Back to the Future: Sydney’s Visionary 1948 Cumberland Plan?

All strategy requires making judgements about the future, and then developing a plan to realise that future. 
There is arguably no more impactful strategy than planning the future of a major city, and this work is happening right now to shape the future of Sydney.   This is not the first time this has been attempted.   The 1948 Cumberland plan aspired to create a very different vision of Sydney, so what worked and what went wrong?

The Cumberland Plan was a land use and transport strategy developed in 1948 and adopted by the NSW Government in 1951. The plan proposed a green belt around Sydney, connecting the Hawkesbury in the North with the Royal National Park in the South via Prospect in the West. The growing city was to be connected by a radial motorway network, with 5 radial routes from the CBD and a ring road roughly aligned along today’s A3.

This looks like a great concept for growing a city – so what happened? The core elements of the plan were abandoned largely due to failures of governance around land use, which are familiar today. The NSW Government Agencies, councils and land owners in the green belt preferred to subdivide and develop the vacant land, while the residents of the inner council areas preferred not to allow high density development. Added to this, the NSW Government largely did not or could not build the infrastructure required, so that by 1971 only isolated sections were complete (such as the Western Distributor & Taren Point Bridge). The Plan did ensure corridors were reserved, providing property owners with certainty about future infrastructure.

The County of Cumberland Council itself was abolished in 1963. The Wran ALP Government then effectively abandoned the plan in 1977, faced with inner-city opposition to motorway projects and a deteriorating financial situation, by eliminating many of the Cumberland Plan’s inner-city road reservations.

The actual Motorway Development by 2017, compared with the Cumberland plan, is a striking view of planning success and failure.

Three of the motorways built, (M1, M4 and F6 south of Sydney), do not connect with the network, tipping vehicles into predictably congested residential areas, such as Parramatta Road. The M2, M7, M5, Eastern Distributor and Gorehill freeway do form a loop connecting the CBD and outer suburbs, but do not bypass the CBD, leading to frequent congestion around the CBD.

The planned roads (Westconnex, Northconnex, Beaches link and possibly the F6) would largely complete the planned inner radial ring though on different alignments. The cost of these roads is now significantly higher as they will need extensive tunnelling, which is about 10 times the cost of building surface roads. Even the F6, which largely retained its land corridor, faces local pressure to go underground to retain scarce green space.

The unbuilt roads (A3 inner ring road, Eastern suburbs, Northshore and Inner West links) straddle areas with the most congested roads in Sydney. For example, Centenary Drive and Homebush Bay Drive were found to have 77% and 63% travel time delays in our recent Austroads Review.

Various lessons can be drawn from the demise of the Cumberland Plan.

  • Planning is Highly Cost Effective. Regardless of whether the plan is 100% agreed and delivered, having a plan is much better than not having one. Some of the key built elements, such as the Western Distributor and Taren Point Bridge were beneficial as unlinked elements and would be expensive if not impossible to replicate today.
  • Land Reservation is Critical. Similarly, the land reservations for the M4, M5 and future F6 greatly reduced the cost of building the infrastructure, and eventually allow alternative land use such as high density residential around key junctions. If the unbuilt roads in the Eastern Suburbs and Northshore had retained their road corridors, these roads could now be used for light rail or metro public transport. Such corridor re-use was the key to the Manchester Metrolink project, albeit by re-using abandoned heavy rail corridors.
  • Topography Wins. The reason the Cumberland Plan has been built or is sorely missed is that the topography of Sydney has largely dictated where the roads need to be. The Sydney CBD needs at least 3 radial roads; Sydney needs links to the Western Plains, Newcastle and Canberra; Port Botany and Sydney Airport are key gateways for freight and travellers; North/South links are needed to bypass the CBD; the beaches and waterways are densely populated, but the hardest to build places to build roads.
  • Transport and Land Use must be Integrated. The Cumberland Plan rightly assumed that car ownership would rapidly become ubiquitous, but did not foresee the accompanying congestion (like Los Angeles). The resulting land use choices would, however, still have facilitated mass transit systems in the transport corridors by concentrating jobs around junctions such as the Homebush / M4 / A3 zone. High density residential suburbs in Liverpool, Penrith and Parramatta, surrounded by greenspace could have been more liveable small cities than today’s sprawling suburbs.

Today’s transport strategists in TfNSW, The Greater Sydney Commission, Infrastructure NSW and Infrastructure Australia are creating plans and projects that our children and grandchildren will no doubt look back on with a critical eye. Their work will largely determine whether Sydney continues to prosper as a global city, and we can only hope that they do their work well and that it is not undone again by short term political populism and opportunism.

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” George Santayana

“The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.” Chinese proverb


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