UPDATED 6 December 2013. Let’s face it, Lucy Turnbull is one half of our political royal couple in waiting. There’s husband Malcolm, Federal Communications Minister, who’s on the conservative side of the fence but who many greenies and even Labor supporters secretly wish was running the country, because of his support for climate action and a progressive social agenda.

And there’s Lucy, who is equally well considered among the same crowd for similar views . There’s also her support of a strong cities agenda, work on a Council of Australian Governments advisory panel for cities and a number of other bodies including the board of the Metropolitan Redevelopment Authority and a book she authored on cities.

At the launch of the Out the Front gig in Sydney’s inner city Newtown in October by Westpac sustainability guru Siobhan Toohill and partner Adrian Wiggins’ it was Lucy who was asked to address the über cool crowd.

She’s also quite a dab hand at politics herself, having served as Sydney’s first female Lord Mayor, between 2003-04.

Meanwhile at the federal level, Tony Abbott, the man who toppled Malcolm as Liberal leader by a single vote and largely on climate and carbon pricing issues, is now prime minister and busy dismantling every piece of Australia’s climate action and sustainability capability he can legally manage, and destablising the rest. His conservative colleagues in some of the states – Queensland and Western Australia in particular – have been doing the same for longer.  The ruling NSW Coalition, however, seems to be more moderate on environment issues and sometimes supportive.

Taken together it’s an intriguing mix of conflicting political collateral in play, and it’s irresistible to try to tap into some of what the thinking could be inside this citadel of power that the Turnbulls have built for themselves. After all, they have their supporters and yes, even fans. How do moderate and reasonable small “l” Liberals deal with these conflicts?  Do they agitate quietly from within? Do they go to ground?

We’ve seen Malcolm on the ABC’s Q&A refusing pointedly to answer climate related questions, and there was that broad and sustained grin when  someone asked why can’t he be leader again.

Of course, Lucy Turnbull doesn’t want to tread that ground either, and waves away the questions on the big green political conflicts.

She’s got plenty to say on other issues though: why she’s impatient with the word “sustainability” and wants an adjective in front – namely “social”; why she wants to see higher densities in the cities, how she suspects the Better Planning Network, which helped scuttle NSW planning reforms in the Upper House last week, is linked to the Greens; and how the Greens should stand up and support some development.

Right now, to start with, Turnbull wants to make a strong point about why we need social sustainability and how that’s linked to property and a more dense urban form.

“What’s really important, particularly in cities and particularly in Sydney,” she says, “is building better outcomes in terms of social sustainability.

“With the present property boom there is a realisation of high levels of generational and intergenerational inequity developing. So people who are young have zero to low prospect of ever having a mortgage because the cost of housing is so high.

“And I don’t think any Australian would like the idea of cities, large cities, being closed to younger people.”

Certain members of the Committee for Sydney that Turnbull sits on are trying to develop a residential housing asset class that’s affordable and provides a reasonable return for investors. Something along the lines of what happens in the US. (That’s a tough call though: Australia is notorious among its peer countries for “paying twice as much for housing for half the return”.)

Turnbull says that if you care about environmental sustainability then we need to reduce our carbon footprint and the best way to do that is through our cities. They need to be denser and better connected.

Connecting the dots with cities

Turnbull is clearly proud of her work on the COAG cities expert advisory panel, which she sat on for two years. She was deputy chair, with chair Brian Howe, the well known cities champion from the Hawke/Keating government. Other team members included John Denton, of Denton Corker Marshall and a former State Architect for Victoria, and Sue Holliday, a former president of the Planning Institute of Australia.

It’s given her an insight into how to “connect the dots”.

She agrees that cities, as a topic, are starting to capture popular imagination as well.

The  State of Australian Cities reports produced by the now axed Major Cities Unit in the last federal government managed more than three million downloads. An extraordinary number and as former Minister for Infrastructure and Transport Anthony Albanese said in 2012, surely a record for a government report.

“There’s a growing appreciation that cities are where we live because we are a highly urbanised nation.

“And what’s clear for many people in terms of outcomes and housing affordability and in terms of traffic congestion is that we haven’t been managing growth very well and that we need to manage growth in a sustainable way.”

Lucy Turnbull at Turnbull & Partners offices, Potts Point

But this interest in cities has also possibly spawned a backlash to development, manifested in the defeat of the planning reforms in the NSW upper house last week.

“I think the backlash is given more weight than it has,” Turnbull says.

“Young people are starting to realise that this NIMBY approach will lead to a very bad outcome for them.”

So there’s a generational shift going on?

“I think there is and I think it needs to happen.

“At the moment the people with the loudest voices are often older people and they definitely represent the community of home owning middle age to older people.

“But what they’re not thinking of, and what everyone needs to think about – especially policy makers and politicians – is the interests of younger people so the city doesn’t become unaffordable and dysfunctional in the future.”

Young people are also changing their housing preferences, swapping suburban life for inner city family living. You can see it in the “designer prams” around areas such as Potts Point and Elizabeth Bay, she says.

“Young people prepared to trade space for better living and lower running costs.

“It’s a real seismic shift.”

A broader attitude is needed, and integrated planning

“If issues are considered at a local level and a local level only then we have no prospect of managing population growth, and that’s the policy challenge,” Turnbull says.

“And not just population growth, but economic growth, if on a block-by-block basis we take a very anti-change perspective.”

The bedrock of this is integrated planning, she says.

“One of the things that came out of the Cities Report is that if you’re going to have better planned cities, not just in Australia but around the world, you need integrated planning between transport and planning.

“And as any urban planner and architect given a cities policy to grapple with will tell you, to achieve this you need transport oriented development (TODS) with the biggest densities designed around transport nodes and transport routes,” Turnbull says.

“And there is the need to have change. You need an understanding in the community of the need to manage growth.”

She is fully supportive, for instance, of the move by Chris Johnson, former government architect and now chief executive of the NSW Urban Taskforce, to revive plans to reimagine Parramatta Road as a medium density transport oriented corridor.

So what’s happened to the State of Australian Cities report?

Sadly there’s no news.

“The cities report has been referred to the Standing Committee on Transport and Infrastructure and I don’t really know what’s happening,” Turnbull says.

“There’s nothing on the radar that I can detect.”

What about the axing of the Major Cities Unit by Abbott? How does she feel about that?

“The interesting thing about the federal government’s involvement with cities – I think the Cities Unit did a really, really good job – but what the federal government is still grappling with, is how it plays a positive and constructive role.

“The federal government almost invariably makes commitments to bits of infrastructure like the West Connex and the East West Link in Melbourne that assists with the finance of these.

“In an ideal world there would be some commitment that the states and cities make in return – to deliver prosperity and liveability. Actually, liveability – in encouraging transport oriented development, especially public transport.”

Turbull thinks this could be a “fundamental test” of how the federal government commits to major infrastructure.

“The federal government could say, ‘Okay, if were committing billions of dollars we want certain outcomes from you –  a clear pathway for the regeneration of Parramatta Road or the transport oriented development that can arise from those infrastructure investments.’

“And I don’t think the federal government, no matter what side they’re on, has taken that step.”

Wouldn’t it be better if that infrastructure spending was on public transport, instead of roads, given Turnbull’s views of TODs?

The problem, says Turnbull, is that “no federal government has ever put up much money in public transport”.

“It’s always been the state’s responsibility,” she says.

Some bigger local government areas such as Brisbane have also tackled this, Turnbull says.

It’s one of the reasons she supports bigger local government and the plans in NSW to amalgamate councils. Cities such as New York, London, Paris, Shanghai and Beijing, all have “very large city governments”.

But is there an absolute need for size? At an Urban Taskforce breakfast forum on the issue, some of the local councils on the panel thought amalgamation might end up replicating the slow moving bureaucracy of Macquarie Street.

Turnbull thinks this won’t happen.

“No, the idea is that that won’t happen. What happens is state government has to step in to ensure that TODs occur and that we have urban activation precincts.

“Everyone has to get together to make it happen so if we have stronger local government with greater capacity then perhaps they can deliver the TODs but in the current state it’s not possible for that to happen.

“There is a case for stronger, more empowered local government.”

Of course this extends to Sydney.

“As a member of Committee for Sydney, we’re in favour of reshaping local government, so it is stronger and given more responsibility.”

It currently “doesn’t have any real role with transport and any key systems… because the state government undoubtedly is the only one with a metropolitan vision”.

The result is 41 local government councils and great difficulty in shaping a metropolitan vision, Turnbull says.

Launching “Out the Front”

There are some views that suggest the state government would like to see Lord Mayor Clover Moore deposed; this gained currency when it changed the laws and forced Moore to step down from her joint responsibility as a state parliamentarian.

But Turnbull disagrees. “For the most part it’s situational,” she says. “It’s not personality driven.”

What about the NSW state government? Does she think it stands somewhat apart on sustainability from its conservative counterparts in Queensland and Western Australia,  that have been doing their iteration of Abbott’s anti-climate anti-sustainability attacks?

Turnbull hesitates, but only for a second. Like the good QC’s daughter that she is (of Tom Hughes, one of Australia’s best known) she swings the arc lamp the other way.

“I don’t think any party has a lock on sustainability,” Turnbull says.

“Sustainability is so confusing; I don’t want to talk about it without an adjective in front.

“As a general proposition, sustainability has become so broad and elastic that people no longer understand what people are talking about.

“I always put an adjective in front of environment or sustainability because it’s almost infinitely elastic. And I don’t think the word itself is very helpful anymore.”

For instance, on the protection of rural and regional areas or parks in relation to species and habitat protection, there’s no question these issues are vitally important, Turnbull says. But there’s a limit.

“I don’t see species conservation as being a key in cities but I think the best way to express sustainability in cities is to reduce our carbon footprint, and one way to do this is to encourage greater use of public transport and compact living choices if people choose to do that.”

How does she feel then about the continuing urban sprawl?

“Urban sprawl is inevitable, we will but need to get the balance right and include mixed communities.”

Sustainability can be managed through rating standards such as BASIX (NSW’s Building Sustainability Index), she says.

Accepting a thank you gift at Out the Front, from Siobhan Toohill, pictured, left

And some advice for the Greens and greens

“I would say the green agenda – not the Greens per say – in many respects is very unsustainable because it doesn’t promote the idea of more affordable housing. Because it has an anti-development agenda.

Turnbull says the Greens too rarely come out in favour of higher density* and she thinks the Better Planning Network, which is behind the huge backlash to the  NSW planning reforms, is “very closely aligned with the Greens party”.

  • UPDATE 6 December 2013 : Turnbull has confined herself to comments largely on Sydney. The Greens have produced a report with the Property Council on Perth, Transforming Perth on how to increase densities. And Senator Scott Ludlam’s office has pointed out the Greens Affordable Housing Supply Bond mechanism.)

The Fifth Estate has not heard this, but Turnbull says the Greens too, as well as green groups, are firmly anti-development.

“The Greens never stand up and say no, you can’t say no to this development. I’ve never seen them support density. They certainly don’t promote the idea of TODs [transport oriented development] when it comes in up in real life.

“I’m really talking about my experience in NSW. I don’t know of any green agenda that’s taken up this idea of greater density and liveability and sustainability close to transport.

“I think they should if they want to face reality.”

Australia’s future needs to resilient and adaptable

In her outlook for the future, Turnbull sees continued economic growth from the mining and resources boom, “which will still be with us” even though the investment phase is tailing off.

What needs to happen though is that we start to substitute that construction phase with a “sensible smart cities growth agenda”.

Planning for future growth should come principally from financial and professional services.

What’s important is building capacity in the economy, with “human capital and human knowledge and services”.

“So we need to educate our future generations to be ready for the future so they can manage the future and cope with change, to achieve resilience and adaptability.”

You can’t help but agree. There’s probably no better capital investment Australia could make.

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  1. It is a shame that Lucy Turnbull has not taken the time to find out a little more about the Better Planning Network and has made incorrect claims about an organisation she knows next to nothing about.

    The Better Planning Network is open to dialogue, which, we believe, is essential to good planning outcomes.

    Here’s an invitation to contact us: betterplanningnetwork@gmail.com

  2. Social, economic and ecological sustainment are integrated actions governed by the principle of continuity. Properly conceived solutions embody all three actions in a single idea. Of course transport and density are co-dependent, but the transformation of the city needs to be more than merely an assembly of TOD’s. The city is the image of the human condition. To understand the present human condition simply observe the dysfunctional and fragmented constitution of the modern metropolis. Intelligent urbanists have known this for a long time. The problem has always been convincing the poiticians, bureaucrats, self-interest groups, conservative financiers, and a large proportion of environmentalists who naively think that suburbia is somehow good for the environment.

  3. Here is a green and a Green who supports higher density development.

    ….. on the proviso there is quality parkland space amongst it, and good quality apartments designed with energy and resource efficiency embedded into the design, and all supported with a quality public transport infrastructure.

  4. President Obama: Income inequality is the “defining challenge of our time.”

    Pope Francis: Denounces ‘trickle-down’ economic theories in critique of inequality.

    Lucy’s 100% right that Social Sustainability and intergenerational equity are critical issues where the build environment can play a significant & positive role.

    This is relevant to the entire developed World, whether Australia or the USA.