Should we create a ‘Capital City Super Region’?

Sydney and Canberra are the Jekyll and Hyde of city planning.

Canberra is an idyllic, orderly public service city where most people get around using a tranquil travel mode known as “roundabout levitation”. Canberra has been planned to perfection, which instead of being liberating and exciting is in fact just irritating.

Sydney is different. Its economy has always been based on private dollars, not tax dollars. No-one planned Sydney and no-one cares about this. It has chaotic noisy streets upon which hustle chaotic noisy people. It is dense and getting denser by the day.

And the two cities don’t seem to like each other.

A few years ago, the Sydney Morning Herald reported: “When it comes to weekend gatherings, Sydney folk will happily converse about two things: property and the overwhelming desire never to live in Canberra.”

Yet Sydney and Canberra need to be friends. Or to be precise, they must be friends – to stay relevant and strong in the face of the global economy. And it doesn’t just stop with Sydney and Canberra.

In fact, Sydney, Newcastle, Wollongong and Canberra should all present to the world as a global, connected supertropolis – connected and linked economic centres.

City planning expert Greg Clark made this point at a recent Committee for Sydney talk sponsored by my employer KJA (see my other blog on this talk). He said that, increasingly, cities are banding together to present a united front to the world.

Clark stated that the Scandinavian cities of Oslo and Stockholm were presenting a united planning vision to the world, despite being in different countries.

There are many other good examples. For example, in 2006, the traditionally competitive neighbouring cities of Minneapolis and St Paul in northern USA decided to stop fighting each other for business and instead got together to promote themselves as a unified green technology region. It’s worked.

There’s no reason why we can’t do the same – in fact it makes perfect sense.

Canberra might be the butt of many jokes but it is the nation’s power base (and what’s more it is changing, with the ACT Government giving money for light rail earlier this week). Sydney might be a taxi driver’s hell but it is the home of the nation’s money – its economy represents one quarter of the nation’s gross domestic product. Money and power go together and always will. Yet, in city planning terms, Sydney and Canberra try to pretend the other doesn’t exist and are controlled by different provincial governments.

The other satellite cities of Newcastle and Wollongong have the potential to be creative hubs in their own right – cool funky places next to the ocean where start-ups and IT companies can get a foothold away from the oppressive rents caused by the finance and legal industries which have set up camp in Sydney.

And all these centres could be connected by a common planning vision and better still by high-speed rail. Imagine striking a finance deal in Sydney, getting the creatives on board for the project at Wollongong and then getting political support for it in Canberra – all on the one day thanks to a linked high-speed rail network. You can do this in Japan, why not here?

Yet at present our draft Metropolitan Plan, released last year, only covers Sydney while the Central Coast, Illawarra and Hunter regions have their own separate strategies. While the Metropolitan Plan makes noises about better connections with surrounding region, it doesn’t sell or promote the supertropolis concept.

This issue was brought up at a recent Committee for Sydney planning committee meeting which I attended. The Committee for Sydney is a broad-based advocacy group which has a mission to create a better future for Sydney.

It is currently preparing a long-term plan for Sydney’s future and is likely to look at the connected cities issue.

What’s more it doesn’t mean the satellite cities lose their identity or culture, while at the same time they gain the economic benefits of being in a big city region.

The biggest issue would appear to be coming up with a name for the region. How about the “Capital City Super Region” – which is a nod to the fact that Canberra is the capital of the ACT and Australia and Sydney the capital of NSW.

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