It’s All About Perspective

I was reading back on one of the firsts posts I wrote for this blog that was about all our different plans for this year off (you can refresh your memory here).  One of the questions that I wanted to answer for myself was ‘Why has Sydney been getting such horrible built form outcomes?’  Before leaving Sydney, I often lamented about how much of the new buildings going up in Sydney, particularly residential apartments, were low grade, poorly designed pieces of crap.  I generally blamed the Residential Design Code* that was the de facto control document for apartment buildings in Sydney (and the rest of the state).  It seemed like developers were just using the code as a pattern, without really putting any effort into making what they were building an actual distinct place.  Then I moved to Kansas City.

As I drove home tonight along Metcalf Avenue (the main thoroughfare near my house), I went by building after building of low slung suburban office blocks surrounded by a sea of parking.  Then I drove by house after cookie cutter house that was ‘traditional’ (vinyl siding, maybe some faux brick thrown in, asphalt shingles).  If I had continued south I would have hit mega-block after mega-block of strip malls and (now mostly vacant) car sales lots.

Suddenly the ‘horrible built form outcomes’ in Sydney aren’t looking so bad.  At least there is some attempt at different facade treatments, truth in building materials (buildings that look like the are made of brick generally actually are!) and some commitment to providing a good public domain.

But Sydney and Kansas City are two very different beasts, in scale, features and in economy.

Sydney’s property market seems to be perpetually hot, particularly in the inner suburbs, near the harbour, and along the coast.  Lots of people want to live all in the same place, so land values are going up and density is increasing.  Sydney’s natural features also serve as a barrier to growth, with mountains to the west, national parks to the north and south, and protected habitat and species all along the fringes.  In Sydney, the state government drives strategic planning of the city’s growth, (hopefully) ensuring that there is a coordinated vision for how the city will grow, backed up by research to support it.

Kansas City on the other hand has no real ‘magnet’ to draw people to one location and has a plethora of land for expansion.  Even its downtown is pretty weakened by the ‘edge city’ suburban commercial development that (in theory) allows people to work where they live (as long as they move to where they happen to be able to get a job and never change jobs).  With nothing to draw people to want to be in one location, Kansas City keeps expanding outwards, and the cities keep zoning more and more land for commercial and residential development.  Each city in the metro area tries to grab the most land as well as the most retail and commercial uses, in order to increase revenue.  The result is an oversupply of commercial and retail zoned land (and probably residential as well) that has no real basis on the current and future demand for those uses.

I’m not trying to say that there aren’t any nice parts of Kansas City, because there are, or that Sydney doesn’t have any ugly parts, because there definitely are, it’s just that it’s interesting how my perspective has changed based on my surroundings.

It also highlights that maybe I need to stop being so pessimistic.  Ok Carolyn, next post- positive Kansas City!

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2 thoughts on “It’s All About Perspective

  1. I’ve never understood arguments about why Sydney’s so bounded. I’m just checking a sattelite map again and within the mountains and national parks area almost 50% is almost rural (fields, open grass etc) and another 25% is suburban of the suuuper spread out variety. And besides, the boundary area is huge, probably bigger than dozens of cities with 10M+. I think there’s plenty of room for expansion especially given that many other cities have a density similar to the eastern suburbs going all the way out.

    Of course there are some other things holding it back like cultural factors, no infrastructure and a state government that can’t tell between certain joints and certain orifices.

    • There is definitely a ton of room for Sydney to continue to develop in within what is already identified as the metro area (including rural land), but the ability for Sydney to continue to sprawl outward at a low density is limited.

      Sydney has the same land area as Kansas City, with more than twice the population. So if Sydney was like Kansas City, in that it had ample room to keep spreading and no real magnets of amenity, the land area of Sydney would be twice what it is now.

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