Sydney's Three Cities - a flawed vision?

7 June 2022
An investigation into Sydney’s metropolitan strategic plan
Research by the University of Sydney's School of Architecture, Design and Planning into Sydney's metropolitan strategic plan, A Metropolis of Three Cities, finds that although a step in the right direction, flaws exist in several policies.

At a time when more is being required of planning to bring about sustainable and equitable cities, the advent of a strategy for Sydney that attempts to generate a substantially new metropolitan structure is of significant interest. Yet as with any visionary plan, the question of whether the vision can guide development in the desired directions is paramount.

A Metropolis of Three Cities – the Greater Sydney Region Plan attempts to align land use, transport and infrastructure planning to reshape Greater Sydney as three unique but connected cities. The strategic plan, prepared concurrently with Future Transport 2056 and the State Infrastructure Strategy, aims to rebalance growth, and deliver benefits equally and equitably to residents across Greater Sydney. 

Flawed Vision? Sydney’s Three Cities Metropolitan Strategy a new paper co-authored by Associate Professor in Planning, Glen Searle from the School of Architecture, Design and Planning, addresses several conflicting policies in the metropolitan strategic plan:


The strategy has incorporated proposals to generate jobs as part of the knowledge economy, around hospitals, universities and the second airport, as well as the existing concentration in Tech Central in central Sydney, though the imbalance in knowledge jobs between eastern and western Sydney seems unlikely to be shifted by the strategy.

In addition, the rosy forecasts of jobs created by the second airport overstate the traffic potential of the new airport. To the extent that new knowledge jobs are created, their higher salaries will put more pressure on housing prices and so increase affordability problems for supporting service workers, making compensatory measures to increase affordable housing supply more urgent.

In addition, the transport priority it gives to a new city around Sydney’s second airport comes at the expense of rail connections that would make Parramatta a stronger alternative to central Sydney for jobs.

“The strategy’s emphasis on ensuring that the planned Western Parkland City around the second airport is as self-contained as possible, means that opportunities for better access to jobs and services in the strategy’s Central (Parramatta) and Eastern Cities over the planning period to 2036 are given lower priority,” said Associate Professor Glen Searle.

“The potential for building Parramatta into a genuine second metropolitan CBD that can seriously challenge the central Sydney CBD for knowledge jobs, by prioritising new rail connections, has not been adequately realised.”


Carbon reductions through high-density development around train stations are countered by the continuation of motorway projects, especially in inner and middle suburbs.

Also, the strategy proposes construction of a new city around the second airport. This is located in the hottest part of the Sydney Basin, which has inadequate provisions to offset high summer temperatures. It does not consider the possibility of urban expansion into areas that are cooler than western Sydney such as Dural or the Central Coast. While such areas have potentially higher development costs and less accessible jobs requiring new transport links, these costs could be less than the added environmental costs of continuing to build houses in outer western Sydney. The state’s new transport strategy proposes a high-speed rail line to the Central Coast, which would give much improved access to central Sydney jobs.


There is little attempt to help tackle the housing affordability crisis in Sydney, such as getting developers to provide a share of housing for lower income households in return for windfall property price increases when land is rezoned from rural to urban or to higher densities.

The power of the housing development industry has caused the strategy to adopt a minimalist requirement for developers to include affordable housing. This exacerbates a lack of affordable housing policies elsewhere by the state government and a similar lack at the federal government level.

Associate Professor Glen Searle explains that despite the above, the Three Cities strategy marks a significant departure over other recent Sydney strategies: “The creation of the Greater Sydney Commission has allowed fresh thinking to be brought into the city’s strategic planning. This is a very positive step. Despite the criticisms made in the paper, a bold but arguably flawed vision is to be welcomed for broadening the discourse about options for Sydney’s future.”

Flawed Vision? Sydney’s Three Cities Metropolitan Strategy is co-authored by Associate Professor Glen Searle from the University of Sydney and Professor Emeritus Kevin O’Connor from the University of Melbourne.

Sally Quinn

Media Adviser

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