Sunday, December 29, 2013

Sunday Essay - Sydney's sub-metro centres

I write surrounded by chaos! It's been a pleasant Christmas. Far too much food, of course, but I'm not complaining about that, nor am I complaining about the books I received. Some say, and with some justice, that I have too many books! But, hey, I wouldn't be without them.

This year circumstances meant that I shopped across Sydney for presents, mainly in the sub-metro centres. This photo shows the evolving Chatswood skyline from the top of the Chatswood Chase Shopping Centre. 

I visited Los Angeles for the first time back in the 1980s. LA is flat, at least it seems to be so to me. We drove across the greater metro area through low buildings. Then, every so often, we would find a cluster of higher rise. This is happening in Sydney, if with some differences. Further comments follow the photo.P1010088 2

Sydney is far from flat, although the buildings flatten the landscape. It's not until you walk Sydney that you realise from the strain on your leg muscles along with the sudden vistas just how hilly the place is.

Unlike LA, Sydney is linked by its railway lines. Yes, roads are important and have facilitated the urban sprawl, but the spreading nineteenth century railway system supported by the tramways provided the bones of the place. The sub-metros are all on the railway lines. with medium density development following the lines.

While State Government policy has favoured the development of the sub-metros for some time, their evolution has actually been quite slow. North Sydney was the first, encouraged by closeness to the city. Parramatta, always a major centre, was slower to acquire a metro feel. It took the forced re-location of Government agencies to give it it's initial spurt, but growth then stalled. Chatswood took a different path, for here growth seems to have been essentially private sector, attracted by somewhat cheaper rents, leading to the first office towers.

My Christmas shopping began and finished at Parramatta.

Parramatta has only one big shopping centre, Westfield Parramatta. This is melting pot Sydney, but poorer melting pot. I walked into the shopping centre past the TV crews and police cars with their lights flashing. I learned later from work colleagues that a mentally distressed man had king hit someone in the food court. Outside, the homeless occupied their usual benches, shopping trolleys nearby. Shopping trolleys are important. You can put your possessions in them and keep them near you.

Westfield Parramatta has that vanishing but very useful thing, a bookshop. Many shopping centres, Chatswood Chase or Westfield Eastgardens are examples, do not.

Business was absolutely booming at  Dymocks Parra. Unlike the rest of the shopping centre where business was quite busy but not frenetic, the queues were long. Standing there carrying my books, watching and listening, I started counting in my mind. Fifteen people times average purchase of $100+ equals $1,500+, and all that in a few minutes. That's good business.

I used to do my main Christmas shopping at Westfield Eastgardens. They lost their last bookshop some time ago.  My shopping dropped. Yesterday I went back for the first time iVancouver skyscrapen four months. Chaps, get a bookshop even if you have to subsidise it!

This shot shows the high density living in Vancouver, Canada.   It's a shot from my cousin's apartment. Its not unattractive, just different.

One of the difficulties in Australia is the way we are a rule based society. Like all communities, urban based communities have their own dynamics. We have to have rules governing development, but those rules control the natural dynamics of society. The problem with rules based systems is that they tell you what to do, too seek to control, rather than remove natural excesses. The results are sometimes unexpected. Real estate is so profitable in Sydney because controls create scarcity based economic rents that can be captured by the clever.

At Chatswood, I was struck by the high rise explosion. In many ways, Chatswood has leap frogged Parramatta. Parramatta began as a government town and in many ways still is. In Parramatta, Government agencies occupy major office blocks.

The Western rail line is a government line in sometimes unseen ways. It is not just the public servants who flood into Parramatta each morning, it's not just the way that the line allows communication between Parramatta's generally branch offices and the head offices, but it's also the places along the line such as Ashfield or Burwood. Ashfield with its smaller multi-story office blocks is a government town. Without the public servants occupying those blocks, Ashfield would be just a bigger strip shopping centre. Now it's a place that other public servants have to come too to report, to be managed.

The northern line to Chatswood runs through leafy suburbs, the line to Parramatta through the sprawling post industrial melting pot suburbs. Chatswood has become Chinese, the locals say. Indeed, the Chinese make up 26.3% of the population of the immediate Chatswood area, However, Parramatta is more diverse still. Only 27.5% of people are Australian born as compared to Chatswood's 37%, Both localities have an equivalent number of Asian born, (Chatswood 39.2%, Parramatta 39.9%), but Parramatta has a greater mix with Indian born outnumbering Chinese.

Perhaps most importantly of all, Parramatta draws from a remarkably diverse ethnic mix in nearby suburbs. You see it on the trains or in Westfield. This is multi-ethnic Sydney. In many ways, it's also poorer Sydney. You see poverty here in a way that you don't in Chatswood.

Bondi Junction is another of the evolving sub-metros. This is shopping Sydney, a centre that has evolved to meet the needs of the Eastern Suburbs. I did not shop at BJ this year, although I received some presents sourced from there.

Bondi Junction is less ethnically diverse than either Chatswood or Parramatta. Well over half of the population is locally born, while relatively few of those born outside Australia come from Asia. This is also Jewish Sydney, with almost 13% of the population identifying as Jewish in religious terms. It's also wealthier Sydney. Store prices reflect this. Food is often nicely packaged, but it's almost always more expensive.

In this short essay, I have focused on three of Sydney's sub-metros, each very different. If you look at the evolution of the city, Sydney needs its own government free from the trammels of having to take the rest of NSW into account. 

The broader city's planning is struggling. You can clearly see this in this new's story on the problems the O'Farrell Government faces in trying to bring about urban renewal. There is no mechanism at present that will allow Sydney's broader problems to be addressed in a holistic way. That is why some form of Sydney government is important. 


As he so often does, kvd came up with a fascinating link on the flattening of of Los Angeles - How Los Angeles Erased Hills From Its Urban Core. It's worth a read.



Anonymous said...

Jim, you say L.A. is flat?

- wonder how this land-forming affected the character of the city we now see?

ps I see your suggestion of a Greater Sydney authority as a wedge for a NE state. A very cunning plan :)

Jim Belshaw said...

Where would I be without you, kvd?! I have added the LA link to the main post.

On the second, I can only say sprung! It will remain very hard to subdivide NSW until Sydneysiders realise that they are paying a price to maintain the status quo. A greater Sydney authority won't do. It has to be a state with sovereign powers. Otherwise, everybody else will keep interfering.

Indians in Australia said...

Parramatta is as safe as anywhere else but suggest before making a decision have a good look around in the street and area at different times of the day and night to get an idea of what it's like.

Jim Belshaw said...

That's a fair point, Indians in Australia. Parramatta is generally safe, despite the earlier troubles at nearby Harris Park.