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Sydney: from world city to 'sick man' of Australia

By Wendell Cox - posted Wednesday, 6 May 2009

Americans have their “American Dream” of home ownership. Australians go one step further. They have a “Great Australian Dream” of home ownership. This was all part of a culture that celebrated its egalitarian ethos. Yet, to an even greater degree than in the United States, the “Dream” is in the process of being extinguished. It all started and is the worst in Sydney.

Sydney is Australia’s largest urban area, having passed Melbourne in the last half of the 19th century. With an urban area population of approximately 3.6 million, Sydney leads Melbourne by nearly 300,000.

The “Great Australian Dream” in Sydney

Sydney incubated and perfected the Great Australian Dream. New housing was built in all directions from the central business district. The most expensive was built to the east and north, while the least expensive - the bungalows and other modest detached houses - rose principally to the west and the south. Western Sydney is the culmination of the Great Australian Dream for perhaps more middle and lower middle income households than any other place in the nation.


Of course, Western Sydney was not planned in the radical sense of the word currently used by contemporary urbanists. In fact, most have little more regard for Western Sydney than for the shantytowns of Jakarta or Manila. Yet, the people of Western Sydney, like the people of countless modest suburban areas around the world, are proud of their communities and of their homes.

Rationing land, blowing out land prices

About three decades ago, Sydney embarked upon what was to become one of the world’s strongest “smart growth” programs (called “urban consolidation” in Australia). Aimed at concentrating population closer to the core, urban consolidation sought to restrict and even prohibit new housing on the urban fringe. Sydney developed its own equivalent of the famous Portland urban growth boundary. The result is that every land owner knows whether or not their property can be developed, and the favoured understandably take advantage by charging whatever price the highly constrained market will bear.

Reserve Bank of Australia research indicates that the price of raw land - Sydney urban fringe land for building a house that has not yet been fitted with infrastructure (sewers, water, streets, etc.) has now risen to a price of about $190,000 for a one-eighth acre lot. In the days before smart growth, the land would cost about $1,000. Needless to say, adding an unnecessary nearly $190,000 plus margins to the price of a house makes housing less affordable.

But even where development is nominally allowed, government restrictions make building almost impossible. For years the state government has promised to “release” land for new housing on the western fringe. Yet despite announcement and re-announcement, there have been interminable delays.

Destroying housing affordability

As a result, Sydney is now the second most expensive major housing market in the six nations in our Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey (PDF 721KB), trailing only Vancouver. Sydney’s Median Multiple (the median house price divided by the median household income) is now 8.3. It should be close to the historic norm of 3.0 or less. Indeed, if land prices had risen with inflation from before urban consolidation, Sydney’s Median Multiple would be less than 3.0. As a result, households entering the housing market can expect to pay nearly three times as much for their houses than was the case before. This will lead to an inevitably lower standard of living compared to what would have otherwise been.

Forcing density

Urban consolidation is destroying not only housing affordability, but also the character of Sydney itself. Sydney is an urban area of low density suburbs. It is also an urban area of high rise living. These two housing forms have combined with one of the world’s most attractive geographical settings to create an attractive and liveable urban area.


The planners, empowered by the state of New South Wales government, are changing all of that. From the suburbs of Western Sydney to the attractive and more affluent North Shore suburbs, high-rise residential buildings are being thrust upon detached housing neighbourhoods. One of Sydney’s great strengths is that the urban area has many local government areas (municipalities), empowering local democracy. These local governments have done their best to resist the state government densification mandates, in response to opposition from their citizens.

Raw exercise of power

One of Sydney’s greatest weaknesses is that the state government exercises undue control over the municipalities and is using its power to “shoe-horn” high density into places where it makes no sense. High density is fine in the Toney Eastern suburbs, but has no place where detached housing is the rule. Unfortunately, the planners seem to presume communities with detached housing have no character worth salvaging.

Urban consolidation: infrastructure costs

Further, there is an inherent assumption that densification has no costs. The planners routinely exaggerate the cost of providing infrastructure on the urban fringes (failing, for example, to understand that much infrastructure is included in the price of the house, without government involvement). However, the infrastructure built for lower density detached housing is not sufficient for higher densities. As a result, there have been sewer overflows in densifying areas. Huge expenditures have been made for sewer upgrades.

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First published in New Geography on April 17, 2009.

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About the Author

Wendell Cox is a Visiting Professor, Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers, Paris and the author of War on the Dream: How Anti-Sprawl Policy Threatens the Quality of Life.

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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