Social infrastructure & services are just as vital to liveability
To create liveable communities, multiple interdependent and related factors need to be considered, prioritised and financed.
The Greater Sydney Commission’s (GSC) draft long term plan for growing Sydney on behalf of the NSW Government, Towards Our Greater Sydney 2056, provides an impressive vision that prioritises the significance of central and western Sydney in creating a global metropolis. The recently released GSC draft District Plans draw on this emerging vision to operationalise and bring this aspiration to reality through a focus on creating a liveable, productive and sustainable city.
What does this mean for communities across the vast landscape of Western Sydney? A place that is home to approximately two million people, with another million expected over the coming decades. A place that is home to the vast majority of refugees and migrants that settle in NSW. A place where on any national or international indicator, there are pockets where people experience entrenched and generational disadvantage. Do these new plans have the capacity to be the enabler needed to create a more productive, liveable and sustainable Western Sydney?
The answer is complex. From a social sustainability perspective, there are multiple interdependent and related factors that need to be considered, prioritised and funded. The capacity of the GSC District Plans to act as an enabler therefore is contingent on how they are operationalised and how success is measured across the spectrum of considerations.
Social policy areas that dominate public policy discourse are housing, employment and transport. These are unquestionably vital to liveability. Yet there are additional factors that impact on liveability that also need to be considered, such as the geography of disadvantage and social infrastructure. Bringing these additional factors to the forefront, provides an opportunity to consider how they could be strengthened within the GSC District Plans framework and in its delivery.
Liveable communities that are productive and sustainable
The fundamental elements of community health and wellbeing begins with people having somewhere appropriate to live; being able to access an income, education and employment; and getting to where they need to go. However, community wellbeing also means that people feel like they belong, they have family and friends that they trust, they live within a cohesive and harmonious environment, they feel safe, they can get help when they need it and they have good mental and physical health. It is the sum of all these parts that create liveable communities and a civil society.
Planning for communities therefore is multifaceted, there being a clear correlation between public policy; urban development and amenity; and community wellbeing. Research tells us that where people have access to opportunities and services, they are more likely to be resilient and productive, and vulnerabilities are more likely to be reduced.[i] Indeed, this is a central foundation of the concept of liveability[ii] and benefits not only Greater Sydney but contributes to national wellbeing.
Geography and community outcomes
A discussion about liveability and Western Sydney cannot be had without reference to the relationship between geography and community wellbeing outcomes.
Locational disadvantage is evident in all capital cities in Australia and can be seen in pockets of Western Sydney. As well as the social and economic impacts of this on local communities “….there is a dawning recognition that growing spatial polarisation of our major cities impairs overall urban productivity, thus imposing costs on all,”[iii].
Multi-faceted interventions can have significant long term positive effects in locations where there is concentrated socio-economic disadvantage.[iv]
Interventions need to be diverse and multidimensional from the delivery of infrastructure and services; to providing neighbourhood programs and initiatives; through to housing, employment and education policy that facilitates and stimulates access and equity for and across communities.
The GSC District Plans set the scene to action this through its liveability priorities, particularly in relation to supporting housing and social infrastructure delivery.
There is scope to broaden this priority to go beyond hard infrastructure. There would also be benefit in strengthening the direction on how this priority will be realised and what indicators of success will look like and for whom.
Revisiting social infrastructure benchmarks and standards
Social infrastructure is the mix of ‘hard’ infrastructure (facilities and open spaces) and ‘soft’ infrastructure (services and programs) that impact on community wellbeing and quality of life. There is an increasing awareness that the failure to make adequate provision for social infrastructure in the past has exacerbated poor community outcomes on multiple indicators of wellbeing.[v]
Studies internationally are increasingly quantifying this benefit. For example, one study in the UK suggests that for every $1 invested in community networks and services, $10 was saved in costs relating to poor health, crime and employment outcomes.[vi]
Within this context, there is an inequity in the level of investment, delivery and quality of social infrastructure across Western Sydney, particularly in areas of rapid growth in recent decades across the South and North West corridors. Some local communities are well serviced, while in others a generation of children and young people have had limited access, if at all, to social infrastructure.
The question of who ought to pay for social infrastructure (be it the public, user or developer) will no doubt continue. In the meantime, the GSC District Plans may well provide the platform needed to revisit, review and progress a set of benchmarks and standards for future application. This would enable the development of new and innovative ways to deliver and finance social infrastructure, particularly with one million people moving into Western Sydney in coming decades.
The interdependent and related factors, some of which have been briefly discussed in this article, must be considered in a sophisticated, thoughtful and integrated way. The key value of the GSC District Plans is their capacity to provide a platform for integration by offering a common framework that brings together those who have a role to play in planning for the future. However, common, tangible and objective measures, targets and benchmarks are a missing link.
These are vital to bring diverse people together around a common goal and to provide clarity on how the aspirations contained in the GSC District Plans will be operationalised.
Having said that, the GSC’s vision and corresponding plans demonstrate the level of optimism, interest and investment in Western Sydney at the moment. This undoubtedly provides a tremendous opportunity to strengthen the focus on liveability and community wellbeing across all policy areas, increasing opportunities to improve social infrastructure and reduce locational disadvantage.
This article originally appeared in New Planner – the journal of the New South Wales planning profession – published by the Planning Institute of Australia. For more information, please visit: www.planning.org.au/news/new-planner-nsw
Billie Sankovic is the CEO of Western Sydney Community Forum, a think tank that shapes policy and services. Billie holds a Master of Human Services Management & Policy and a Bachelor of Social Work (Honours). She has worked across government, non-government and academia in developing solutions that build resilient communities.
[i] Cuthill, M 2010, ‘Strengthening the ‘social’ in sustainable development: Developing a conceptual framework for social sustainability in a rapid urban growth region in Australia’, Sustainable Development, vol. 18, no. 6, pp. 362-373
[ii] The Committee for Sydney 2017, Adding to the Dividend, Ending the Divide #3’ Issues Paper 14, Sydney Australia
[iii] Pawson, H, Hulse, K & Cheshire, L 2015, Addressing concentrations of disadvantage in urban Australia, AHURI Final Report No.247. Melbourne: Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute
[iv] Ware, V-A, Gronda, H & Vitis, L 2010, Addressing locational disadvantage effectively, AHURI Research Synthesis Service, Commissioned by Housing NSW. Melbourne: Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute