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.
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.