2 December 2010 – The federal government yesterday released the most important document in national urban planning since the Whitlam years – a discussion paper on options for how to manage growth and sustainability for Australia’s biggest urban centres.

The paper met with widespread approval from much of the mainstream development industry but might be set for some serious kickback from the residential land development lobby for its stance against greenfield development, for instance.

There might even be opposition from the new Victorian Government following controversial comments by incoming premier Ted Baillieu that his government would immediately release more greenfields land for housing and move against higher density development along the transport corridors.

The discussion paper, Our Cities – building a productive, sustainable and liveable future is open for comments and feedback, until 1 March next year.

Download the whole document here

Minister for Infrastructure and Transport, Anthony Albanese, said in introducing the paper, that new policy would focus on 18 major cities and how they will manage the challenges of growth and climate change.

“This means that we need to focus on better design and management of urban systems to reduce the economic and environmental costs of current urban models.

“This includes providing real alternatives in transport to reduce our dependence on private motor vehicles. Greater diversity of lifestyle choices, improved accessibility and affordability, and less carbon dependent ways of living need to be considered and adopted.”

The Planning Institute of Australia said the federal government’s move signalled a renewed interest in Australian cities from the federal government.

“PIA commends the government in taking this important step in taking a more integrated approach in planning for the future of our cities,” PIA president Neil Savery said.

Green Building Council of Australia’s chief executive, Romilly Madew, said the discussion paper was an important step towards a national urban policy, which delivers an integrated approach to planning, building, improving and measuring the performance of our cities.

“The discussion paper outlines the Australian Government’s aspirations under the themes of productivity, sustainability and liveability, and recognises the importance of good planning and governance,” Ms Madew said.

“These aspirations align well with the GBCA’s five principles for sustainable communities – of liveability, economic prosperity, environmental responsibility, design excellence and governance, which were released earlier this year as part of the Green Star – Communities project.”

Ms Madew, who is also chair of the Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council, told The Fifth Estate today that it was crucial that policies for cities integrate policies for sustainable buildings.

At the present, she said, there seemed to be a “disconnect” between the two areas of the built environment, as if policy makers “don’t realise that cities are made up of buildings.”

The Australian Institute of Architects chief executive officer David Parken and Ms Madew were currently working on behalf of ASBEC to develop a policy paper along these lines.

“ASBEC has just held a big workshop around developing metrics for cities to measure and report on progress.

“At the moment we’ve got a national urban policy and we’ve got COAG’s reform agenda, but the missing piece is the ability of cities to be able to scenario plan and set targets.”

Ms Madew said such work might reference the set of metrics used by New York in its plaNYC.

It would potentially include categories such as workforce participation and sustainability with the sustainability category including metrics on sub categories such as energy, water and waste.

The Property Council of Australia’s chief executive officer, Peter Verwer, applauded the government for “committing itself to a national role in urban affairs.”

“Our cities require national leadership and a coordinated approach from all levels of government if we are to truly create more productive, sustainable and liveable cities,” Mr Verwer said.

“Cities are a key part of the nation-building agenda because the performance of our cities is vital to the performance of our economy and our future prosperity.

“We need a long-term plan to manage future growth and a National Urban Policy can be a key reform that boosts economic and employment growth over the decades ahead.”

Unhappy land developers

The NSW Urban Taskforce, however, was unhappy with the discussion paper’s clear bias against green development as unsustainable and inefficient.

In the chapter on liveability, the paper says: “The patterns of urban development that characterised Australian cities for the latter half of the 20th Century—of expanding low density ‘greenfield’ suburbs of detached houses accessed mostly by car—are no longer considered environmentally sustainable, do not meet the needs and preferences of all Australian households, and economically are not the best use of scarce resources such as land and water.”

Chief executive office of the Urban Task Force, Aaron Gadiel, said: “Labelling new suburban development as ‘unsustainable’ is entirely unwarranted.

“It’s tantamount to an official denunciation of the everyday lifestyle of millions of Australians.”

Mr Gadiel was also unhappy about the focus on land for growing food near Sydney because Sydney already sourced most of its food from other areas.

“Agricultural land adjacent to major urban areas makes up less than 3 per cent of land used for agriculture in the five biggest states,” Mr Gadiel said.

“The paper (at page 33) says that ‘the north-west and south-west growth centres of Sydney, for example, contain 52 per cent of Sydney’s vegetable farming properties…”

Mr Gadiel said these figures overlooked the fact that 85 per cent of Sydney’s vegetable consumption is supplied from outside the Sydney region.