Left to right: Tom Murphy, Urban Land Institute; Sylvia Hrovatin, Walker Corporation; Carolyn Viney, Grocon, Tone Wheeler, Environa Studio

8 November 2012 – In terms of the conventional side of property the Property Council’s Congress is big: big speakers, big picture and this year, even big on some trends that fall into the sustainability field. One of the speakers for instance was Bob Brown, former Greens Leader. In this roundup Vivienne Reiner reports on the relevant highlights.

Leadership, thinking big, collaborating in new ways and making significant changes at the local level were some of the exciting themes emerging from the Property Congress 2012 held in Sydney last week. Making the opening address, former New York major Rudy Giuliani gave an insight into his drive that successfully transformed the city once renowned for its homicides to become one of the safest cities in the United States.

Rudy Giuliani

Keen to support Wall Street and get people off welfare, Mr Giuliani put a plea to Australian property decision-makers to tackle the roots of homelessness, as he had: “You should change homelessness because this is something that you don’t need for anyone and it creates a terrible impression of the city.”

On the day monster storm Sandy destroyed New York homes, unleashed floodwater that shut down subways and resulted in the inevitable loss of life, Mr Giuliani said the city that had suffered countless natural disasters was resilient and as prepared as it could be to respond to the emergency.

But it is only in the aftermath that the US financial capital is now considering advice to prepare for sea level rises, flooding and more frequent extreme weather events—and is looking at making significant infrastructure changes to protect its citizens from future “terror storms”.

Bob Brown

Bob Brown

Former Greens leader Bob Brown echoed the sentiment coming out of the US in a political panel including Amanda Vanstone, Peter Reith and Mark Latham. Mr Brown highlighted the importance of climate-proofing coastline cities and also predicted that in the future:

“The overwhelming focus will be on energy efficiency.”

Acknowledging a desire to extend Australia’s thinking on urban and real estate issues, the Property Council of Australia announced at the Congress its new alliance with the Urban Land Institute. The Congress also announced the inductees of the inaugural Australian Property Hall of Fame, including Lend Lease founder Dick Dusseldorp and Westfield co-founder Frank Lowy.

Tom Murphy

Keynote international speaker Tom Murphy, from the ULI in Washington, challenged the audience at the Property Council’s annual conference to strive to make a difference or get left behind. An educated population is one of the keys to rebuilding cities, he said—dubbing intellectual capacity as the “raw material”.

The former mayor of Pittsburgh did not have all the answers for his Australian audience but reeled off case studies where the seemingly impossible was not only carried out but succeeded beyond expectation.

In an anecdote for the issues the global economy is facing, Mr Murphy showed how he lifted the former steel industry-reliant town, which was in steady economic and environmental decline, to become a thriving and diverse city. Government stepped in where the market was failing, envisioning industrial hubs and town centres in physical and economic wastelands by offering financial incentives to encourage developers to invest in projects, which went on to attract more developer interest at market rates and full tenancy.

Once built for cars, urban centres now have to re-invent themselves

in an environment where residents are increasingly demanding bicycle paths and are also more likely to walk or take public transport to work.

In a globalised economy, it is the dynamic and attractive cities that make good use of public space that will thrive. Mr Murphy said the fabric of society was rapidly changing, with manufacturing jobs now significantly outstripped by professional services, leading to a change in mindset and demand for a new type of built environment.

“We are right now going through a revolution… [successful cities have] gotta be a place where people want to live and play,” Mr Murphy said. “Cities that will be successful in the 21st century will recognise that simply staying where they are will not be acceptable.

“I go to a lot of cities where there’s this disease in the water called the ‘it’ll do’ disease.” He said although Sydney had been rated the third best city investment prospect in the Emerging Trends in Real Estate Asia Pacific 2012 survey after Singapore and Shanghai, in a rapidly changing world, even great cities needed intentionally to strive to be more than what they were and to envisage what the space would offer its citizens well into the future, including thoughtful use of public space.

“People 150 years ago were making decisions… to bring about your city—it’s your turn.”

But can American planning successes be repeated in Australia? A panel of experts joining Mr Murphy after his presentation admitted government long-term vision here is hampered by a short electoral cycle. As well, local government leaders do not wield the power of majors in the US.

Sylvia Hrovatin

Sylvia Hrovatin, Walker Corporation’s national manager, approvals division, said “you’re either an activist or you’re not” and encouraged people to strive for the change they knew would be for the greater good.

A believer in starting a dialogue with critics, Ms Hrovatin recently attended a 350-strong community meeting in Waverly. She was surprised at the resistance to upgrading run-down buildings to revitalise the streetscape but welcomed the opportunity to put forward a different point of view.

Tone Wheeler

Tone Wheeler

Environa Studio architect Tone Wheeler said truly visionary projects were not coming from Australia’s political and business leaders, pointing to a number of examples where important opportunities for improvements were lost. “If you leave a piece of space without anything on it in Australia we will put a car park and a casino on it,” he said.

Mr Wheeler saw homeowners as the real developers, saying they were incentivised to make real improvements because they tended to live in their homes.  He said there was a groundswell of innovation coming up “at the micro level” from numerous small developments nationwide.

One area where developments are tipped to reduce in size generally is retail –

with locally appropriate, authentic experiences and community engagement the new focus  as competition from online sales are giving rise to a complete re-think of retailing.

Shopping centres, traditionally “cookie cut-out islands” built with cars in mind, are now increasingly designed to integrate into the built environment or even play a role in place making.

With retail being at the coalface of customer engagement, leading players are taking the sustainability of their fit-out seriously to avoid brand damage.

Nicolette Boele

Nicolette Boele, of sustainability consultancy Banarra, told a closing session of the conference that

businesses had to be vigilant in ensuring transparency down the supply chain so they could verify the source of their products.

“There is an increasing expectation in the community for businesses to be ethical and sustainable,” she said. Community outreach also offered an opportunity to make centres have more vibrancy.

Amanda Steele

Stockland’s national community development manager, Amanda Steele, said there was no secret formula to getting the negotiations right: “It’s about doing the right thing really and you have got to have a conversation.”

Chris Nunn

Fellow panelist Norman Disney & Young’s sustainability lead Chris Nunn, said stores needed to reflect the corporate social responsibility policies mandated at head office and

those that failed risked finding themselves the target of “increasingly virulent and active online social media campaigns”.

Examples of big retailers leading the way included the recent announcement of IKEA to be energy self-sufficient by 2020, and take-up of low-energy LED lights in shopping centres such as Westfield London.

Gala dinner

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The relatively new UK destination of the Australian owned group also makes good use of natural light and green space, with a huge atrium that attracts customers to enjoy some of the year-long calendar of events and a public library within the centre, promoted as “as much a meeting hub as a place to shop and eat”.