Category Archives: Urban policy

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.

 

Urban inspiration at Bike Tank

Collaborative inspiration at Bike Tank (photo: Mal Booth)

It’s a precious gift to feel supremely energised and inspired at 9am on a Tuesday morning. And that’s the gift the innovative Bike Tank – “a think tank that you cycle to” brought to me and no doubt quite a few other Sydney-siders this sunny spring morning.

Wandering into the workshop in the big, fab old Chippendale warehouse was like wandering into a little slice of Berlin or Amsterdam – Sydney style. We have u.lab to thank for Bike Tank: that’s Joanne Jakovich, Jochen Schweitzer, Julie Jupp, Wayne Brookes and Nathan Kirchner.

The concept is this:

BikeTank is a weekly intensive workshop where we play with new design thinking methods for cities. Each Tuesday morning (8-9am) is an intensive exploration into a defined topic hosted by emerging design entrepreneurs and leading thinkers, contributing to a bigger picture project. You can have some coffee and pastries and even get your bike tyres pumped and swap bike stories.

This morning’s Tank was all about humanising urban design processes. First we heard from Ben Hewett, South Australia’s Government Architect and Director of http://5000plus.net.au/ – an exciting inner Adelaide urban renewal initiative based on principles of collaborative inquiry and integrated design.

Then off we all went with our hand-crafted “thinking caps” on (’twas a joy to behold some of those whacky contraptions!) and workshopped a series of urban problems. These included how to create flexible student housing with more spaces for social interaction, to break down the isolation often experienced by international students. Another looked at building better social and physical infrastructure for apartment-dwellers to connect with each other and share their lives.

Re-imagining urban interaction (photo: Mal Booth)

It was a creative process, which challenged the brain cells while being fun, tactile and very hands-on. A short burst of collaborative learning fueled by excellent coffee and pastries.

Tackling public transport challenges at last week’s Bike Tank (photo: Mal Booth)

Well done u.lab for a great concept that brings together students, architects, urban designers, engineers and creative thinkers of all persuasions. I think we all learnt a great deal from each other this morning and I can’t wait for the fourth Bike Tank in a couple of week’s time.

 

100 days on… where’s the vision Minister?

Planning Minister Brad Hazzard’s first 100 days in office have been an eventful time for the planning and development sector.

The State Department has seen a merger of plannning and infrastructure functions and a renaming along those lines. Major legislative instruments have been overturned or dramatically amended. Arguably the most high profile (and controversial) of which is the former Part 3A of the Environmental Planning & Assessment Act 1979 (EP&A Act), which governed developments deemed to be of state significance, effectively shifting them out of local councils hands.

Second only to Part 3A has been the overhaul of the state planning policy governing the development of affordable rental housing. This too has affected a shift in the balance of power in decision-making back to local councils.

Next on the cards, we are told, is a revised Part 3A, a new affordable housing policy, and a whole new legislative instrument governing planning across the state, with the rewrite of the EP&A Act.

The Minister wasted no time in introducing these procedural changes, on the back of firm election promises. Playing out in the background are headlines associated with the former government’s apparent misuse of power and procedural loopholes. There are the corruption allegations levelled against the former planning minister and senior bureaucrats in relation to procedures for the purchase of prime riverside land – the now infamous Currawong former Union retreat at Pittwater.

Major developments such as the proposed $1.5bn, 7,500-home Huntlee scheme near Branxton are also being hamstrung by the legislative changes, leaving the development consortium with no option but to go back to the drawing board. Such forced retreats to the drawing board by developers are happening across the sector.

But the minister’s strong message to Urban Development Institute of Australia (UDIA), when he addressed the NSW Chapter recently, is that “NSW is open for business.”  That his government is intent on overturning the bureaucratic obstacles to development that have branded the state a difficult place to do business. (It’s hard to see how returning more power to local councils will achieve that… but that’s for another time).

But amidst these procedural reshuffles and kerfuffles, the Minister’s policy stance on critical issues of the day, such as urban renewal, affordable housing, densification, greenfield land release, and social and environmental sustainability, remains shrouded in mystery.

It’s great to see moves towards better integration of planning and infrastructure functions. But where does this government stand on the urban densificiation versus managed urban sprawl debate? What are the Minister’s views on Sydney’s growing housing affordability crisis, and the market failure which is resulting in first time buyers increasingly being pipped at the post by investors?

Of course, planning and development professionals will warmly welcome the replacement of the three decades-old legislation under which we are currently operating.  But without proper understanding of the policy platforms upon which a new instrument will be based, the path ahead remains cloudy and uncertain.

Let’s hear more about policy and less about procedure, Mister Hazzard. Where’s your inspirational vision for our state’s future development?

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.

Gentrification, place and value

‘The deep association that people have for place constitutes a vital source of both individual and cultural identity and security and acts as a point from which humans can orientate themselves in the world.”

(Relph, E., 1981, The Modern Urban Landscape, p.27)

Urbanisation.  Historically the product of the industrial revolution and the associated mass in-migration of the “working classes,” today we are facing the re-urbanisation of our cities and all its impacts – positive and negative.

Among urban sustainability professionals, the benefits of urban living in our comparatively wealthy western world need little explanation. Walkable neighbourhoods; reduced car dependency; higher density living and smaller homes, with their associated reduced ecological footprint; opportunities for increased localised social interaction facilitated by communal rather than private open spaces.

Our cities are places of vitality, dynamism, creativity, diversity.

Diversity. It is this word that leads us to reflect on the issue of gentrification and its impacts, currently so heavily debated in cities like Sydney.

Just last week the Sydney Morning Herald ran an article highlighting the pace of gentrification in Sydney’s inner suburbs. The local government areas of Marrickville and Randwick were the most rapidly gentrified areas of Sydney during the decade to 2006.

The article arose from the publication of a new report on gentrification by the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute, Gentrification and Displacement: The Household Impacts of Neighbourhood Change.

The report seeks to quantify the pace of gentrification in Sydney and Melbourne through analysing socio-demographic change characteristics recorded through the Census. These include the growth in the proportion of managers and professionals, high-income households, high-income renters, and people with a bachelor degree or higher. It also looked, conversely, at the decline or negligible growth in low income households and low income private renters. There is little doubt that this year’s Census will reveal more of the same, probably amplified.

As a resident of Newtown (in the LGA to which the report refers), and as an urban planner who wrote my dissertation on the gentrification of this very suburb in 1998, I have a particular interest in this report. My thesis was inspired by the genuine concern that the cultural melting pot that Newtown represented would soon be erased by the pace of gentrification that was gathering back then. That the socio-spiritual meanings woven into its physical fabric would be lost forever.

On my return from a decade living in London, in 2008, I was relieved to see that the Newtown I had loved was fighting on; its culture had not been erased.

So what exactly is the problem of gentrification? The AHURI report highlights issues such as rapidly increasing rents and house prices, associated increased overcrowding in shared houses, and the forced displacement of the neighbourhood’s historic communities – the Greek-Cypriots and Maltese (their children also unable to afford to live in the locality), the “blue collar” families, and more recent populations of low income earning creatives – actors, artists, writers.

The report states: “Those who had been evicted were often deeply angry at their enforced move. Those struggling to stay found themselves impoverished by hikes in their rents, but also feeling no longer at ease in [their] neighbourhoods.”

Over the past two years I have watched the very personal effects of this trend in Newtown. A case in point is the family down the road: the mother who had grown up in the terrace and spent her whole life there, brought up her children in the home and nursed her elderly, terminally ill mother there.  The house was recently sold from under the family’s feet by the absentee brother who inherited it. Unable to afford a home in the neighbourhood or any nearby, the family were homeless as of a week prior to their forced departure to make way for the professional couple moving in. I have no idea where they are now. The AHURI report features interviews with 30 residents who express their “significant sense of loss” at being displaced. This family’s sense of loss and disempowerment was palpable.

One of the interesting issues associated with gentrification is that the gentrifiers often do not perceive themselves as such. They identify rather with the edgy creatives, the students and the other socio-cultural groups whom they are effectively outsting.  They bemoan the impacts of the very trend of which they are a part.

Urban neighbourhoods look set to continue to be subject to these unstoppable economic forces. Yet there are ways in which the socio-cultural qualities of rapidly gentrifying neighbourhoods – and, indeed, their residents – can be protected through policy mechanisms. These may include mandatory affordable housing provision in new developments, the protection of facilities such as low cost artists’ studios, and rent controls, as have been successfully enacted in New York City and other US cities for many years.

Urban and social planning policies will not slow the pace of gentrification. Indeed they more often than not encourage and facilitate it. Gentrification certainly brings benefits – revitalised retail areas, restored and protected historic buildings, infrastructure improvements which become viable due to the increased prosperity of a locality.

But good urban and social planning should also seek to mitigate gentrification’s adverse impacts. This needs to be a strong focus of government policy in Sydney’s inner suburbs, to ensure the social and economic balance sheet is carefully weighted.

This is not about social engineering. It is about ethical urban planning underpinned by principles such as the protection of equality and diversity. It is about recognising the cultural meanings embedded in our urban fabric. As Cresswell states (1996, In Place/ Out of Place: Geography, Ideology and Transgression, pp.8-9):”Value and meaning are not inherited in any space or place. Indeed they must be created, reproduced, and defended.”

Our urban nation

A longtime nation of coastal dwellers, Australia’s population is now one of the most urbanised in the world. It’s all in the numbers.

A total of 16 million Australians (80%) now live in cities and towns, according to Our Cities, the federal government’s urban policy discussion paper, which was published last month. By 2031, the Australian Bureau of Statistics predicts that 20 million of the estimated national population of 28 million will be urbanised.

It looks like most of us will have to get used to living in denser environments, in closer proximity to our neighbours. Our health and happiness will be increasingly dependent on the quality of our housing developments – not least the acoustic insulation.