Photo: Reflections on the Salon for Sustainable Precincts

There is madness in the air in Australia right now. It’s as if our politicians have eaten something rotten and simply can’t get it out of their systems. It has made them deaf to the voices of those they are meant to represent. And blind to the frustration of voters, along with that of people trying to do business.

This message came through loud and clear at The Fifth Estate’s recent Salon for Sustainable Precincts, which brought together in Sydney a group of people with considerable clout in the creation of sustainable urban precincts – places that aim to use less power and water, create less waste and have high aspirations for social equity, including better public transport and affordable housing.

Guests included developers, urban planners, administrators and experts on sustainable delivery of water, power and transport. Many were deeply troubled by the lack of leadership from government in planning more sustainable cities. And the drive to take the lead and just “do it” anyway, rather than waiting for government to find the will, was palpable.

They called for better leadership from government and they predicted communities would take ownership of public space, using crowd sourcing and funding to get the sort of urban environments they want.

They also talked of the need for new funding models such as green bonds to overcome the lack of public funding for urban precincts and new cleaner energy, water and transport infrastructure.

This deep concern and frustration that government is not acting in the best interests of the people is not surprising when you consider recent events in federal and state politics.

First there was the federal budget, which seems hell-bent on taking from the poor and giving to the rich. Then there was treasurer Joe Hockey and his recent “poor people don’t use petrol” comments (maybe he hasn’t noticed urban sprawl and the fact that “poorer” people tend to live on the outskirts of our cities where property is cheaper and public transport is scarce). Then there was the Independent Commission Against Corruption hearing into Liberal party funding with the ousting of a number of politicians for accepting money from developers. Whoops – there goes planning integrity.

Amongst all this, Palmer United Party head and mining magnate Clive Palmer was throwing bombs, berating “Chinese mongrels” for wrecking Australia, despite having pushed for greater access for Chinese investors not so long ago, including those who invest in his mines. Hardly a paragon of public interest.

And this is just the past couple of weeks.

The same night Clive Palmer was throwing grenades on ABC’s Q&A program, the Four Corners program, Battle for the Reef, reported on another betrayal by government. The report revealed the body tasked with protecting the Great Barrier Reef approved a plan to dump three million cubic metres of dredge spoil inside the marine park to expand the Abbot Point coal port in northern Queensland.

It outlined how the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority ignored advice from senior scientists that the dumping would damage the World Heritage-listed Great Barrier Reef and the surrounding ecosystem, including seagrass beds that support endangered Dugongs. Instead, the Authority and federal environment minister Greg Hunt appear to be relying on assurances from the owner of the coalmine, Indian billionaire Gautam Adani, that the dumping won’t harm the reef. It is a decision that has left many questioning the independence of the Authority and the integrity of government processes.

Oh, how far we have come from the concept of democracy devised by the ancient Greeks, based on two key principles – demos (people) and kratos (power or rule). In the Greek version all members of the community actually voted on issues as they arose – true community power, not misuse of individual power by an elite few. Imagine that.

Whatever happened to public interest?

In NSW, Premier Mike Baird has vowed to clean up the state government’s act when it comes to politicians accepting money from developers. He is also getting behind new urban precincts, in principle at least. In Sydney there are several on the go in the inner city – Barangaroo, Central Park, Central to Eveleigh, Green Square and Darling Harbour. The latest to be announced, the Bays Precinct, will see vast tracts of industrial land in Sydney’s inner west transformed into housing, commercial and retail space.

But there are deep concerns within the urban planning and design profession that there is a long way to go if NSW is to develop public land for the benefit of the community.

According to one leading urban planner and designer who spoke to me recently, the integrity and “checklist approach” of the master plan bid process for the upcoming Eveleigh to Central precinct in Sydney was of such concern to one of the international firms bidding for the project that it withdrew its submission. On other developments such as Darling Harbour, the source said, there has been a lack of consistent planning guidelines and the government has been “negligent in its duty of care to protect public land”. It is government that is at fault for not setting adequate guidelines or governance standards, not developers – they are simply going about their business.

This echoes the views of the Australian Institute of Architects reported in a recent story in The Fifth Estate, which quoted former national president Paul Berkemeier saying the government had betrayed the public interest by redeveloping Darling Harbour through a single contract to Lend Lease.

Berkemeier did not criticise Lend Lease or their architects on the project, rather the position they had been put in by government and the muddled brief they received.

TFE salon guests impatient for change

At the Salon for Sustainable Precincts guests spoke passionately about the need to overturn the malaise that has infected state and federal politics.

Guests were Monica Barone, chief executive officer, City of Sydney; James Rosenwax, managing director, design, planning and economics AECOM; Terry Leckie, founder and managing director, Flow Systems; Peter Monks, director planning and environmental services, Waverley Council; Dr Ed Blakely, honorary professor of Urban Policy, US Studies Centre; Jonathan Emery, managing director, urban regeneration, Lend Lease; David Rolls, chief executive officer, commercial, Mirvac; Bruce Taper, director, Kinesis; and Michelle Tabet, placemaking consultant.

Rather than try to change government or wait for it to regulate effectively, the private sector should be ahead of the regulator, working outside the power grid and current water network to push innovation, some suggested.

State and federal governments don’t share city councils’ vision of sustainable cities with targets for decentralised energy, integrated precincts or affordable housing, said one guest:

“If we want to get from business as usual to the kind of cities and the kind of future we want, we’re not going to do it by waiting for every layer to understand the idea and do their changes. We’ve got to get in a room and do it together. It’s collaborative. The future is that those people have got to agree to collaborate.”

There must also be transparent methodology for creating precincts created by asking what and who the land was there to serve, not how it could serve developers or politicians looking for opportunities to cut ribbons and win votes. Sites as significant as the Bays Precinct or Eveleigh to Central must serve multiple needs – jobs, housing, connectivity and transport, as well as contribute to the economy in a deep and multi-layered way. And it must do this not for 10 years but for 100 years.

Inertia and resistance to change within existing utilities and regulators was a major barrier to creating private power and water networks that bypass the established networks, said another guest. But often it is not utilities or network facilitators that resist the change, but those in charge of investing taxpayers’ capital into the existing grid to keep it churning money.

And there was much discussion of a new threat to sustainable precincts – the entry of foreign developers who do not have the same vision as local developers and can undercut on price every time. This was not the fault of the developer but was a government-led trend with overseas developers encouraged to invest and to bring in customers from different parts of the world. Without guidelines or sustainability targets from government they would not compete on the same terms as local developers who have built sustainability into their cost base.

If this is true we are unlikely to see any more sustainable precincts created in the city centre like Central Park, with its own onsite trigeneration plant and water recycling plant, and a third of the site dedicated to open space.

Features such as the massive cantilevered heliostat, that hangs above the site like a giant illuminated dance floor, is an innovative luxury that developers bidding purely on price are unlikely to include in the future. During the day sun-reflecting shields on the underside of the heliostat reflect light into the atrium below; after dark it transforms into a public light installation, created by lighting artist Yann Kersalé.

It is the type of innovation that makes cities come alive for the people that live there and those passing through, that add some frisson to the urban landscape. How sad if they disappear just as they are starting to emerge, simply because our politicians lack the vision to encourage sustainability and high standards in new developments.

But people power may yet win the day.

One salon guest was adamant that communities will mould the future of sustainable precincts and cities:

“I think we’re at a point right now that for generations we’ve relied on the public sector to provide planning and information for us. They’re there to upgrade our streetscape or parking. But I think other forces are at play now. Technology is happening very quickly and when we think about precincts there’s going to be greater ownership by communities of how they use their space.”

If this could bring some sanity to the political process and revive the true spirit of democracy, it can’t come soon enough.

Lynne Blundell is a freelance writer and journalist. She is a co-founding editor of The Fifth Estate and specialises in writing about sustainability in the built environment. She also writes about design, technology, health and finance.

One reply on “Behind the lines: mad politics, a glance at the sustainable precincts salon and people power”

  1. 210 wilson street- yeah to that – a revival of the public interest first –there has also been a huge loss of intelligence in govt agencies – whereas Councils may be parochial, they know much more and are generally in touch with their communities – more listening, and doing things slower is essential to this.

    Bruce Lay

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