23 June 2011 – It is time to overhaul the way we plan cities so that social equity and community wellbeing, rather than economic growth, is the driving force behind planning decisions. That was a key message from speakers at Landcom’s DiverseCity conference, held in Sydney recently.

Keynote speaker, sociologist Eva Cox, told delegates the economics-based planning model was making societies sick – literally. It should be replaced with one based on social equity and it could be funded by superannuation funds if they updated their investment criteria to include social benefits.

Describing herself as an unabashed feminist and political activist, Eva Cox is a passionate advocate for inclusive, diverse and equitable ways of living together. She wants to see a new model for discussing urban development, one that is not centred on economics.

“We’ve got to change how we have these discussions – they are always from an economic viewpoint rather than that of social diversity. Economics is a very inadequate discipline,” Cox said.

Superannuation funds also need to be less rigid with their investment model.

“Pension funds say they can’t do things that are socially useful because they have to maximise their financial returns for their members. Perhaps they need to rewrite their trust guidelines to say ‘optimise returns’.”

And it is not just the poor who suffer from an inequitable society, said Cox. Those at the very top of the wealth ladder also do badly in terms of health and happiness.

Eva Cox at DiverseCity: “inquity is toxic”

Inequity itself is toxic. It is not a problem if we see it as fair but as soon as there is unfair inequity those that are excluded resent it and crime rates go up, while those who aren’t excluded feel uncomfortable,” said Cox.

A major social determinant of health and wellbeing is how much control a person has in their life, says Cox, and unfair inequality mitigates against control.

“When a person feels they have no control they will either opt out through drugs or alcohol or they become transgressive, or they just won’t co-operate.”

An example of this is the intervention scheme introduced by the Howard government where Aboriginal communities have their incomes managed.

“Aborigines are great contributors to many things in our culture – even our humour, which we think of as Australian is very much based on the Aboriginal sense of humour. We don’t respect enough about their culture to work with them and they do feel excluded.

“We’ve got to take seriously the need to incorporate equity and fairness into planning. Trust reduces transaction costs. Suspicion leads to over checking of financial and legal aspects,” Cox said.

Other speakers agreed. During the Q&A Panel Session Professor Ed Blakely, a global expert on urban planning, told conference delegates it was time to develop a planning model that focused less on materialism and more on building trusting communities.

We have to develop an economy that respects all and stops prostituting itself on making money. Where’s the investment in people in the mining of resources?” Blakely said.

While Australia has an ageing population it also has a growing number of young people who were getting poorer.

“We are not sharing our wealth – the young are getting poorer and we must turn this around. We need to share our brainpower and our resources,” said Blakely.

Australia is building the biggest houses in the world on the smallest lots.

“The end game for us is not to how to get bigger but how to get better with what we have. And how to use the people we have across the entire spectrum– men, women, rich and poor to make good, strong, safer communities.”

Mark McCrindle, director of McCrindle Research, highlighted the changing demographics and lifestyles that are shaping our cities. Much of the emphasis of planning has been on the ageing population but the growing number of young people will impact on planning in the future.

We are having something of a baby boom right now. In the 1960s there were 250,000 births a year in Australia. Last year there were 300,000 and this year that number will rise,” said McCrindle.

After the original baby boom of the 1950s and 60s there was a creation of new suburbs to house the growing population. Back then people stayed in their homes for decades but increased geographic and vocational mobility means the median length a person stays in one home is now only five years, said McCrindle.

Housing affordability is an increasing problem, with housing costs as a multiple of income more than doubling between 1971 and 2011, while average land size halved. In 1971 housing costs were five or six times average income and land size was 800 square metres while in 2011 they are 10 or 11 times income and have shrunk to 400 sq m.

Landcom conference, left to right: Chris Richardson, Ed Blakely, Peter Newman and Peter Head

Chris Richardson, director Deloitte Access Economics, said economic factors were currently making it difficult to provide the market with the type of housing that is needed, particularly in NSW.

“The population has been increasing but the number of new homes being built has declined,” said Richardson.

As a result the average age of the last child to leave home is increasing.

These trends provide opportunities for everyone in this room because there is enormous pent up demand for housing. And yet the forecast from Federal Budget and Treasury in NSW for housing construction was poor.

“The reason is an old foe of NSW housing – interest rates are set to rise,” said Richardson.

Developers in Australia and around the globe were still finding it hard to get loans and this was impacting on the market’s ability to meet demand for housing.

Peter Newman, professor of sustainability at Curtin University Sustainability Policy Institute, said demonstration projects across Australia were proving that we can live in communities where we consume fewer resources and live more affordably.

“The health challenge in our cities is to get us active, to get us out of our cars and that’s obviously something the built environment can help with. Making a walkable environment is the key but the question is how do we do it?”

The Cockburn Coast Study, done by LandCorp in WA, has used the Kinesis design tool (based on Landcom’s Precinx tool) to study the effectiveness of a community built on an eco-cycle concept, where recycling of resources and use of renewable energy technologies are key features.

The results of the study are impressive: for just $5600 per dwelling carbon was reduced by 55 per cent, water usage by 75 per cent, energy use by 55 per cent, and affordability increased by 17 per cent, said Newman.

“This is the new world that is emerging – one with significantly lower footprint and quite affordable to do,” said Newman.

Tools such as Landcom’s Precinx were being used in demonstration models across Australia to show planners how to do “good design that is both environmentally better and cost effective.”

The other significant trend is the decline in car use, said Newman.

“Car use is down in nearly every American city, most European cities and most Australian cities.  The numbers are quite extraordinary, where you see public transport booming and car use going down. It’s a very different world emerging that we are building for now.

“The big message here is don’t build where public transport is not viable because you will not be viable.”

lblundell@thefifthestate.com.au

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