The Melbourne versus Sydney debate isn't boring: it's useful

Annie Stevens, writing in Fairfax's Daily Life, wrote a piece last Friday (3/5/13) titled "Melbourne versus Sydney debate is boring" and went on to highlight how it's the stereotypes which fuel this debate to the point of boredom. I agree - however to come straight to my point: if we didn't have this boring and mundane debate, we'd have no competition between the cities - not a good outcome!

When cities and their respective citizens, business and political leaders become complacent, everyone loses - competition, and yes - this boring debate - actually has a dramatic effect on each city in such a way that drives both cities to improve.

Every now and again you read in The Age or Herald Sun that Melbourne's icons are smaller and low key in nature, such as our trams, laneways, the AFL, annual events and the list goes on while the stereotypes Annie Stevens was talking about seemingly take on a life of their own. The ensuing mundane nature of the debate does have one positive effect: it filters up to the respective local and state governments, leading business figures, lobby groups and people who are passionate about their city and entices them to hunker down and come up with a strategy to do better.

This in effect is what happened in Melbourne during the late 80's when there was a large exodus of human and financial capital. As a response, the Committee for Melbourne was formed and later the Kennett era arrived catapulting Melbourne & Victoria out of the financial doldrums on the back of a strategy which focused on engaging the populace through an annual events calendar, laying the foundations for Melbourne to be in the relatively strong position it is today.

Sydney, from a not-so-one-eyed Melburnian, relies heavily on a singular brand and image relating directly to the Harbour, Opera House, Bridge and general relationship the city has with the water - it's the iconography we see in tourism ads, business investment ads and cultural event ads. One thing however Sydney appears to be adamant in doing is building that next icon on par with the Sydney Opera house - you only have to type "Barangaroo Sydney new icon" in google to come up with pieces such as this on

They're going to struggle to do so.

Melbourne, obviously, is on a different path - one that focuses on real city life aspects of living, working and playing in cities because it's the sum of the whole that matters. Easily branded and packaged iconography and landmarks are great, but what does that tell us about the people who live there? You'd be forgiven for thinking everyone is materialistic, vein and siloed into a tribal culture where everyone fights over their patch of dirt for that view of the Harbour in Sydney.

Not everyone north of the Murray is like this - there are just as many passionate grass-roots ideas people who don't get sucked in to the marketing-speak nor fit into this stereotypical category, but it's hard not to fall for the stereotype: as many people in Sydney do actively embrace it as part of differentiating themselves - how many times have you heard political or business leaders or one-eyed fanboys proclaim at the top of their lungs that Sydney is "Australia's only global city"?

Holding Sydney back is the lack of development space to enlarge its core inner area and a policy of decentralisation of jobs over the decades into robust urban nodes such as Chatswood & Parramatta will now challenge central Sydney's metropolitan dominance for knowledge jobs going forward. Will this be to the detriment of central Sydney in the long run? Time will tell.

Looking to other large global cities such as Paris, London and New York, you'll note despite those 3 cities dominating in various political, economic, cultural or a combination of all three spheres in their respective countries (we don't have a single dominant city in those spheres in Australia), they have incredibly substantial urban hearts - far larger than anything we have in Australia. Who knows much about Paris outside the Périphérique, the 20 Arrondissements & La Défence? What about beyond the circle line & Canary Wharf in London? Where's the first place you visit when travelling to New York? (Manhattan of course!). If we're looking at those 3 cities through a prism of what makes them great and where the attractions, knowledge jobs and cultural icons of these cities are, it's their urban hearts, not decentralised peripheries.

With the westward expansion of Melbourne's sprawlbelt beyond Sunshine & Werribee, so too does the westward march of our urban heart go henceforth. The Napthine government & in particular Planning Minister Matthew Guy have made it clear they want to build a state of cities, and are actively considering the concept of a 20 minute city - 20 minutes to everywhere from your place of residence.

Policy implementation issues aside, it's an admirable goal and we only have to look north to New South Wales to see how effective decentralisation can be, however above all of this, the Napthine state government like the previous government recognise that Melbourne must continue to grow from within its core as well.

This has just been backed up by a Grattan Institute report on creating spaces for people to live closer to their jobs, not mass-subsidising business to decentralise closer to its workforce.

And we are best placed to do it in Australia.

It all started with Southbank, progressed to Docklands and we have Fishermans Bend and E-Gate to come. Furthermore the current and previous state governments have been murmuring about the long-term viability of the Port of Melbourne in its present location.

Fishermans Bend will start enroaching Port of Melbourne, placing further pressure of the area to be redeveloped and policy discussion surrounding decentralising sea freight movements to Hastings and near Avalon appear to be all about creating, by my estimation, a century's worth of land, right in the inner core for mass-redevelopment should the entire port be moved elsewhere.

Using the following as a boundary of the urban core of Melbourne in 2100 once the Port of Melbourne has completely moved elsewhere...

View Melbourne 2100 in a larger map.

...we're looking at a space about 75% of the size of central Paris (inside the Périphérique - the circular road around inner Paris). I'm not saying we should attempt to mimic cities like Paris (although some local academics think we should), London or New York in their entirety - we should forge our own look and feel with a diversity in building use - including building height , strong integration with the waterfronts downstream on the Yarra & Maribyrnong rivers and an even stronger focus on building new public transport corridors to support high density growth in this area.

The combined Fishermans Bend, E-Gate & remaining Port of Melbourne area represents an opportunity to expand Melbourne's core 3-4 times larger than what it currently is, and this is what's useful in the Melbourne versus Sydney debate: it's an enormous, real, threat to Sydney's current primacy. If Sydney doesn't step up to the plate and offer something similar, the powers that be on Macquarie Street will be sitting by for the next 50-100 years watching as central Melbourne grows larger, more diverse and attracts more creative & knowledge industry jobs because that's where they're best located - in a dense central urban area where human interaction and knowledge transfer is at its greatest.

The stereotypical Melbourne versus Sydney debate is extremely useful, for the simple fact it drives both cities to compete for talent, grow bigger, grander and attract people not only from interstate, but overseas. Yes much of it is mundane and boring, however with Business lobbies reacting in the way they have in articles quoting NSW Premier Barry O'Farrel where he said Avalon is no 2nd airport for Melbourne, it's Geelong's airport prove that the debate goes way beyond some of the immature and cringe-worthy one-liners that get thrown around most of the time.

New South Wales might have a Jeff Kennett moment soon - Kennett moment in the sense that boosterism from leadership spurs more of the populace to work together to project an image of how they want their city to be in future. It will be good for Sydney and good for Melbourne - as, like in the past 178 years of Melbourne's existence, it will generate a competitive response.

Our relationship with Sydney is more symbiotic than either city dominating the other, and it's not likely to change any time soon as Melbourne has just too many competitive advantages especially in the inner and outer land supply, a well rounded infrastructure pipeline and a national-leading population growth record.

How's the catch cry go? It won't happen overnight, but it will happen? Melbourne's icon is the city itself; our icons are our people who recognise differentiating ourselves drives more and more people to be a part of the equation. We have an enormous opportunity to build ourselves to be a large global city like Paris or London over the next century. Searching for that architect and development site to build our own picture-perfect narrow brand and image is the wrong choice for Melbourne - cities are organic, evolving beasts (just look at London building skyscrapers right in the heart of the ancient city), you should never set the bar so high it becomes near impossible to reach it again.



Viscount Melbourne's picture

Very good article Alastair.

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MelbourneGuy's picture

Great article Alastair. Well written and logical in every way. I think you nailed the crux of the matter. Just hope that Matt Guy gets to follow through on his long range vision.

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