 for the then urban plan for Sydney (named the “City of Cities”).

The city remained incredibly compact through to the turn of the 20th century, focused on the Sydney CBD and its port.

By 1917, it had spread out to Strathfield in the West, Hurstville in the South, and the coastline in the East. For the most part, it followed the rail network – trams in the inner city, and the heavy rail network in what today would be Sydney’s established outer suburbs (to places like Parramatta or the North Shore).

By 1945, and then later 1975, the private car had become widespread to most households and with it came urban sprawl. The urban footprint of Sydney spread to areas far away from rail based transportation (and in the case of trams, parts of Sydney had their rail transportation taken away from it). However, the urban fringe was still relatively close to the old Sydney CBD, only reaching out about as far as Blacktown and Liverpool in the West.

Growth of Sydney's urban boundary. Click to enlarge. (Source: City of Cities – A Plan for Sydney's Future, Department of Planning, 2005.)

Growth of Sydney’s urban boundary. Click to enlarge. (Source: City of Cities – A Plan for Sydney’s Future, Department of Planning, 2005.)

It was the 1980s and 1990s that saw the urban fringe pushed further out, primarily in Central-Western Sydney and South-Western Sydney. Parramatta, which lay at the outskirts of Sydney’s urban fringe not much longer than half a century ago, today lies at the geographic centre of Sydney. If Sydney continues to grow outwards at the same rate, then by 2031 it will include the areas shown above in yellow.


Most of this land on the outskirts is isolated, far away from major sources of employment, education, and health. It would also involve losing what little agricultural land remains in the Sydney basin. The alternative is infill – to increase housing densities in existing urban areas. This has proven unpopular in the past, with local groups often opposing what they see as “over-development”. What Sydney cannot do is stop population growth. If it plans for no further growth in population, and people continue coming to this city, then what it will achieve is to further deepen the lack of housing supply relative to demand, making housing even less affordable than it already is.

So the choice is simple: build up or build out. And whichever choice (or combination of the two) is chosen, where is the best location for it to happen? This is a conversation this city cannot afford not to have.

  1. QPP says:

    It’s a debate that lots of people are trying to have, but on the other hand there are an awful lot of people in this city who want to stick their head in the sand and pretend it (growth) isn’t happening.

    To some extent a number of these people argue that the fundamental debate that ought to be had is the next one up the chain about this country’s population future, and they have a point, but if government policy/lassitude turned on its head tomorrow, Sydney would still be growing in the near to medium term future.

    It’s always difficult in democracies to frame planning legislation that tries to cater for long-term futures whilst allowing sufficient real local consultation to keep people *reasonably* happy, because NIMBYism is a human reaction, most people don’t like change very much.

    I think the state govt’s attempt to reform planning law was important and I’m disappointed at the current state of limbo. I don’t really see any realistic option other than a move towards a system with more emphasis on getting the plan (the LDP or similar) right and consulting heavily on that, and allowing less consultation on individual DAs. Sometime the govt has to grasp that nettle despite the well-resourced opposition.

    In terms of “build up or build out”, I’m firmly in the former camp. There are lots of places where medium density development can be accommodated with little impact on the character of an area and which would serve to help those areas’ local businesses. Obviously most are closer in or along existing transport corridors which is exactly what you want. Some “build out” is also going to be inevitable, but there’s no way Sydney can accommodate the likely growth just by sprawling more, there simply isn’t the space and the distances involved would create even more pressure on an already compromised transport infrastructure.

  2. Chris O says:

    I would challenge the idea that “What Sydney cannot do is stop population growth.”
    In fact what we as a society must do is to stop population growth (that’s everywhere not just developed countries).
    Population growth obviously cannot continue unchecked: Australia / Sydney can’t support a population of 50m / 10m people. Well we can but not without significant social problems.
    It is a major driver of high prices of Sydney real estate and of other burgeoning problems (eg. the pressure for greenfield housing on Sydney’s fringe which conflicts with agricultural use).
    As soon as possible we should:
    1. Stop all immigration, except for humanitarian reasons (over 150,000 migrants arrived in the last year). see
    2. Stabilise our population.
    3. Introduce policies to improve the well being of all Australians in order to limit pressures on the health budget as a result of the costs of ageing and diseases of affluence (eg. a fat and sugar tax like some Scandinavian countries)
    4. Rethink our obsession with consumerism.
    And so on.

  3. @Chris O –

    All the policies listed are the realm of the Commonwealth Government in Canberra, not the NSW Government in Sydney. So while Sydney can decide how to deal with the increase in population, it has very little power in regulating what that level of population will be.

  4. QPP says:

    Good point

    “Stop population growth” sounds simple but there are some very hard choices that have to be made that will be unpalatable to many to actually effect it. Especially when it comes to what taxes people should pay and the services they expect in return, and what the macro-economic impact of such an upheaval in the fiscal system would be, and how we as a society deal with an ageing demographic and the economic impact of that, and and and…..

  5. PeteD says:

    That video probably annoys lots of Parramatta people. Given the government was based in the west for at least a period of time.
    It should probably show multiple pockets of urbanisation…

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