Why Sydney is a model for the resilient city

Scene of a bay in Sydney with wide boulevard and water in the foreground and sky scrapers in the background
Sydney is focusing on resilience to address future challenges (Image: Jamar Cromwell via Unsplash)

How do cities like Sydney prepare for future shocks? For our Future of Cities programme, we heard why public sector leaders in Australia are focusing on resilience to make a city that works for all.

With 35% of its population born in another country, Sydney is one of the most diverse cities in the world. It’s renowned for its natural environment and outdoor lifestyle.

Yet like London, Sydney faces major challenges in liveability, equity and affordability – and, not least, the climate crisis. London and Greater Sydney also share comparable governance structures, as Greater Sydney has 33 metropolitan councils.

To launch our Future of Cities programme, we organised a virtual field trip to Sydney find out how public sector leaders in Australia are prioritizing resilience to prepare for future challenges and shocks.

A key message from Sydney is that resilience is not just about preparing for shock or adverse events. Making a resilient city requires a long-term approach to building connections and a shared vision across neighbourhoods and communities.

In these times of complex social, economic and environmental challenges, building a resilience strategy across layers of government can be an effective way to convene and galvanise cooperation on otherwise abstract issues or ‘wicked problems’.

During our virtual field trip, presenters and other contributors explained how the Sydney area is meeting these challenges.

Presenters

  • Beck Dawson, Chief Resilience Officer, Resilient Sydney
  • Shayne Mallard, Director, City Future, and Julie Scott, Manager, City Economy, Liverpool City Council, New South Wales
  • Leanne Niblock, Segment Lead – Waterways & Urban Plunge, Sydney Water

Other contributors

  • Kathy Jones, Chair, Engage Communicate Facilitate (ECF), and Chair, Precincts Committee (NSW), Property Council of Australia
  • Nissa Shahid, Associate, Digital Lead, Cities, Planning & Regeneration, Arup
  • Anna Shapiro, Partner, Sheppard Robson
  • Krish Nathaniel, Principal Urban Designer, LB Harrow

Acknowledgement of Country

In Australia, presenters customarily deliver an Acknowledgement of Country at the beginning of events. This acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of the land on which the event takes place (physically or virtually), and pays respect to Elders, past, present and future.

Developing a resilient Sydney

Beck Dawson outlined Sydney’s overarching resilience strategy, first developed in 2015. Resilience is a daily challenge for Sydney. Heat, storms and flooding, and bushfires are the three main climate-based threats.

Our event highlighted two projects in Western Sydney. This area is the hottest part of the city, and there are fewer places for recreation. It’s also the focus for major urban development, so there is an urgent need to make greener, cooler spaces for all.

Resilience is a ‘team sport’

“The day of a disaster is not the day to make a friend. … We need to be experts in how we would respond in a crisis before the event happens.”

Beck Dawson

Beck emphasized that Sydney’s approach to resilience is collaborative and holistic. No one person or organization owns the problem. To target investment, it’s vital to build a deep understanding of connections across different governance arrangements. It’s also essential to find out where the gaps are, and create mechanisms and interventions to respond.

Sydney has made considerable progress in this shared approach: 19 out of 33 councils have now set local resilience targets. Previously councils had varied sets of data; now there is one aligned data platform.

We discussed whether in London resilience as a city-wide, broader strategy is as embedded and prominent as it should be. Extreme heat in summer, for example, has now made the climate emergency a much more immediate concern.

Long-term collaboration and a shared vision

Sydney’s resilience strategy was the first instance of all 33 metropolitan councils working together to respond to long-term climate and other threats. Shayne and Julie reiterated that agreeing a common vision and embedding long-term collaboration have also been fundamental to the formation of the Liverpool Innovation Precinct.

More than a decade ago, Julie noted, “we had a growing health sector and an education sector, but they weren’t talking to each other”. Liverpool City Council supported an ambitious 40-year plan for economic development centred on a new growth precinct dedicated to health, research and education.

This was built on bringing together institutional partners to work together over the long term to attract new jobs and industries, enhancing the area’s economic resilience.

While this process has now resulted in a masterplan for development, it is the time and effort taken to agree a collective direction that has been fundamental to the longevity of the project.

Building a strong mandate with communities, politicians and other stakeholders is also essential when developing a city-wide resilience strategy. This helps to develop a shared vision and help prevent issues during implementation.

Resilience for whom?

Social cohesion is the crucial factor for resilience in cities. Established connections between people and communities are essential for making practical decisions in a crisis.

The Urban Plunge project launched in 2022 by Sydney Water centres on the role that healthy waterways play in social resilience in Sydney and what these spaces mean to their communities. It emerged from a community-based initiative: the Parramatta River Catchment Group’s vision for a swimmable river.

The success of this project, Leanne noted, “has been about taking what is essentially an environmental project but applying a ‘people’ focus”. Improving water quality is a key mission of Sydney Water, but the fact that doing so can allow safe outdoor swimming in nature is what resonates most with local people.

Tapping into what means most to local communities can be pivotal in unlocking the case for funding and making positive change happen. London’s placemakers should focus on this to embrace and promote different uses of our green and blue spaces (such as the river Thames).

The importance of good governance and partnerships

The role of Sydney Water (a state-owned corporation) has expanded from being a utilities organization to one that also leads the coordination of local groups, councils state government agencies and other organisations to improve specific catchments.

The Urban Plunge programme helps councils navigate the often-complex process of opening new outdoor swim sites in local waterways. In the same way the Liverpool Innovation Precinct is underpinned by long-term partnerships between the council and local institutions.

The Resilient Sydney programme acts as facilitator and support for the implementation of resilience policies locally. At the same time it provides accountability, evidence and data back up to the state government.

These examples show how public sector organisations can be a key convening or facilitating mechanism in managing and negotiating wider strategies for resilience across a neighbourhood or city. They can also ensure that these are as inclusive as possible. Again, this was a key message for London.

Key takeaways for building resilience in London

  • Raise resilience further up the urban agenda and in public discourse.
  • Widen the definition of resilience to ensure social and economic aspects are as prominent as environmental and emergency ones.
  • Make sure that you build partnerships and connections across different sectors so that a shared vision can be implemented.

Our new Future of Cities research programme looks for inspiration beyond London and asks how built environment professionals can future-proof their projects. Look out for more events by signing up to our newsletter. If you have an idea for a theme you’d like us to focus on next, please email Sarah.

Future of Cities is supported by Arup and Sheppard Robson.