KPMG’s Spotlight on Australian Cities focused attention

BEMP is bumping along nicely, and more sustainably
By Tina Perinotto

18 June 2010 – Sometimes there doesn’t seem to be  enough “virtual ink” on the computer screen to cover all the amazing projects, ambitions, visions, reports, surveys, job appointments, conferences and other learning/sharing events that this wonderful industry is piling on in enthusiastic spadefuls.

Several consultants and engineers have quietly shared the news that it was tough going last year, very tough. Some smaller consultants even wondered if they would make it at all. Now they are hiring.

There’s no doubt that the momentum is starting to generate the green building economy that, to some people, seemed like wishful thinking only 18 months ago.

This week’s signature event, BEMP – the Built Environment Meets Parliament – was evidence enough that the sustainability agenda has made plenty of inroads into the business,if not the political sphere.

Jennifer Westacott

Proceedings kicked off with a solid piece of work; the KPMG report on cities and planning. It stimulated plenty of interaction and lively discussion, on stage and off, about integrated policies, the rightful place of the Federal Governments to be involved in the huge powerhouses of cities, not to mention the massive generators of greenhouse gasses, and to organise infrastructure for the country and not leave it up to an ad hoc, city by city basis.

Brian Howe, the feted architect of the Better Cities program in Gough Whitlam’s day, made an appearance to underscore the point, but he called for a new iteration of the program to suit future demands.

Sydney University’s Ed Blakely (originally from the US) noted, in his typically wry and pithy way, that US cities simply don’t get Federal funding unless they meet national benchmarks.

Embedded throughout the discussions and assumptions was the notion of sustainability as core to performance. Generous time was provided to The Greens’ sustainability report on cities,  and Senator Christine Milne, the Greens’ Deputy Leader,  looked more at home among the property set  than ever.

Jim Soorley former Brisbane Lord Mayor injected some challenges and no-nonsense questions

The Federal Minister for Climate Change, Energy Efficiency and Water , Senator Penny Wong, made a strong speech acknowledging the importance of property to climate challenges and reminded the audience that a price on carbon would come, inevitably and eventually, so it made sense to prepare, even though the emissions trading scheme might have been derailed for now.

On the impending mandatory disclosure legislation now about to go before Parliament, SenatorWong announced some concessions (see our story), the result of lobbying mainly by the Property Council, trying as always to soften the blow to its members, while maintaining public support for the scheme.

But the question is now starting to be asked: for which members?

Think creatively. If sea levels rise three metres, this might be more feasible that you might think

Certainly not the leading property companies, the council’s  biggest corporate members, who are already pushing hard for tougher sustainability standards in their own portfolios, regardless of any legislation.

Perhaps it’s on behalf of the poor laggard property owners, those now legendary 80 per cent of investors who “quite frankly…don’t give a damn”, as one delegate said.

Yes, yes, we understand it’s about providing enough time for soft landings, soft options and bringing everyone with us on the journey of vision and discovery, driven only by a pure market mechanism of free choice and self determination, no responsible adult in sight.

[Don’t we all wish we could afford such a luxury? Just like living in an episode of The OC.]

Lucy Turnbull,one of the panel members

During  the BEMP coffee breaks seditious movements were afoot, such as one by a highly influential person who said, wasn’t it time to toughen up mandatory disclosure, not soften it; wasn’t it time to mandate energy standards?

Local government
The other growing voice at BEMP was local government, represented strongly by people such as urban design advocate Bill Chandler and City of Sydney’s chief executive officer Monica Barone, flanked by Graham Jahn, a former Australian Institute of Architects president and now director of city planning and regulatory services at the council. (Jahn passed control ,and interest in,  his former practice, now known as jaa, to his former associate director, Yarek Alexander, in July last year.)

Perhaps the local government contingent could, and should, be part of the BEMP contingent, currently made up of the Property Council of Australia, the Australian Institute of Architects, the Planning Institute of Australia, Consult Australia and the Green Building Council Australia.

This might help to resolve the perennial dilemma for developers – how to create certainty in the planning regime, highlighted by KPMG’s Jennifer Westacott, a former director general of the NSW Planning Department, as she outlined the Spotlight on Australian Cities report.

Perhaps the engaging artistic presentations by Ken Maher, of Hassell, and Rob Adams of  Melbourne City Council to explain their vision of the future of cities is a great place to start.

Suddenly any person on the street could see that a five-storey building fronting Nicholson Parade, Melbourne with landscaping out the front, and plenty of opportunities for interactive community and small-scale retail was going to be an improvement for the local quality of life, not a loss.

Which might have led Property Council chief executive officer Peter Verwer to mention in his summing up that the one thing that he thought was missing from the debate was technology.

Peter Verwer, summing up

He is so right. As an industry, everyone has been very busy shaping attitudes, policies, strategies and all those human things that lead to dramatic change. And maybe while we haven’t been looking, there have been huge strides in technology that can make energy savings, as well as alternative energy sourcing, much easier and cheaper.

Only this week we heard about a cheap plug-in switch that will automatically turn off a power circuit when there is no activity.

Similar strides are under way for the commercial building sector.

In the meantime, the technology that allows us to envision the future, instead of trying to understand charts and numbers and confusing blueprints, is the one that will turn around this sustainability challenge.

As Thinc Projects’ Elena Bondareva said at the  Know Change network in Sydney a few weeks ago, what we need is a vision of a sustainable future that is not about loss and sacrifice – the things we need to give up – but one that is looks totally exciting, compelling; one that “I can’t wait to get to”.

tperinotto@thefifthestate.com.au