Cities are a bit like kids: lots of problems but we love them and they’re good for us

17 June 2011 – The big event next week on 22 June will be BEMP, Built Environment Meets Parliament, the industry’s umbrella action plan to get politicians to once again take cities seriously.

Now, let’s not get cynical about the role the Feds will play in cities:  just because they said, “yes, we’re listening”, and just because we think they are going to say, “yes, you can have a federal minister for cities”, and just because the Victorian planning minister, Matthew Guy, flipped the bird to the Feds and told them to get off the states’ patch., no-one is going to tell the states what to do, and so on.

On the role of the Feds
Australian Institute of Architects chief executive officer, David Parken, a key driver of BEMP, thinks the summit will be a winner, with federal ministers Anthony Albanese (infrastructure and transport)  and Tony Burke (sustainability, environment, water, population and communities) lined up to address delegates.

In response to Victoria’s attitude to the Feds’ cities approach, Parken suggests that states could do with a bit of “growing up”. He says Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council president, Tom Roper, got it right when he said the states need to realise that the Federal Government can have a facilitating role.

“They (the Feds) can take a principle-based approach; they can see what’s happening right across the country,” Parken says. “It’s unrealistic for the states to think they can be given money and spend it however they like.”

Even more important is that despite the Commonwealth’s huge powers, a good cities policy needs a collaborative approach with state and local government, Parken says.
“Land use planning and transport is the big gorilla in the room. Places such as Sydney are so congested they are ceasing to function as places for people.”

Within ASBEC, Parken is chair of the climate change committee and is now leading an effort to find a framework for resilience and adaptation for development in the face of climate change.

This is even harder than getting the Feds to pay attention to cities, but urgent, he says. “We’ve just experienced 295 kilometres an hour wind and it’s coming further south.”

That’s on top of flooding and bushfires. “It’s not like we have to philosophise over what may or may not happen; these things are real and they’ve happened.”

Currently, a scoping document has been written and ASBEC is about to appoint a consultant to work out how a framework can be started.

Not Sim City, but close

The Property Council’s Peter Verwer loves to pull one out of the box at big industry events, and for BEMP 2011, he’s been working on a beauty: a kind of “app” (he calls it an app but it sounds more like a Fortran database) to work out a huge range of built needs for 41 cities and towns around Australia and the country as a whole.

You will be able to punch in the name of a town and, for any point in time up to 2050, find out the projected population and related demands for all the main property items of housing, schools, hospitals, retail and offices.

Developed by Allens Consulting, this database will be enhanced and refined as new census data becomes available, and in response to feedback.

In data coming out so far, Verwer says it can tell you how many classrooms you will need in Wollongong in the future (fewer than now), and that in Mandurah in WA there are going to be way too many old people (OK, 55 plus people).

“It also looks at labour issues: on average in the next 10, 20, 30 years, the labour force will be half of what it was,” Verwer says.

“Which has implications for dependency ratios – the number of taxpayers for retirees and kids.”

People can use it for free for at least the first year or so, Verwer says. During this time they can help improve it by sending back suggestions. And then… they can pay for it.

Cities are now mainstream material.
Both The Age/Sydney Morning Herald and The Australian ran important articles on the economic importance of cities earlier in the week.

In The Australian, Phillip O’Neill, Foundation Director of the Urban Research Centre at the University of Western Sydney, focused on the key function of cities as “essential components of the capitalist system”, and said they provided the infrastructure needed to conduct an economy.

When businesses and government agencies move away from a CBD – “typically in search of customers, workers, or cheaper rents”, moving to “all sorts of scattered places” – the consequences for our cities have been severe, O’Neill says.

“Car-based commuting has become unsustainable, for family life, for the planet,” he says. “But there is no choice for workers; new employment locations aren’t on railway lines, and the design of bus routes to link jobs with residential areas has become impossible.

“Business-to-business traffic has turned arterial and local roads into rat mazes, and trucking movements are out of control. Freight corridors through our cities should have been built long ago.”

In the Fairfax press, Ross Gittins profiled the work of Harvard Professor of Economics, Edward Glaeser, a key speaker at the BEMP summit.

As author of Triumph of the city: How our greatest invention makes us richer, smarter, greener, healthier and happier, Glaeser’s theme is that clusters around intelligent and creative people – and a whole lot of other characteristics as well, such as money and talent, no doubt – breed more of the same.

Large cities such as London and New York, he says, have benefited from urban density because, “the same density that once made it easy to get hogs heads on to clipper ships now speeds the flow of ideas”.

And cities make it easier to transmit the most complicated and valuable ideas, which are easiest to get lost in translation in cyberspace (who hasn’t stuffed up an email?).

Ross Gittins’ article in The Sydney Morning Herald, talks about Glaeser’s contention that, ”Urban density provides the clearest path from poverty to prosperity.

Today, instead of creating “things” in cities, we create knowledge and ideas.

Glaeser says:

“Humans are an intensely social species that excels, like ants or gibbons, in producing things together. Just as ant colonies do things that are far beyond the abilities of isolated insects, cities achieve much more than isolated humans.”

Read the whole story, it’s worth the trouble.

Green Star is having a revolution

The Green Building Council of Australia’s boss, Romilly Madew, is pretty excited about a major survey that’s been underway at Green Star, addressing all the bumps and lumps in its key green rating tool that will keep it fresh and relevant for members.

A recent in-depth survey of 550 members has produced a platform for enough changes to call it a revolution, Madew says.

The Blueprint for a Green Star Revolution is the template to shape how those changes will emerge. Released on Thursday (16 June), some of the objectives are for a more streamlined tool that is quicker and cheaper to use, that’s available online, and that comes under a single overarching banner instead of several. Another innovation in need is for design ratings to have an expiry date to, again, keep the tool relevant and meaningful, Madew told The Fifth Estate.

For more information see this link

FM coming up in the world
On the subject of facility managers, word among sustainability professionals is that they are being increasingly offered jobs as facility managers.

This is the area of property that has been consistently ignored, downplayed, outsourced and pared back to bare bones. Until, it seems, property owners started to notice that without an intelligently managed building, it really doesn’t matter how much capital expenditure is ploughed into the hardware. The building still needs a human brain to tune, tweak and whisper it into maximum efficiency.

It’s the message broadcast by the findings of the Warren Centre’s Low Energy High Rise project: good people running the building can achieve as much, if not at times more, than expensive capital injections.

Now that the capital markets are sitting up and paying attention (did you see the crowd that attended the recent IPD Green Property Investment Index update?), it’s a message that has finally started to seep through, from those who “get it” to those who write the cheques.

Typical of the capital markets people, however, is that once they saw the numbers – green buildings make more money – they tried to pull apart exactly which type of equipment/capex/plant and so on, made the most difference to the value. Someone or other has to patiently explain that a sustainable outcome is a complex thing, a bit like an organism that has to work harmoniously to make the whole being tick. And quite often, it is clearly a function of a human brain to tweak and tune the right chords.

But then that’s our capital markets.

Landcom conference

Landcom’s recent DiverseCity conference at Homebush is now available on line at  https://diversecity.com.au/speakers.aspx

The Fifth Estate – sustainable property news and forum