In search of the jumping joyous urban jumble

20 May 2011 –[Updated 21 May 2011] When Minister for Infrastructure and Transport Anthony Albanese launched the official national urban policy – which was rather hard to separate from the “other” national urban policy released with the Federal Budget papers last week – he hinted at his concept of an ideal city.

Introducing the policy Albanese told a Property Council of Australia function that in a review of the book by hugely influential urbanist Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, the New York Times wrote that Jacob’s prescription for successful cities was to bring “people and activities together in a jumping, joyous urban jumble.”

We might be a joyous jumping mob of urbanists in some lucky places and at some limited periods of time, but that’s not the usual outcome. A rising chorus of conflicting views about the future of our urban places will be among a central battleground of politics as population, housing and environmental pressures build.

In trying to deal with these issues the federal government released a total of three reports on urban issues:

The response has been mixed. (See our separate story)

The Productivity Commission report was most potentially contentious.

It’s a massive document which at more than 700 pages has proved hard to even download, let alone to properly digest.

Key is that it did not so much make recommendations as provide a thorough analysis of the nation’s planning frameworks and identify “leading practices”.

From the sustainability point of view we admit it was alarming to hear that the PC had been asked to look at the efficiencies of zoning and planning systems . As if the land use could be subjected to a “highest and best use” solely on the basis of a pricing mechanism, knowing that this will not include the true price of externalities created by land uses, such as pollution, transport or congestion.

Lobbying hard for such scrutiny  has been the NSW Urban Task Force, which sees a more deregulated approach to zoning as a way to unlock development land.  (On the national planning strategy the Task Force hailed a victory because the final document removed a reference, contained in the draft paper, that acknowledged that low density greenfield housing was not sustainable.)

A planner’s view
Patrick Fensham, director of  SGS Economics and Planning says it’s not a bad thing to periodically subject the planning industry to scrutiny from another discipline.

“I always think it’s good for the planing industry to run a mirror over itself especially by economists,” Fensham says of the PC report, “but the brief was relatively narrow.”

One issue is that the Productivity Commission has looked at the planning system more from a “transactional level” rather than how the city functions at a macro level.

For instance the the report includes a more simplified zoning system as a  “leading practice” to improve efficiencies.

Fensham says there are several reasons why the push for a more deregulated zoning approach is problematic.

Among them is that the zoning system is very efficient at sending price signals, but there is a need for other considerations such as community costs. And there is also a need to provide a mix of service activity areas that  don’t comply with the dominant zone, such as car service facilities.

The concept  of simplified zoning “rolls off the tongue nicely,”  says Fensham, “but what happens is that councils can’t help themselves and introduce all these overlays and that can create dysfunctional outcomes.

“So you might only have five zones, but you inevitably end up with complex systems. And economists tend to overlook that aspect. So that’s the problem.”

On the issue of competition for retail activities the Shopping Centre Council of Australia says it was happy with the report, which found no major issue in restrictive uses in retail areas, according to the council’s deputy director Angus Nardi.

Fensham, which advised the council on some of these issues says, “Activity centres policies are not necessarily anti-competitive or restrictive and I think that’s generally the point.

“You need to work hard and be vigilant and make sure that our centres can continue to accommodate new retail formats.”

Fensham says, that sure, goods might be a little cheaper if you allow out of centre development but it doesn’t account for the benefits that accrue from centres, nor does it account for the cost of more dispersed centres.

“Within an economic paradigm it looks like the commission might have made a reasonable effort to understand that.”

On the whole, it true economists don’t know a lot about planning, but a “well-rounded” economist should be capable of bringing economic insights into planning, Fensham says.

What needs to happen next is to “join the dots” and understand that in aggregate, it’s a “weighing up of the costs and benefits…that planning is a tradeoff.

“Harvey Norman might be able to give you cheaper whitegoods if they are allowed to locate anywhere but there is a community cost in people have to drive much further [and to transport the goods]”.

On the national urban policy Fensham is glad the federal government has taken an interest in cities but is frustrated by the lack of “joined up thinking” and the dispersal of the various population, infrastructure and urban policy units into three separate portfolios. These need to be connected to each other and to the states, which need to implement the strategies, he says.

A Venn diagram isn’t enough, with its arrows pointing to a national urban policy, sustainable population strategy and regional development policy “as if that diagram does the integration for them”

“Anyway that’s the meta narrative around the federal government agenda. And it’s a bit of a worry.”

Fensham was unimpressed with the amount of money – $100 million – committed in the urban policy to fostering employment hubs in the suburbs and regional centres.

The funding was a distraction, he says.

Such a low amount would achieve little and besides, was the policy consistent with the metropolitan strategies of the cities?

“The growth of regional centres is a good idea but it’s not the main game.”

He says research has shown you could double the  amount of growth in the 10 biggest regional centres in NSW and it would equal only one year’s growth in Sydney.

“To make a real dint in that you need to double the growth for ever.”

“The idea of more sustainable urban employment hubs is not a bad thing because our cities continue to grow and the reality is they are still growing on the fringe.”

If the federal government wanted to do something serious for Sydney,  it should think about developing Badgerys Creek airport which it had “negligently and disgracefully abandoned,” Fensham says.

“It’s the single biggest thing that could happen for the south west of Sydney”.

Instead it looks like we will get “pork barrel” policies.

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