NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet © Salty Dingo 2019

COMMENT: NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet, we hear, won’t be paying much attention to the axing of the Design and Place State Environmental Planning Policy by relatively new Planning Minister Anthony Roberts if no-one much kicks up a fuss.

Problem is people are kicking up a fuss. A growing number of them.

It’s not just only the professionals in the built environment sector that the premier should be worried about. Nor the angry environmental and community planning advocates who can feel their stocks rising as the financial community starts to demand evidence of strong natural capital on their balance sheets. 

And not the tut-tutting from the premium builders and developers worried about how the poor behaviour and worse intent of second tier developers will impact on their own hard-won green reputations.

What the premier needs to pay attention to is how the message is now seeping out to the mainstream media and further afield, globally, with potential brand damage to Sydney’s reputation as a glorious place to live.

There’s been reasonably strong coverage in the mainstream print/online media but in recent days there was some excellent cut-through – that only television can manage – with Waleed Aly from Channel 10’s The Project who has managed to decimate the notion that dark roofs on housing in a heating climate were in any way acceptable. 

In the process, he’s made the ideological adherents of dark roofs look, at best, uneducated and, at worst, uncaring.

The clip https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cn02BDM2_DU shows an interview with urban heat island expert Dr Sebastian Pfautsch, nailing the issue.

“We have data that shows that black roofs get to about 80 degrees Celsius, not Fahrenheit,” Dr Pfautsch says in the clip. 

Rubberised or synthetic surfaces in playgrounds measure more than 100 degree celsius.

“It fills me with grief –  I can’t put it any other way –  the science is really clear about the contribution we can make to save energy and to keep our suburbs cooler just by changing the colour of our roofs.”

The segment then pans to a resident of western Sydney who says he and his partner endure temperatures 10 degrees hotter than eastern parts of Sydney and must sometimes go to heat shelters to protect themselves from searing heat and huge energy bills to keep themselves cool.

Pfautsch told The Fifth Estate on Tuesday afternoon he’d been inundated for comments on dark roofs and the urban heat island effect, and had spoken to a range of media from ABC Queensland to Gardening Australia, The Daily Telegraph and several radio stations from mainstream to independent.

“I do a lot of media engagement – and it’s great to see even in the cooler months people are talking about heat. The issue is not going away. Scientists need to chip away.”

Globally, he said, the interest is also strong.

Dr Pfautsch pointed to a series of short films by the BBC as part of COP 26 entitled “Life at 50 Degrees” with one of the films, “Heat hitting home in Australia” extensively covering the issue of heat and black roofs in Western Sydney”. I don’t know how many people watched this short film. A longer version is here

The UK’s Daily Mail too has carried a story about heat evacuation centres in Western Sydney.

Dr Pfautsch’s says media tracking shows his media profile on this issue has reached more than one billion readers with 350 headlines, in five languages and 21 countries.

So much for Sydney’s reputation about a great place to live.

“Yes, brand damage for Sydney,” he said.

Sweltering Cities

Dr Pfautsch noted that insulating dark roofs as proposed by developers opposed to the SEPP might reduce internal heat by a few degrees but that the heat of outside air would intensify regardless and put additional pressure – and cost – on cooling for occupants.

See what advocacy group Sweltering Cities says about these issues and how it’s trying to combat the inequity of some people unable to stay safely cool.

Here’s one item: 

“Fake grass creates and exacerbates urban heat islands, causing detrimental effects on human health, and the natural environment. It can increase land surface temperatures by 40 per cent or more, absorbing heat, warming air temperatures, hardening soil and thus increasing stormwater runoff. 

“Microplastics are created both during its production and as it degrades. It kills nutrients in the soil and reduces biodiversity such as insects and birds. It is harmful to human health due to increased heat stress, biological pathogens, toxic chemicals and the ingestion of microplastics. Natural grass sequesters carbon, increases oxygen and keeps our cities safe and cool. “

And another from the 2022 summer survey:

  • 66.8 per cent of respondents reported feeling unwell on hot days or during heatwaves. One in eight people had to seek medical care because they were unwell in the heat.
  • people who rent are three times more likely to leave their homes for a cooler location on hot days (30.6 per cent of all respondents, 14.5 per cent of people who own their own home, 47.3 per cent of people who rent)
  • over 60 per cent of respondents said that concerns about cost stop them turning on their airconditioning
  • respondents overwhelmingly support higher energy efficiency standards for new homes and minimum safe summer temperature regulations for rental properties
  • over 50 per cent of people believe the way their suburb is built increases heat

Sources say Minister Roberts’ star is far from on the rise. He’s struggling with his portfolio and, with an election due next year and a highly sensitised premier concerned to keep his promise that “no suburb will be left behind”, it’s hard to see how the wholesale dismissal of the SEPP can be allowed to continue.

Shadow NSW shadow minister for planning and public spaces Paul Scully is fighting the issue and requested a copy of the minister’s speech at the Urban Taskforce when he announced the abandonment of the SEPP.

Mr Scully has had to use provisions under the Government Information (Public Access) Act 2009 (NSW) (the GIPA) to obtain this but that’s a process that takes several weeks and according to a spokesperson can be further delayed by a process of further requests for clarifications on the information sought.

With climate change starting to impact everyday lives through floods, fires and heat, it’s clear that planning has gone to the top of the agenda as a critical tool for resilience.

According to David Harding, Business NSW executive director, policy and advocacy, who spoke up on video in support of the SEPP when it was released, the ditching of the SEPP is widely regarded as an “overstep”.

 There were elements that might have needed some winding back or amendment, he told The Fifth Estate but there is a good case for its majority reinstatement.

There’s been an “obsession” about building in flood plains in Sydney, he said. “But no-one talks about all the additional people we could get in Hurstville with good planning and within the city [boundaries with infrastructure], that already exists.”

“More than anything, the rules for urban planning need to be predictable, understandable, consistent and consistently applied. We need a statutory design guide that everyone can understand.”

Well designed projects can actually lead to more yield, he said. Of course, this may require more time to get the design right.

But uncontrolled development inevitably means government paying for more rail, more roads, more sewerage and more schools.

There is good cause for the SEPP to be brought back, he said,

“I don’t think it’s dead, it’s hiding.”

Following is a selection of recent articles on urban heat island effects, featuring interviews with Dr Sebastian Pfautsch:

May 2022

In continuing coverage, ABC Sunshine Coast FM interviewed Associate Professor Sebastian Pfautsch, School of Social Sciences, on the heat island effect and urban heat issues in western Sydney, as poorly designed homes could make some suburbs unliveable in a matter of decades. Syndicated across regional Queensland stations.

Also on Sydney’s Eastide FM station (16:45) talking about black roofs that day.

The Sunday Project interviewed Associate Professor Sebastian Pfautsch, School of Social Sciences, on the heat island effect and urban heat issues in western Sydney, as poorly designed homes could make some suburbs unliveable in a matter of decades. Syndicated nationally across the Ten Network.

774 ABC Melbourne (part 1) interviewed Associate Professor Sebastian Pfautsch, School of Social Sciences, regarding heat retaining properties of synthetic grass. 774 ABC Melbourne (part 2) and syndicated across multiple ABC Victoria stations.

April 2022

The Daily Telegraph (print) reported on heatwaves in Australian cities and towns due to climate change and the effect this is having on human life. Associate Professor Sebastian Pfautsch, School of Social Sciences, is quoted in the article. Syndicated by The Courier-Mail and 12 others.

The Age (print) reported on Clive Blazey, the founder of Australia’s  largest gardening club and a non-profit dedicated to sustainable gardening and biodiversity, who is touring the country to convince Australians to plant more trees. Associate Professor Sebastian Pfautsch, School of Social Sciences, is quoted in the article. Syndicated by The Sydney Morning Herald (online) and 3 others.

The Guardian reported that the NSW government has abandoned its plan to ban dark roofs – aimed at reducing temperatures and energy costs for new homes – as the state’s new planning minister walks back ambitious sustainability measures announced by his predecessor. Associate Professor Sebastian Pfautsch, School of Social Sciences, is quoted as part of the story.


Talking with Ulrika Eriksson (freelance journalist from Sweden) about black roofs. To be published in two architecture magazines in Sweden.

The Sydney Morning Herald published an opinion piece authored by Associate Professor Sebastian Pfautsch, School of Social Sciences, titled ‘People may well die of heat because the Planning Minister scrapped a good plan’. 

Pledge Times reported that climate disasters are now following each other faster and faster in Australia. Associate Professor Sebastian Pfautsch, School of Social Sciences, is quoted in the article speaking about the heat island effect.

March 2022

SBS News reported that heatwaves have caused more deaths in Australia in the past 200 years than any other natural hazard, and are overwhelmingly affecting lower socio-economic communities, including in Greater Western Sydney, interviewing Associate Professor Sebastian Pfautsch, School of Social Sciences, on the topic.

Human Rights Watch reported that geography and flawed urban design are exacerbating the climate change struggles of Greater Western Sydney residents and provide an alarming insight into what the future may hold, and why urgent government action is needed. Research and commentary by Associate Professor Sebastian Pfautsch, School of Social Sciences, features.

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  1. The same issue is occurring in the western suburbs of Melbourne and growth area planning controls are not producing sustainable development. australia needs to be doing much better with new development everywhere and good development controls are essential to enable more sustainable development.

  2. And for older people and people with long term health conditions and/or a disability, the situation is exacerbated. 30% of households have at least one older, disabled or chronically ill person.
    Although NSW Govt refuses to adopt the NCC changes for housing design to make them more accessible, they could have at least followed the logic and science of climate change. It would have helped a bit.