Leadership and authenticity

Leadership is a great privilege because it opens the gate to the heart’s journey – it provides us with incentive to embark and remain committed to the hero’s quest. In other words, it provides us with the impetus, challenge and support we need to unlock the key to our own wellbeing, fulfilment, and highest potential.”

I came across this quote recently in a book by Margot Cairnes – Approaching the Corporate Heart. While the book’s tone may not appeal to some, it certainly set me thinking about the challenge of authenticity and commitment to an ethical and moral framework in business decision-making.

This is an area in which it’s all to easy to talk the talk, yet at times so challenging to walk the walk. The latter is often far less glamorous, headline-grabbing or profile-raising. Doing the “hard yards” can be costly in the short term, but it has the potential to pay significant dividends over the longer term.

The issue of leadership and authenticity arises on a regular basis in the fields of social planning and social research. Social impact assessment is a case in point. Evaluating and reporting on the potential negative social impacts of a new development, for example, requires a careful approach, particularly when the developer is the client. Stakeholder engagement is another sphere of work which requires thoughtful handling. Reporting back to a client on their stakeholders’ perceptions of their operational effectiveness or company values must grounded in respect for their desire to ask questions and self-reflect in the first place.

In both cases authenticity is paramount. This is all we have to stand by when it comes to the crunch. It is the fundamental basis of our professional reputation. It is also rarely black and white.

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.

Corporate Responsibility – engagement and transparency

A new year is often a time of reflection among businesses on strategic directions and corporate goals. For many firms, sustainability – environmental, social, economic – is fast moving up the agenda.

Raised regulatory standards and consumer expectations are today demanding far more from companies than an annual CSR report and a handful of associated token initiatives. The genuine integration of sustainability within an organisation may require significant organisational change and improved stakeholder engagement.

The Centre for Social Innovation – a partnership between the Universities of New South Wales, Melbourne, Western Australia and the Swinburne University of Technology – has been undertaking research on this shift taking place in the corporate sector in recent years. Researchers Gianni Zappala and Sarah Adams’ 2010 paper, The Integration of Corporate Responsibility: Evidence from leading companies in Australia & New Zealand, considers the level of integration of sustainability principles and practices achieved to date.

The paper defines Corporate Responsibility (CR) as “understanding and minimising a company’s negative impact or footprint on society and a broad range of stakeholders including the planet and environment, its employees, the communities in which it operates and the governments which make the laws.” It utilises data from the Corporate Responsibility Index (CRI) benchmarking tool developed by Business in the Community in the UK in 2002, which is applied annually in Australia and New Zealand by the St James Ethics Centre.

The reseach found that “corporate responsibility is on the whole well integrated into the way that leading companies in Australia and New Zealand are doing business.” However it suggests that firms could improve in four key areas, including ensuring improving CR training at board level and improving the extent and quality of stakeholder engagement.

The following criteria are suggested as a measure of firms that have achieved genuine integration of CR principles:

  • Adopt a holistic conception of corporate responsibility or citizenship;
  • Have board level governance systems to oversee CR policies and practices;
  • Have senior leaders that champion CR internally and externally;
  • Have a range of structures and systems to integrate CR across the business, including risk management systems, stakeholder consultation schemes, sustainability training for managers and employees, establish and monitor key performance indicators for CR, and
  • Have an open and transparent approach to CR information disclosure (eg undertake assurance of their CR reports).

There is no denying the challenge for corporates in moving to greater levels of stakeholder engagement and associated transparency. However in many cases this is a necessary first step on the road to more sustainable, productive and profitable business. Which companies will rise to the challenge in 2011?

Infrastructure for urban animals

Ohlin Studio’s crossing system for a six-lane highway

Our sprawling cities continue to creep into land which was once home to abundant flora and fauna.

One unfortunate impact of this development is the animal fatalities resulting from road networks cutting a swathe through native habitats.

The ARC International Wildlife Crossing Infrastructure Design Competition sought creative solutions to this problem from engineers, ecologists and landscape architects from around the world. They were asked to come up with highway overpass designs for our furry friends. The brief stated:

ARC seeks innovation in feasible, buildable, context-sensitive and compelling design solutions for safe, efficient, cost-effective, and ecologically responsive highway crossings for wildlife. In the broadest context, ARC will challenge competitors to reweave landscapes for wildlife using new methods, new materials, and new thinking. In doing so, the ARC competition aims to raise international awareness of a need to better reconcile human and wildlife mobility through a more creative, flexible and innovative system of road and habitat networks in our landscapes.

The recently announced five shortlisted designs, including Ohlin Studio’s scheme (pictured), are fantastically innovative. It would be great to see some of these stylish, verdant animal bridges built across our Aussie roads.

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.”

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.

Floating pianos and other surreal cityscapes

Last Symphony by Eugene Soloviev

Cityscapes of floating pianos, surreal structures and entranced human beings…

This is the art of Eugene Soloviev, the Russian painter featured in Web Urbanist‘s latest newsletter.

The thought-provoking images may seem a world away. Yet they echo some of today’s edgier concept buildings - Birmingham’s ‘Bullring‘ and Frank Gehry‘s designs for the University of Technology’s Faculty of Business in Sydney.

Architecture can sometimes be the very stuff that dreams are made of…

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.

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.