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Bigger, but maybe not better?

By Kevin McCracken - posted Tuesday, 1 October 2019

The Sydney Morning Herald recently sponsored a population summit to discuss successfully planning for a growing Sydney. The Herald is to be congratulated on taking this initiative as the city's rapid growth trajectory over recent years has generated controversy and concern amongst an increasing proportion of residents. An idea of the important issues addressed at the Summit can be seen on the forum's website ( The website also shows the impressive field of decision-makers and thought-leaders assembled to address the Summit.

From scanning the identified discussion issues, assembled speakers, and media reports though it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the Summit was very much founded on a strong pro- population-growth philosophy.

The 'fact' that Sydney is going to grow to at least eight million has virtually become the demographic and economic orthodoxy amongst key urban development decision-makers.


Hopefully somewhere in the planning for the future of Sydney however room will be found to discuss the contrarian view that Sydney growing to six, seven or eight million residents is not necessarily the best pathway to pursue. That growth may keep us impressively up the so-called 'global city' league table, but will it mean a majority of the population have a genuinely better quality of life? There are undeniably some benefits to increasing population size, but equally undeniable downsides.

In planning for the Sydney of 2030/2050 it is to be hoped the voices of the many ordinary workers and their families with lived realities of multi-hour commutes, increasing congestion, worsening housing affordability, deepening socio-spatial inequality, etc. and who have little real planning and development clout will somehow get heard and taken seriously.

Growing congestion, for example, has become everyday life for many. For example, readers may like to try out the parking lot that northbound parts of Epping Road have become for drivers most weekday late afternoons and early evening. Or Mona Vale, Carlingford, Military, or Warringah Roads several mornings each week. At times one is able to walk as fast or faster than the vehicle flow.

Congestion frustrations take on a variety of faces, vehicle travel speeds being only one. Shoulder to shoulder packing in of rail commuters at peak times is another, an unavoidable manifestation for many Sydney-siders. Another in turn is the unplanned conversion of former two-way traffic suburban streets in numerous suburbs into tight one-way thorough-ways due to increased on-street parked cars of residents associated with higher rates of vehicle ownership and numbers per dwelling.

Major environmental costs would also follow from millions more people being added to the Sydney Basin. The scale of urban development required to accommodate such numbers would inevitably see spatially widespread habitat fragmentation and loss from 'required' land clearing and consequent animal and plant species biodiversity loss.

In turn, lying behind everything is the ultimate environmental elephant in the room – climate-change and the uncertainty of its future manifestations. The present long-running drought that has brought Sydney water catchment levels below 50% should raise concerns about the wisdom of being relaxed about a Sydney of 2-3 million more people.


While careful environmental planning can mitigate some of the potential problems of climate-change (e.g. by greater recycling and other better use of water resources), observing the precautionary principle regarding future population growth and climate-science predictions of an on-going rainfall-uncertain world is well worth considering.

Once those 2-3 more millions residents have been added there is no real going back to a city of five million.

And if the pro-growth argument wins the day, then what? Inching up to a 10 million population mega-city? 12 million? More? Is any ultimate end to the city's population expansion actually foreseen? When would be big enough?

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The first half of this article was originally published as a letter to the editor in the Sydney Morning Herald.

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About the Author

Dr Kevin McCracken is an honorary fellow at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia. He is co-author of Global Health: An Introduction to Current and Future Trends, Routledge, 2017 (2nd edition).

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