City-shaping for a COVID-19 recovery

Chief Commissioner Geoff Roberts

It is time for Greater Sydney to thrive, as well as survive. Now, more than ever, we need Greater Sydney as a metropolis of three cities, where our jobs can be closer to where we live - 30-minute cities with five-minute neighbourhoods. 

As we plan for life after COVID-19, we need to take the lessons that we have learned about ourselves, how we live and the way our city works and turn them to our economic advantage. We can do this by getting out on the front foot and grabbing the opportunity to re-shape Greater Sydney in a way that will serve us better. 

COVID-19 has been another chapter in the triple-whammy that has hit us. It has come on the tail of the summer of bushfires and other climate change impacts such as water restrictions and increasingly hot weather. We need to reimagine the way we live as Sydneysiders because, without doubt, things will be very different to how they were six months ago.

Since mid-March, when Australia recorded its 100th case of coronavirus, jobs have fallen by 7.4 percent in NSW, with the hospitality sector shrinking by a third and the arts and recreation industries shrinking by a quarter. Over the same period, wages have fallen by a cumulative 7.5 percent – or by almost a third in the hospitality sector.

This global pandemic has changed the way we look at our future and the way I am looking at the future of Greater Sydney in my role as Chief Commissioner at the Greater Sydney Commission.

We can tackle recovery by getting people working again either with different jobs, reconfigured jobs or just new ways of working.  For example, we can create jobs by selling our story and our positive reputation internationally.   I have been meeting with many of the world’s top companies in industries such as advanced manufacturing and they are now seeking new locations that have the qualities Greater Sydney offers – a skilled workforce, stable government and great places to live.

This is a perfect example of how the Greater Sydney Commission can help. As well as selling our story, we need to ensure we have enough land to locate these new jobs. Currently, only eight percent of our land in Sydney is dedicated to  employment uses so we really need to turbocharge what we have to create jobs and help with recovery. And we need to provide evidence of the changes that are happening to our workforce and the way we work so that our education systems can better respond.  We want smart TAFEs as well as smart Universities.

But we need to go beyond recovery to resilience, supporting government and industry investment by identifying and analysing the evidence around how COVID-19 has changed how the way the city operates and which of those changes are beneficial and so should be kept.  We need to know the answers to important questions such as ‘ how has our use of public transport changed’ and  ‘are we all walking and cycling more’? Are we getting healthier and how many of us can give up the daily commute and spend some of the working week connected from home? We need to collect and analyse the best data on the ongoing social changes COVID-19 has brought and use this to make the best decisions for our future.

At the Greater Sydney Commission, I’ve spent much of the past three years helping to drive the changes that are happening in Western Sydney.  We’ve now got eight Councils working together and with the NSW and Australian governments like never before and have made real progress in creating a new jobs-focused city based around to the new Western Sydney Airport. These are local jobs, smart jobs, jobs of the future, which are helping to create new opportunities for this fast growing region.

Focusing on collaboration and jobs works – so let’s use these lessons and apply them across all 33  of Greater Sydney’s local councils to rebuild strength for local businesses at local shopping areas, small industrial complexes and home start-ups.  Yes, the development and construction industries are a critical part of the economy but not the whole of the economy. We can no longer define economic success solely by how many houses or how much infrastructure we are building.  We need to create a resilient economy with employment for all, by working with all industry partners – local, international, large and small.

The strategic plans for Greater Sydney are all robust and relevant to our current situation – the Metropolis of three cities, the 30 minute city, the Western Sydney City Deal and the importance of collaboration. But they need to be accelerated to best respond to the lessons we have learnt through COVID-19 and other crises we have faced over the past 12 months. How we do this is something we have been giving a lot of time recently and we hope to have more to say soon.

The Greater Sydney Commission has a responsibility to act on the elements of the ‘new normal’ that will help us to shape a better city and create jobs, for example, flexibility about where we choose to work from. But the pressure’s on - we need to deliver immediate results with timeframes of now to 18 months.

Our actions need to be short-term, but with long-term aims. Our legislation, which requires us to set the guidelines for the future of Greater Sydney, also allows us to drive the incredible opportunities for Greater Sydney’s economic recovery through innovative new approaches across all corners of our metropolis.

Geoff Roberts

Chief Commissioner

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