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Sydney’s iconic waterfront is arguably the city’s most valuable asset. As the population doubles over the next 40 years what decisions need to be made now to ensure this precious resource is protected and enhanced guaranteeing future generations can enjoy its economic contributions and lifestyle benefits?

Asia Society and AECOM held a discussion with five eminent planning and innovation experts in Sydney on 22 June to discuss the future of Sydney Harbour and its contribution to the economic and cultural vibrancy of the city.

The 2017 theme of this three-year international collaborative series was “At the Water’s Edge”, and celebrates the origins of many great cities and their evolving relationship with water.   Imagine 2060: Sydney included a keynote presentation from Nicholas Brooke — Chairman, Hong Kong Harbourfront Commission. Following this was a panel discussion with: Dr Stephanie Fahey, CEO of Austrade; Mr Joe James, Executive General Manager, Bays Development, Port Authority of NSW; Dr Sarah Pearson, Pro Vice-Chancellor of Industry Engagement and Innovation at the University of Newcastle; and Mr David Pitchford, Principal of the Pitch Right Consultancy.

Some of the key themes discussed during the evening are summarised below.

A full recap of the session 

Vision, leadership, coordination and a ’whole-of-government approach’ are essential

The related factors that comprise this theme were identified as being critical to the future of Sydney Harbour, which is Sydney’s largest and most important physical asset. In particular, it is urgent that: the governance framework for the harbour is clarified; a stronger, regional planning authority is created to coordinate planning and development; and a ‘whole-of-government’ mandate is adopted to ensure that all government departments and agencies with a stake in, or with regulatory authority over, various aspects relating to the harbour are compelled to act in accordance with a masterplan for the harbour.

What should be at the harbour? This basic question needs to be asked and debated by government, with input from the community. We need a mixture of activities and careful deliberation regarding which activities belong where. Long-term planning decisions need to be made about the types of industries that are located there and what is necessary to enable them to succeed.

Over the past 40 years, there’s been a lot of change already in how the harbour has been used, and this will continue into the future. It needs to be carefully deliberated and everyone must work together to obtain the desired outcomes, with accountability for achieving them.

In Hong Kong, a Harbourfront Enhancement Committee was created to engage with the community. Following extensive consultation, it issued a research document that became the basis for the Harbourfront Planning Principles, which regulate changes to the harbourfront in a range of areas, including view corridors, setbacks for promenades, and more.

Victoria Harbour in Hong Kong has 73 kilometres of waterfront and, unusually, 70% of this is owned by the government. In the early 2000s, a private bill was passed to create a harbour ordinance protecting the community interest in the harbour. This outlawed new reclamation of land in the harbour (with a few specific exceptions and an “overriding public need” test to be met).

In addition to the Harbourfront Enhancement Committee, a non-governmental organisation called the Harbour Business Forum represents the views of businesses in relation to Victoria Harbour and it has ascribed a value to the amenity of the harbour, pegged at HK$73 billion, and recommended that there needed to be a harbour commission. This commission was created and it has several roles, including acting as a champion for Victoria Harbour, monitoring and coordinating planning, and investigating and making recommendations around public/private collaboration models.

Even in Hong Kong, though, their commission is only advisory; it acts as an advisor to the government, but it has no executive authority. Many people in Hong Kong want to set up an authority with executive powers, and on 1 July a new chief will take the reins of government, and there is a chance for some progress on this. The Hong Kong Harbourfront Commission has already examined London and New York as models of how an authority could be structured to help eliminate the many silos that exist across government departments.

Should Sydney adopt an approach similar to Hong Kong’s?

Harbour access and cultural activities help attract the best and brightest

One of the greatest benefits of Sydney Harbour is its lifestyle appeal. Sydney is famous the world over for the beautiful blue waters and greenery that surround its multitude of bays and inlets and this contributes to its positive international reputation and its attractiveness as a tourist destination. Equally important are the cultural attractions and events both on and around the harbour, and the connection with nature the harbour allows, which are invaluable amenities to residents, visitors and investors. It will also help to attract and retain international talent to live and start businesses here.

At present, although access to the waterfront and the ability to walk around the area is highly valued by entrepreneurs for its stress-relieving and creativity-enhancing roles, too much land is not accessible or well connected. Some of the most desirable cities in the world, including New York City and London, have better access to their waterfronts and it is possible for people to walk the length of them, which is not possible in Sydney. More needs to be done in Sydney to make the foreshore more accessible, both by foot and by transit.

The Bays Precinct was identified as a good example of where Sydney currently fails in this regard. The area has 5.5 kilometres of waterfront that is inaccessible. The state and federal governments need to be convinced to protect this perimeter and not allow development to impede access to it. Unfortunately, it’s not obvious that this is being viewed by them as an obligation to the people of Sydney, New South Wales and Australia, or a strategic imperative to attract talent and investment.

Another part of having an open harbour is having few physical barriers, such as railings. In Hong Kong, there is consideration being given to getting rid of railings at the waterfront so as to better open it up.

Managing rising tourist numbers; focus needed on building transport and other infrastructure

Tourism is booming in Sydney. Australia receives over 8 million visitors per year, and 3.5 million of those are coming through Sydney. Sydney is a major drawcard for tourists nationally and globally, and many of those are arriving via the 311 cruise ships per year that dock here.

But can Sydney’s current infrastructure absorb projected increases? The new airport at Badgery’s Creek alone is expected to handle 10 million passengers by 2025 and up to 84 million by 2060.

Is this a problem of inadequate infrastructure or of too many tourists? Tourism is already one of the country’s largest industries, with 1 in 13 Australians employed by the industry. The more pertinent question is undoubtedly how do we spread out the tourists around the region and plan so that the expected increases in visitors present fewer challenges for residents? It is worth noting that Hong Kong is investing heavily in tourism-friendly infrastructure, such as a new cruise terminal that can handle ships up to 200,000 tonnes in size. What additional infrastructure does Sydney require to meet future demands?

It is necessary to plan now what infrastructure will be necessary in the long term. The harbour currently has less traffic than 30 years ago as containerisation is more efficient, so there is capacity to absorb additional traffic.

Regional collaboration is needed to compete globally in the future

Panellists felt quite strongly that in order to compete globally, Sydney needed to be better connected with its neighbours in a greater ‘city region’, encompassing, at a minimum Newcastle and Wollongong, and potentially even a larger super region with Melbourne — and possibly even Brisbane and Canberra.

For its part, Hong Kong is feeling intense competition from cities like Shenzhen and Shanghai and the response there has been more regional cooperation. China’s Great Bay Initiative is connecting nine cities in the Pearl River Delta to the two Special Administrative Regions, Hong Kong and Macau, via high-speed rail. Through this, 67 million people are being connected to Hong Kong within a travelling time of only 1 hour and 15 minutes. This project is making connections across (and under) the Pearl River and in effect, Hong Kong is now becoming part of a much-broader city region.

Sydney may need to do something similar, as foreign investors look at Sydney and Melbourne and, whilst they have a great impression of them, they tend to think they are too small individually. It was said that Melbourne and Sydney are currently still arguing about who will be the biggest and most important growth region, instead of seeing the need to cooperate more for mutual benefit. Even with growth over the period to 2060, the combined population of the two cities would still only be in the region of 16 million.

Young people’s input is required to plan and design effectively for the future

By 2060, the millennial generation will have been in charge for over 20 years, so today’s young people need to be involved in the conversations around future uses of the harbour. As the average age in Sydney’s planning department seems to be between 50 and 56, we need real inclusion of the younger generations, not tokenism, to understand their perspectives and priorities. We need to think about what young people will want to do and how they will change things.

But how do we engage with the younger generations? The example was given of an architecture class being involved in discussions about how to redevelop The Bays Precinct in Sydney for the better part of a year, which led to wonderful ideas being shared.

Hong Kong is responding by planning for the short and medium terms, with an emphasis on flexible use. In Hong Kong, they are planning for design redundancy, as they don’t want to build for 30 years out, since any given building could be obsolete for its intended purpose by then.

One example illustrates this quite well: with changing technology there may be no need for large shopping centres, as people might buy nearly everything online in future. What changes would this involve for the community? This would remove a level of community interaction, so new community interactions will have to be planned and provided. It was said that empty spaces are a necessary luxury that must be included in designs and that there will also necessarily be more convergence between public and private spaces in future. As part of this, innovation and experimentation should be encouraged. This experimentation could include temporary buildings for specific purposes that can be put up and pulled down in a matter of months.

Affordability needs to improve, along with societal attitudes to entrepreneurship

For all its strengths, one weakness of Sydney is its widespread reputation as being very expensive. This is a real concern as poor affordability discourages workers from living in a city, which curtails investment, especially from startup entrepreneurs and small businesses that find it difficult to pay high rents and employ workers on the expensive salaries needed to live in high-cost locations. Connecting Sydney to neighbouring cities, including Newcastle and Wollongong, by high-speed rail could reduce the housing pressure in Sydney and make the city more competitive.

Boston previously struggled with this problem and people were starting to leave due to the cost of living there. The city responded by mandating that 15% of any development had to comprise affordable housing and commercial and light industrial spaces.

Along with greater affordability, we need to attract venture capitalists and experienced entrepreneurs to act as mentors to startup entrepreneurs, and improved affordability will help in this regard.

In addition, cultural change is desirable as regards entrepreneurship. Tel Aviv was highlighted as a city where the startup culture was encouraged by a societal change in attitude towards startups, and that this was apparent when parents started encouraging their children to become startup entrepreneurs instead of simply going to university in an attempt to join the professional ranks.

Sydney Harbour’s environment and heritage must be protected and enhanced

Sydney Harbour faces both current and future challenges affecting its environment, including global warming and loss of biodiversity. Whilst governments, academics and planning authorities are evaluating and debating these potential impacts with a view to mitigating them, things can be done now to promote biodiversity. It was stated that marine infrastructure can enhance biodiversity and encourage marine life, and every effort should be made to ensure that development is compatible with a healthy marine ecosystem.

Once the foreshore is fully developed and held by private interests, including for private residences, then generally speaking it is gone forever. This has often proved to be the case in other cities, such as Manila and there is an imperative in Sydney to make sure that as much of the foreshore remains open and accessible to citizens as possible, whilst maintaining high environmental standards.

Heritage buildings should be preserved and repurposed and could help solve the challenge of affordability mentioned above. Heritage buildings are often given a new lease of life by being renovated to host startup companies and business incubators, which often value them for their aesthetic appeal and relative affordability.

By 2060, Sydney’s population is anticipated to exceed 8 million. This enormous growth needs a healthy framework if Sydney is to maintain its authenticity.  As Sean Chiao, President, Asia Pacific at AECOM, said at the event, “The real complexity of cities comes from the people who inhabit them, not just from their physical environments. We need to think about building cities for future generations and to think of them as being about places to live, to create culture and to conduct business, whilst respecting the environment.”

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