Here's Why Sydney Is Getting Left Behind While The Rest Of Australia's Cities Get On With It

Melbourne. Photo: Getty

I am a Sydney girl living in Perth, which means that my loyalties are divided between the two cities.

Sydney has long been the beacon for Australia with its globally recognised icon, the Sydney Opera House. It is Australia’s de facto capital, the centre for the banking and finance sectors and our only world city.

If you live in Sydney you have a certain arrogance about you, with little regard for the rest of Australia. The same as Londoners do about the United Kingdom and New Yorkers have about the United States.

A good friend who was also raised in Sydney and is now an academic focused on design and landscape is as fascinated about cities as I am. He says “Sydney is a pretty girl in a great frock.”

I think this is true and realised that, in reality, pretty girls in great frocks don’t have to try too hard to get attention.

While Sydney has been sitting smugly on her self-proclaimed throne as Australia’s best city in her great frock with her crown on, Melbourne has been chipping away for the past 30 years and has emerged as the World’s Most Liveable City. I can only imagine how much that riles Sydney, which sits in 7th place.

I know how much it smarts Perth, which sits at number 9.

The transformation of Melbourne from Sydney’s poor cousin to World’s Most Liveable City is almost fable-like and it goes something like this:

In the early 1990s, Australia’s most southern mainland state loses a big chunk of its manufacturing activity to cheaper offshore competitors and its capital city languishes into economic despair. From this crisis grows a coalition of the willing in and outside of government to work together to sort the problems out.

True leaders emerge and they paint a shared vision of becoming Australia’s cultural, sporting and entertainment capital. In their desire to achieve this goal, government is reformed and policies are overhauled. The private sector is welcomed and investment is aligned. They build roads, bridges, tunnels and extend their public transport system and renew their blighted areas at Federation Square, Southbank and Docklands.

They draw strength from being Australia’s only European-style capital, a reputation which has attracted so many migrants and they herald this widely. They use the benevolence of their ethnic communities to fund cultural infrastructure.

Through a belief in themselves and unified effort, they emerge victors, with Melbourne named the most liveable city in the world in 2011.

So does this tale mean that every city has to have a major crisis on which to regroup or is it enough to simply learn from it? Cities across the world are currently undergoing dramatic transformations both as a result of crisis and because they are willing to learn from the experience of others.

Christchurch is having a crisis of a monumental kind as it faces the devastation left behind after a series of earthquakes which rocked the city during 2010-11. A shared view of the future is yet to emerge, with some wanting to create a new future for the city and others wanting to put it back just as it was before.

San Francisco is having housing affordability and congestion crises that are being put out as if they were ‘spot fires’ rather than acknowledging they are part of the city’s overall challenges.

London’s competitive edge was all but gone as it lost ground to other European capitals for skilled people and investment dollars, and it used this crisis to regroup. As a result, the city is undergoing a transformation of stellar proportions both above and below the ground. The cross-rail project is the largest underground rail project ever undertaken in the city and new buildings such as Renzo Piano’s ‘The Shard’ are redefining the skyline.

Perth is undergoing a transformation too, with Elizabeth Quay which will reconnect the city and river, City Link which will reconnect the city to its inner city entertainment precinct Northbridge, and BHP Billiton’s new headquarters changing its skyline.

So where is Sydney whilst other cities are redefining themselves? Still sitting on her throne in her great frock looking pretty.

This may have been a good ploy in the 20th century when the world was a simpler place but it does not seem a wise response to the many competitive forces and challenges facing cities this century.

Everyday Sydney languishes is yet another day when the rest of us just get on with it. Melbourne (as much as it kills me to say this), I toast to your hard work and well-deserved good fortune.

Marion Fulker is the CEO of the Committee for Perth, a think tank focused on the future of the Perth region. She is also an Adjunct Senior Research Fellow at The University of Western Australia.

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