Category Archives: New developments

New developments and what they are like – what social and urban planning qualities do they have?

Social sustainability: a framework for design integration

Framework for socially sustainable design – the Young Foundation (2011)

Social sustainability has long suffered from perceptions of it being  a somewhat “fluffy” addendum to urban design and masterplanning processes. So it is heartening to see a growing recognition of the positive impact of rigorous and systematic social planning and social impact assessment processes in the development of our urban environments. After all, what are successful places without people?

In this context, I’m excited about the publication of an excellent new report by the UK-based Young Foundation.

Design for Social Sustainability proposes a “framework for creating thriving new communities.” The esteemed Sir Peter Hall introduces the paper with references to the social cohesion questions that arose out of the recent London riots. He in part attributes this to the problematic aspects of environmentally-expressed social divides – an issue which is increasingly prescient in Sydney’s urban landscape. Social planning does not purport to solve such issues. But effective planning requires us to be fully conscious of them, if we are to enable the creation of communities that will endure – and indeed thrive – for generations to come.

The framework proposed through the Foundation’s report (pictured) offers some excellent food for thought for planners, social planners, urban designers, architects, approvals bodies and all those in professions whose work will directly impact on the liveability of our urban environments. This paper is well worth a close read.

 

Earthships are coming to Oz

Earthship HQ in Taos, New Mexico – the concept is readily adaptable to the Australian climate

 

Earthships are really quite something.

The concept grew from the desert of New Mexico, where then-architect (now “biotect”) Michael Reynolds began experimenting with “radically sustainable” architecture. It’s radical in that it is entirely self-sustaining, including grey and black water reuse, which nourishes plant life of sufficient quantity to feed the household.

Without going to deeply into the technology behind it, these beautiful buildings – which are created largely from recycled materials, including tyres and bottles, and powered by the sun and wind – are now well established.

Earthship Biotecture has taken the concept to disaster zones, including through the Earthship Haiti project, where local populations learn to build the Earthships and are given blueprints for adopting techniques locally.

A Global Model Earthship has been developed: concept plans are readily available online and adaptable for almost any climate. And there are wonderful concept plans of a large-scale Earthship community – a self-sustaining mini-city.

These are now being built worldwide, including in China (a multi-storey model), Brighton in England, and there’s even a tower model ready to roll in New York City. They are notably passing local building codes in every country.

Earthship interior greenhouse design

Michael Reynolds has recently been on a speaking tour of Australia and he’s bringing the concept to fertile ground. The Sydney event, hosted by Milkwood Permaculture, was a sell-out. The potential for these to be built in Australia’s remote, climatically-challenged communities is wonderfully apparent.

Reynolds’ inspirational message is far more than environmental sustainability – although it is exceptionally, impressively, that.

These buildings are intended to be affordable for everyone. Homes can be built from $10K upwards. And for those who cannot afford the land on which to build, there is the EVE initiative – a self-sustaining community where people can lease earthships for $100 per week.

Reynolds’ message, the earthship message, is environmental, social, political.

What would it mean, he asks, for people to be able to live in entirely self-sustaining houses, which do not rely on connections to the infrastructure grid, and can be affordable enough that people don’t require a lifelong mortgage?

Earthships effectively enable people to become largely independent of prevailing political and economic conditions.

These creations have been fine tuned for the last 40 years, and it certainly feels as though their time has come.

McMansion mash-up

An inspiring story which has come about through Taronga Zoo’s Green Grants program… it goes something like this:

Step one: Take one McMansion

Step two: Deconstruct it

Step three: Reuse the building materials to build a bunch of smaller, eco-friendly homes on the site.

This wonderful Reincarnated McMansion concept by architect and artist Mathieu Gallois is shortlisted to win the $50K prize in Taronga Zoo’s Green Grants initiative. It was one of 209 entries in the scheme, which focused on “reducing pollution and waste, guiding consumerism to socially and environmentally responsible products, providing local habitat for important Australian species and developing monitoring mechanisms for environmental action and progress.”

For those unfamiliar with the term, “McMansion” has become common parlance for those oversized Aussie homes (now the largest in the world, on average, in square metre terms)the ones built to a single, primary specification: cram as much floorspace onto the site as is humanly possible. Needless to say many of these ginormous edifices are obscenely under-occupied.

I use the term obscene because Sydney – among other Australian cities – is currently facing a chronic housing shortage and associated affordability crisis. The proliferation of McMansions is a symptom of poorly managed urban growth. This has a range of detrimental social impacts, not least among them the ever increasing journey-to-work times faced by those who are forced to the urban fringe in a bid to find affordable housing.

But the question of the social and economic drivers for this trend, and its associated impacts, is best left for another time.

The key question for Mr Gallois is the environmental effects of McMansions. The Reincarnated McMansion concept is a brilliant way to raise awareness of the ecological footprint of these elephant-homes, and to create something positive in the process.

All Mr Gallois needs now is someone to donate a suitable home and the funds to finance the rebuild of a low carbon, medium density scheme on the site. Any volunteers with a spare supersized home should contact Mr Gallois at reincarnatedmcmansion@gmail.com.

Power to the people? Balancing state significant development and localised community interests

As the state of New South Wales looks forward to a change of government on March 26, one question on the lips of those working in the development sector is what the incumbents plan to do about Part 3A of the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act 1979.Introduced in 2005 by former planning minister Craig Knowles, Part 3A applies to projects deemed of economic, environmental or social significance to the state. It enables decisions on major projects to be made by the state planning minister, thereby taking them out of the hands of traditional local government decision-makers and their communities.

In the government’s words (PDF): “The aim is to facilitate major project and infrastructure delivery and encourage economic development, while strengthening environmental safeguards and community participation.”

An opposing view, expounded by the Environmental Defender’s Office in their paper on the issue, entitled Technocratic Decision-Making and the Loss of Community Participation Rights:

“Increasingly, however, the NSW Government is moving away from the recognition that local communities have relevant expertise and interests in planning outcomes; that decision-makers sometimes get it wrong; and that preservation of the environment sometimes outweighs the importance of economic growth. The introduction of Part 3A by the Environmental Planning and Assessment Amendment (Infrastructure and Other Planning Reform) Act 2005 reflects the philosophy that “Government knows best” and the idea that planning decisions are technical matters that do not gain from substantial community involvement.”

There is a balance to be sought in relation to major infrastructure development. Few will deny the powerful force of NIMBYISM (Not-In-My-Backyard-ism) in hampering critical development, and the associated imbalance between development outcomes which are beneficial to the few, rather than in the wider public interest.  Conversely, communities feel threatened by a mechanism which appears to bypass local democratic interests.

In support of Part 3A, there are clear benefits in providing for development to be determined by a single higher authority in the case of major schemes that often cut across a number of local government areas, each with their own political agenda and localised interests.  Major successful regeneration schemes in Sydney, such as in Darling Harbour and Ultimo-Pyrmont, could not have been achieved through traditional local planning channels. In those cases, development authorities were specifically created for the task.

It is unlikely that the incumbent government will give up a mechanism which provides it with the power to achieve significant scale development without getting bogged down in local politics.

The solution is likely to be a fresh mechanism for major development. The Urban Development Institute of Australia, through its Let’s Build a Better NSW election campaign, is lobbying for a mechanism which allows for state significant development to be determined at the state government level, but through the Planning and Assessment Commission, rather than by the minister.

The stigma around the current system raises important questions about the level of influence local communities have in decision-making around major infrastructure and other projects. Local democratic processes are fundamental to our society. Yet ultimately, we elect our state governments to act in the wider public interest, sometimes at the expense of localised community interests.

 

Visionary decision-making = outcome over process

Having spent the last few years working primarily at the level of strategic policy-making and analysis, I’ve lately also been going back to my professional roots through some projects at the urban planning “coalface,” if you will. Affordable housing delivery is a core focus of this work, as well as a deep passion of mine. Living in London and then in Sydney - now two of the least affordable cities in the world – this focus looks set to continue.

I’m working with a number of developers producing schemes under the Affordable Rental Housing State Environmental Planning Policy (SEPP), which was introduced in New South Wales in 2009. In seeing how the policy translates on the ground, the fundamental disconnect between process and outcome in our planning system has become increasingly apparent.

The complexity and bureaucracy of the system is not news to anyone in the development sector. It’s an ongoing source of disappointment and frustration that the best intentions are often reduced to the worst outcomes on the ground, due to the system’s multilayered regulatory frameworks.

To give one example: I was recently party to local planning officers threatening to refuse development consent to an affordable housing scheme, due to its failure to provide 6m setbacks from side boundaries on a 15m wide site. A child of seven could do the maths on that one.

The proposal is excellent in every respect. The developer and architect are both strongly committed to providing high quality affordable housing on a narrow urban infill site in an area of strong demonstrated demand. Clearly, rigorous adherence to regulations when their application is unreasonable, nonsensical or downright impossible, can never result in good outcomes.

It is a truism in any sphere – personal, professional or political – that decision-making frameworks weighted too heavily in favour of process over outcome stifle creative invention. In the property sector, this situation impacts our urban fabric by resulting in developments which tick all the boxes, yet fail spectacularly to inspire.

It takes courage and confidence to make decisions on the basis of outcome over process. We need to recognise the profound potential of simpler systems, implemented intelligently, thoughtfully and ethically.

Future proofing the new UTS library

Sydney’s University of Technology is about to undergo an exciting transformation.

With Frank Gehry on board as the starchitect of the new Faculty of Business, the process is underway to design a new high tech library, among other facilities.

Speaking with one of the staff who is instrumental in the library design process, the conversation turned to the challenge of future proofing community facilities which are being developed today. How can we begin to conceptualise how technology will transform our buildings, our urban environments, even in ten years’ time?

Along with applying flexible, adaptable, universal design principles to the process, UTS has engaged Gen Y-ers to talk about their hopes and dreams for the campus of their future. The university is conducting qualitative research with early high school students, questioning them about the kind of buildings and facilities in which they would like to study when they are older.

This is a smart approach which demonstrates the university’s willingness to learn from younger generations and its commitment to its future student population.

Genuine, open-minded engagement is one of the cornerstones of true social sustainability.  It’s great when that is recognised by established institutions.

Environmental standards waived in UK housing drive

The UK government’s regeneration agency, the Homes and Communities Agency, allowed developers to avoid compliance with new environmental standards in a bid to increase housebuilding activity.

The news, revealed by Inside Housing magazine, shows that major developers were permitted to ignore the UK’s Code for Sustainable Homes for up to 86% of the 500-plus homes they developed under the former Labor Government’s regeneration push. This is despite grant funding to developers being officially dependent on compliance with Code level three.

Whilst the HCA has defended the exemptions as being justified for ‘specific reasons,’ the news is disappointing.

In difficult economic times (and the severe ongoing impact of the GFC on the UK housebuilding industry is fully acknowledged) short termism often becomes the order of the day. New sustainable development standards have unsurprisingly been a casualty.

But what is particularly disappointing is the fact that government failed to defend the very standards it claims to uphold. The costs of constructing to lesser standards will have be borne in the future, through increased maintenance and running costs. Not a good outcome for the social housing sector and those who depend on it.

Delfin Lend Lease’s Nelsons Ridge – a class act

Homes are nestled in high quality landscaping

Just back from a site visit at Delfin Lend Lease’s Nelsons Ridge in Pemulwuy in Sydney’s west.  Very impressed.

The scheme features excellent urban design; high quality architecture from housing developers Cosmopolitan and Axis; riverside walking and cycle paths, and an abundance of recreational open space and native vegetation.

The masterplanning of the scheme - including detached houses, attached townhouses and apartments – is designed to take advantage of the natural landscape, with its attractive rolling hills. It is an oasis in a locality characterised by typically low density housing and the oversized homes for which Australia is now infamous.

Thoughtful architecture and streetscape design

Delfin and partners have incorporated much of the infrastructure required to support a socially sustainable community.

Now if only there was a railway station nearby…

Sadly, despite the best intentions of developers in striving to create liveable communities, there remains a gaping hole in place of high quality public transport infrastructure in Sydney’s western suburbs.

Living Memory – public art as social history

Frasers Property’s landmark Central Park development is starting to take shape in Sydney’s inner suburb of Chippendale.  The scheme’s extensive public parkland is scheduled to open in mid-2011 and I’m particularly excited about Jean Nouvel’s stunning design for the central building, which is to rise from the rubble of the old brickworks, replete with “vertical hanging gardens.”

Frasers has recently announced its Artists In Residence (A.I.R.) public art project, which will be located at the site of the old brewery yard buildings and brick stack from March 2011.  Artists’ juicy brief for the A.I.R. initiative, from art advisor Michaelie Crawford, was to reflect “the history, fluids, processes and intoxications of the site’s brewing past.”

Living Memory by Andrew Brook

Artist Brook Andrew’s response, entitled Living Memory, will see large scale 3m high black and white portraits of some of the locality’s former residents adorn the old brewery building.

Brook’s evocation of Chippendale’s former resident labourers will offer a poignant reminder of the gathering pace of gentrification and social change in Sydney’s inner west.