To help Greater Sydney prepare for population growth over the next 40 years, the New South Wales (NSW) government is applying innovative new models of urban planning and partnerships to create connected ‘30-minute cities’ within the sprawling metropolis.

To learn how they developed this vision, Paul Low, Head of the Infrastructure, Government and Healthcare practice at KPMG Australia, talked with members of the leadership team behind the Greater Sydney regional and district plans and the Future Transport 2056 strategy.

Making Greater Sydney a ‘metropolis of three cities’

In March 2018, Australia’s New South Wales (NSW) government finalized bold, integrated plans for Greater Sydney’s future growth over the next 20-40 years: the Greater Sydney Region Plan, the Future Transport 2056, and the State Infrastructure Strategy.  

These plans will help NSW prepare for future population growth and economic, technology and lifestyle trends that will impact the people who live, work and visit Greater Sydney. With the metropolis forecasted to grow to 8 million people by 2056 – and almost half of that population expected to reside in outlying, western areas – the NSW government plans aim to spread the benefits equally and equitably across Greater Sydney.

The planning for Greater Sydney reflects an emerging national agenda of more connected urban policy to drive the global competitiveness of Australian cities and their capacity to attract and retain talented human capital. 

The three plans, prepared concurrently for the first time, align land use, transport and infrastructure planning to reshape Greater Sydney as three distinct but connected cities: the Eastern Harbour City, the Central River City and the Western Parkland City. 

Implementation of the plans is underway, notably in the Western Parkland City, where the federal and NSW governments and eight local councils recently signed the Western Sydney City Deal, a 20-year agreement to transform this community around the Commonwealth government’s $5.3 billion investment in a new Western Sydney Airport.

The plans are the result of collaborative partnerships across the NSW government. Together, The Greater Sydney Commission (GSC), Infrastructure NSW and Transportfor NSW, which established co-located teams and adopted common planning assumptions and agile ways of working. The result of this partnership has changed the way that government works and will deliver better outcomes for customers, visitors and residents. This represents a comprehensive shift in the culture and as Jim Betts, CEO of Infrastructure NSW, describes it, “I’ve never seen collaboration on this scale between government agencies.”

Can you describe the Greater Sydney Region Plan and how it will shape the future for residents?

Geoff Roberts, Deputy Chief Commissioner, Economics Commissioner and Chief Coordinator Western Sydney City Deal, Greater Sydney Commission (GR): It’s as a vision with a practical set of policies that lays out an innovative process for investing in infrastructure over the next 40 years. Greater Sydney is one of the world’s fastest growing cities and we needed to give residents a clear narrative about what the city was becoming. We’ve laid out a plan for a metropolis composed of three, ‘30-minute cities’ in which most residents can live within 30 minutes of their jobs, education, health, services and great places. Right away, ‘Sydney-siders’ began to connect with the idea since it inherently makes sense.

Clare Gardiner-Barnes, Deputy Secretary Freight, Strategy and Planning, Transport for New South Wales (CG-B): Yes, we now have a strategic framework for our future direction that responds to all the changes going on around us. For example, within the Transport realm we see new technologies impacting freight movement around cities, connected and automated cars and trains, and new requirements for roads and rail systems – smarter systems and infrastructure that address changes in customer expectations and behaviours.  To plan for these disruptive forces, we really had to push ourselves into that visionary space and not approach planning the same way we did in the past. Ultimately, we were able to create a vision that engages the community and is shared across the NSW government and supported at the local and federal levels. Our new approach means that we will be able to plan future services and cities in a flexible, but integrated way, which is what the community expects. We have also been proactive with changing the legislative and regulatory frameworks in NSW, to ensure that we don’t inhibit change as it arrives.


What does ‘urban connectivity’ mean to you in relation to this plan?

GR: On the most basic level, we are creating three highly connected 30-minute cities, but I also look at urban connectivity in terms of access to jobs and the economy of  the city.  We’ve seen how most cities are becoming less equitable and, for me, there is no such thing as urban connectivity if people have to travel two hours each way to get to work. That’s urban ‘dis-connectivity’. So, our three cities logic is about creating equitable access to jobs wherever you live. In our case, we have magnificent fortune that the federal government committed to constructing the Western Sydney Airport, which will be an economic driver and confidence builder for our western city.

CG-B: There are many different layers to connectivity including how the three cities and 30-minute city concept creates a vision for all of us to embrace alongside our partners in other agencies, local councils and Commonwealth government. Under the guidance of the GSC, we’ve come together to carefully plan and implement projects in a staged way that they complement one another.  We’ve also enhanced connectivity between individual projects and the communities, and this translates into a very different approach to planning. In the past, transport planning was driven by isolated projects that were not always connected to the people they were intended to serve. Often, the dots were not joined between transport, land use planning and even essential services like schools and healthcare. Now, we are ensuring that planning is about connecting with the local community. That’s a very different approach to how priorities are set and how budgets are allocated. It’s not all going to happen overnight, but this more connected approach will have much better outcomes for the broader community.

Does this departure from traditional planning processes require a culture change?

CG-B: Yes, it  requires a culture change starting at the top from leaders who expect a new culture and reinforce it along the way. For example, we were fortunate that Government empowered the public sector with the space and freedom to do what we needed to do. Then, at the senior public service and planning levels, we embraced a very different way of working together between agencies so that we didn’t let existing boundaries or blockages prevent us from moving ahead. We were determined to focus on good outcomes, robust engagement and cooperation at all levels.  We shared consultation materials, we co-located our team in one office, and we really enforced a culture of transparency, collegiality and co-design so that we all saw this as a shared project from day one.

GR: This culture change was definitely enabled by our senior leadership, including Sarah Hill, CEO of the GSC, Lucy Turnbull, Chief Commissioner of the GSC, and Tim Reardon, Secretary of Transport at that time and now Secretary of the Premier’s Department. They set the tone for the ‘one team’ approach, gave us the rights we needed to develop the plan in a new way and helped us break through the siloed-approaches that can exist. Today, there is much emphasis in the planning space on technology, data and data-assisted decision-making – and technology was a big part of what we have just done – but you never achieve culture change through data, you can only achieve it by leadership. You definitely need technology and automation of what we are doing but, in that process, the need for human leadership becomes more important.


What other factors contributed to the plan’s success?

GR: One of the reasons we’ve ended up with the great outcome we have today is the structure of the legislation that created the GSC. The NSW government established a very pluralistic body through its enabling legislation, by which the Secretaries of Transport, Treasury, Planning, and others are on the GSC Board, along with various ministerial-appointees. This really forced a high level of collaboration and it has also resulted in a planning-oriented, versus development- focused, organization, to deliver the best outcomes for the city.

CG-B: I’d add the importance of the human element in bringing the suite of plans to life. We’ve collaborated across our organizations and we will continue to engage everyone in the process – community, government and industry. In doing so, we are giving them plans that they can feel they have contributed to and can own. In the case of Transport for NSW, we have some 27,000 employees, and our view is that everyone should understand the impact their job has on the delivery of Future Transport 2056, whether they are a line marker on a regional road or a financial analyst. Typically, people work in their own silo but this is about everyone taking responsibility, joining the dots, and thinking about the greater planning outcomes we are trying to achieve. It’s not infrastructure for the sake of infrastructure, but rather it’s thinking about the community and emerging technologies first, and that’s a very different mindset to where we’ve been. I’d also like to highlight that at Transport we have shifted to a culture that accepts that we don’t have all the answers, so we partner with industry, academia and private sector experts.

How will you ensure the continuity of the vision in the years ahead?

CG-B: I think it’s important that we’ve embedded flexibility into Future Transport 2056 so that we can continue to engage with the community and iterate the plans as customer needs and technologies change. This is not a 40- year vision that sits on a shelf, but rather it is an evolving guide that will respond to change and ensure we’re on the front-foot with our planning and project prioritization.  In addition, the partnerships we have formed across levels of government will help keep the big picture plan on track. The Commonwealth government is an absolute partner in this and it is essential that all layers of government are on board. With all levels of government and the community engaged in this, even as governments change, everyone will recognize that we can’t afford to throw this vision away and start again. We have future-proofed them for good reason – to ensure the best possible outcomes across NSW for generations to come.

GR: The key lies in continuing the collaborative model that has been created but also making adjustments and adding the necessary supports and structures to keep the plans moving forward. For example, the NSW government recently announced it was setting up a Western Sydney Development Authority with the Commonwealth Government to work jointly on the delivery of utilities and other infrastructure. Implementation will be driven by the Western Sydney City Deal Implementation Board, and the Western Sydney City Deal Coordination Committee. We’ve come so far with this integrated and collaborative one team approach and it doesn’t get any better than that in my experience.

The final message?

What we’re seeing coming out of the Greater Sydney experience, is that connected urban strategy and policy only comes from connected leaders, collaborative cultures and a truly integrated focus on visionary outcomes that are connected to the community and industry through a clear, common narrative. 

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