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Up until 1787 Warrane was an important food source for about 30 clans. In 1788, part of the area occupied by the Cadigal was suddenly called ‘Sydney Cove’ instead of Warrane. Suddenly more than a thousand people (accounts vary) had to be fed and housed and subdued in this area. By 1860 – only a lifespan of 72 years later – there were 95,789 people in Sydney, and it provided everything from grand houses to workers’ cottages to slums. The housing and population booms of the next two decades brought the population up to 224,939 in 1880, a figure which itself was nearly doubled by 1890 to 383,283 and ‘Sydney’ covered an area of more than ‘150 square miles’.[i]

‘Sydney’, as defined by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (the Sydney Statistical Division), spreads from the east coast to Blackheath and Mt Victoria in the west, Bargo in the south and the bottom of Lake Macquarie in the north.[ii]It covers an area of over 12,000 square kilometres and has a population of just over 5 million – nearly two-thirds of the population in 1.5% of the area of NSW.[iii]

Various schemes have tried to impose order on this expansion. The first governor, Governor Philip, devised a plan for the town, specifying the size of the allotments and streets, even protecting the environs of the Tank Stream by a band of 15 metres on either side that was not to be used for tree-cutting or cattle-grazing. When Philip left in 1792 his plans and orders lost their potency, setting the pattern for ideals with short lives.

Marjorie Barnard described Sydney in 1947 as a creation of profiteering and ostentation.

Macquarie’s was the last effort to plan Sydney. After him it just grew. It accumulated amenities and swelled to the idea of progress. Profiteering and ostentation left their marks indelible and heavy on the material fabric of the city. The well-to-do and worthy citizens – it was overwhelmingly their city – made no concessions to geography or climate. They built a city in the spirit of no surrender.[iv]

Mrs Charles Meredith, travelling with her husband in 1839, noted the ‘spirit of no surrender’, as well as the ‘ostentation’: “I never saw any native fish at a Sydney dinner-table – the preserved or cured cod and salmon from England being served instead, at a considerable expense, and, to my taste, it is not comparable with the cheap fresh fish, but being expensive, it has become ‘fashionable’, and that circumstance reconciles all things.”[v]

But Macquarie’s wasn’t the last to attempt to plan Sydney. After over a hundred years of private developers, a Royal Commission for the Improvement of Sydney and Its Suburbsin 1909 produced recommendations for improvements to roads, public transport, slums, children’s playgrounds and building regulations. Private individuals in the 1910s lobbied to improve life for the masses through improved public health, housing, transport and civic design. ‘City beautiful’ ideas and reforms in cities in Europe and America inspired developments around Australia, with soldier repatriation after WW1 becoming a major theme of town planning.

In 1946 a new body, theCumberland County Council, was set up.The 1948 Cumberland County Council planbecame state policy in 1951, but the push from land developers, keen to cash in on the attraction of suburban living and the new goals of consumerism, and the state government’s own Housing Commission, saw encroachments on the ‘green belts’. Cars and highways were favoured over public transport, suburbs over decentralisation.

Plans for Sydney have proliferated since: in 1968, Sydney Region Outline Plan, in 1988, Sydney into Its Third Century, in 1995,Cities for the 21stCentury, in 1997, A Framework for Growth and Change.[vi]In 2010 it was Investing in a Better Future, which had a certain hopeful ring about it, but in March 2018 the Dickensian-sounding A Metropolis of Three Citieswas launched. ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness …’


[i]Ashton, P & Waterson, D. Sydney takes shape: a history in maps. Hema Maps, 2000, p78

[ii]http://www.ausstats.abs.gov.au/ausstats/nrpmaps.nsf/NEW+GmapPages/national+regional+profile?opendocumentviewed 26/4/18


[iv]The Sydney Book. Written by Marjorie Barnard, drawings by Sydney Ure Smith. Ure Smith, 1947, p22.

[v]Mrs Charles Meredith, Notes and Sketches of New South Wales. First published by John Murray 1844. Facsimile edition Penguin Books 1973. P43.

[vi]The Australian metropolis: a planning history. S Hamnett and R Freestone (eds). Allen & Unwin, 2000.