Barcelona cool and sexy but not a good look for Sydney

19 September 2016

As Sydney's population continues to expand, it's Toyko we need to look at for inspiration, writes Associate Professor Pablo Guillen Alvarez.

View of Barcelona

Barcelona, together with Paris, is the densest city in Europe.

The NSW Minister for Planning tells us Sydney's increased population forecasts mean higher densities need to be considered. To achieve higher densities, it's either the Barcelona way or the Shanghai way.

Apparently, Shanghai is all about tall apartment towers gulping up parkland. That's not good. The minister advocates instead for allowing the subdivision of plots in the middle-ring suburbs – such as Rockdale, Campsie or Croydon – so four 200-square-metre terraces substitute a single detached home on an 800-square-metre plot. If each of those terraces is sold at, say, half the price of a big house, then sellers, developers and the four buyers win. The Planning Minister calls this the Barcelona way.

Barcelona charming but not a good example

Everyone seems to have a very good opinion of my home city. While the Barcelona way does sound sexy, there is nothing "middle" about density in the Spanish city.

Barcelona, together with Paris, is the densest city in Europe, with areas that can only be compared to Hong Kong. The 10 districts that make up the city core are denser than the eight districts in Puxi, Shanghai's urban core. You don't see tall apartment towers in Barcelona, that's true, but instead a continuum of six to nine-storey apartment buildings arranged in a grid of tree-lined streets. Traffic is heavy.

When Barcelonins talk about going to the park it usually means going to the one park, la Ciutadella. Barcelona's council has been making an effort in the past few decades to open up spaces in the urban fabric, knocking down derelict blocks to make space for new plazas.

Barcelona is still charming, cool and sexy (albeit a tad provincial). But it's not a good example for Sydney. Instead, look no further than Surry Hills, Newtown, and Glebe. These neighbourhoods replicate the sensible middle densities of Notting Hill or Crouch End in London. They are dense enough to support a good variety of shops in the main street so all the basics can be done locally. Schools and public transport are also within walking distance.

Tokyo's suburbs are already not that different from what we have here.
Associate Professor Pablo Guillen Alvarez, School of Economics

The Tokyo way a better option

Or look at Tokyo. Greater Tokyo, the most populated city in the world, is less dense than London. Most families live in houses there. Towers around railway stations, like in Chatswood, contain some apartments but Greater Tokyo is mostly comprised of businesses and shops.

An impressively well-co-ordinated, efficient, mostly privately owned and profitable railway network can take you anywhere. In fact, it is responsible for 70 per cent of all passenger movements in Tokyo.

On a weekday the 35-kilometre Yamanote line carries more passengers than the whole 402-kilometre London Underground. Efficient use of passenger railways means roads are mostly left for those who need them: tradies, delivery trucks and taxis. Cycling infrastructure is not really necessary, nor are footpaths. Most streets are narrowish lanes where people ride or walk to school, shops or the railway station.

Tokyo's suburbs are already not that different from what we have here. They look very much like Parramatta or Bondi Junction. The NSW Planning Minister's plan would allow for an expansion of public transport that would emulate Tokyo even more. That's all well and good, but that's not Barcelona.

Associate Professor Pablo Guillen Alvarez is an economist at the University of Sydney. This article originally appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald.

Luke O'Neill

Media and PR Adviser (Humanities and Social Sciences)