A few things happened at Green Cities this year that stood above the crowd.

First was that Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore at Green Cities, perfectly poised as always, voice calm, decisive as ever, struck at the soft underbelly of the NSW government. Her topic? Its determination to build the WestConnex motorway that would be rammed through some of Sydney’s most dearly loved suburbs.

Planning Minister Rob Stokes was sitting on her right; between them was seated – judiciously –Lucy Turnbull, wife of the PM and now chief commissioner Greater Sydney Commission.

The silence in the packed room was deafening.

The Fifth Estate, sitting near the front, proffered a solitary clap. A delegate in the next seat muttered, “Here’s Clover chucking hand grenades, and Lucy so sensible and moderate”. Turnbull had been deftly handling housing and transport issues. Affordable housing needed to be a “many splendid thing” she said. And there didn’t need to be a tradeoff between sustainability affordability. The state government was doing great work in building new public transport and Turnbull always caught the train to Parramatta because it was quicker and she could work.

The discussion went on.

On housing Minister Stokes talked about the need to use government owned land to mandate affordability outcomes. UrbanGrowth NSW was looking into the options, he said.


Moore said she was encouraged by the federal minister talking about affordability.

“We can impose a levy of 2 per cent [on developments] for affordability but it’s a drop in the ocean.”

The City has voted to call on the state government to allow it to extend that levy.

Stokes put in a plug for lessening the number of councils with a scary figure on how many spent more than their income.

What he didn’t mention is the thing the property developers are terrified about, that planning will stand still for the 12-24 months it will take to complete the amalgamation process. (Well would you be inspired to fast track a client’s work if you know pretty sure you won’t be in the job in a few months time?)

The other sleeper is that big councils might simply replicate the stodgy bureaucracy of all big bureaucracies. (Weren’t we supposed to be all chasing smaller governments?)

But in case someone missed it the first time, Clover came back to the WestConnex for a second shot.

The highway would dump 50,000 vehicles in the city, she said.

“We think that’s a very un-21st-century project. We believe the focus should be on public transport.”

She said demographics were changing, with 20-30-year-olds turning away from cars for public transport, where they could use their devices.

“That’s why we shouldn’t be spending billions on WestConnex. And I’ll keep saying that because I’m really very anxious about the impact it’s going to have on the city. I’m really, really anxious about that because I think it will be a disaster and in the future people will say, ‘Why did you let it happen?’

Clover Moore
Clover Moore

“I don’t apologise for going on about this… That’s what’s going to be very disruptive: WestConnex.”

It was the last word of the session and co-incidence or not it seemed the audience erupted in particularly strong applause.

In Melbourne the East West Link plans have been a costly disaster.

It’s time, Premier Baird, to tell the fellas to pack up the sandpit and get back to real work of looking to the future. Even with driverless cars we won’t need great big freeways; narrow roads are sufficient. Least of all will we want them through our fragile inner city funky creative hubs (Richard Florida would be horrified).

Remember how quickly the halo of bromance can slip away. Just look at our PM. In the words of Lou Reed, “Something flickered for a minute then it vanished and was gone.” Well we do hope that changes when the PM gets a chance to shake off the nasties.

Stars in Asia

But among the nicks and cracks where logic seeped away, what impressed so many people at the event this week was hearing how well some of our neighbours in Asia are doing on sustainability, transport and even a cap and trade system for emissions.

A packed house

For some reason this year’s global content had real cut through. Instead of interminable case studies by people referring to projects that could never be replicated in Australia we heard about processes and systems that worked.

The single most impressive speaker on these issues was Dr Cheong Koon Hean who is chief executive of the Housing and Development Board for the Singapore government.

She talked about co-ordinated long term planning, discussion, consultation, flexibility so plans could be adjusted to reflect need. And most of all about mandating some outcomes.

Oh dear. The M word.

(In Australia the M word is banned. It seems to be a horror concept for the property industry. See Cameron’s coverage here that shows how they shut down discussion of this concept in a public place. It’s unsure why the fear and trembling though, since the industry is always calling for a level playing field and it’s hard to think of a playing field more level than regulation with bite. In Asia, we’ve heard, the pattern is to get voluntary standards and practices among the leaders and then mandate to bring up the laggards. So aren’t Australia’s leading property companies already stars? We do believe they are. It could work the same here.)

Cath Bremner
Elizabeth Proust, part of the panel on governance

In Asia the driver for sustainability is necessity and sometimes an urgent one.

Singapore is a fragile island less than the size of Sydney with 5.4 million people to house so it needs to get sustainability right. Or perish. For instance it has almost none of its own water. But today, Cheong said, it recycles almost all of its own water, in effect turning the entire island into a catchment. That takes long term planning and careful thinking, not to mention a great deal of buy in from stakeholders, single ruling party or not.

One of Cheong’s tasks now is to retrofit 1 million apartments to sustainable standards. How? There are no magic bullets, she said.

“It will be very painstaking and we will have to do it progressively. It’s about working with companies, working a lot with the community.”

“When it’s about survival you get great alignment,” Cheong said.

“When you have to survive people do come together united and they recognise the value of long term planning.”

Cath Bremner from ANZ who spoke on green bonds
Cath Bremner from ANZ who spoke on green bonds

Peter Verwer former chief at the Property Council back on home turf from his new patch in Singapore pointed out that Asia was building a new Adelaide every six and a half days.

Introducing Yuko Nishida, planner, Bureau of Environment, Tokyo Metropolitan Government who talked about Tokyo’s cap and trade system for reducing energy consumption in buildings, Verwer, typically drily said: “We had one here. We got rid of it.”

Nishida explained the system. Companies know what’s expected. If they don’t reach their emissions reductions targets there are penalities. But they can also trade to make up their shortfalls.

“You get a level playing field”, she said. (Magic words.)

Paul Schialla from Delos on WELL
Paul Schialla (speaking) from Delos on WELL

“The most important part is the cap.

“We put mandatory reductions to each building. It’s important to show the reduction rate”.

But first there’s a reduction rate for the whole city – 25 per cent by 2020.

Hong Kong

We also heard about alignment in transport from Steve Yiu, head of town planning at the MTR Corporation in Hong Kong, who pointed out that in his patch rail was not just for rail, it was for mixed use and housing development as well.

The old wild west developers in the US knew that; they paid for the rail to be built which turned land from prairies to valuable development sites.

It’s about joined up thinking, right?

Anti highway lobby is getting stronger

UK-based Mark Watts, executive director of C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group added fuel to the anti-highway lobby (apologies for the Freudian slip). The era of the car is over, he said. Millions a year die from pollution and congestion costs about 15 per cent of the GDP in the UK.

The big trend he said was cycling and catching trains.

Not because people are wanting to be green and cosmos-loving-virtuous, but (it’s the Lucy thing), because it’s quicker.

But public transport first had to overturn prejudices stoked by comments such as former UK PM Margaret Thatcher who said that “if you see a man over 30 on a bus you’re looking at a failure.”

Since this conference theme was around disruption, Watt tipped that the most disruptive thing for cities in the future would be something invented in the 18th century, the “humble bicycle”.

Besides, Rio’s just blown up 450 kilometres of highway to create cycle space and open space, he said. (While we continue to build more.)


Equity is also part of the solution, Watts said.

“It’s hard to get people to support the common good if they feel disenfranchised,” Watts said.

A big big wake up call

Richard Palmer from WSP called out alarming figures soon to come from ClimateWorks and the Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council that show commercial building energy intensity has improved just two per cent over the period of 2005-2015.

“We’ve been at this game and at this conference for a decade talking about green buildings and opportunities in the existing building sector… and we’re at two per cent and plateaued [for the commercial sector] and five per cent and going in the wrong direction [for residential]. Am I reading it wrong or is it that bad?” he asked.

He was reading it right, the audience heard.

There were also great sessions on governance issues, “green money”, the WELL building standard, and technological innovation.

IMG_1452The reason we’re all here folks 

Meanwhile across town that night (Wednesday) another audience heard about the climate horror that in ignited the birth of this industry. It was a talk at University of Sydney on sea level rises moderated by The Fifth Estate as part of a series run by Sydney Ideas and the Sydney Environment Institute.

Associate Professor Abbas El-Zein, from the School of Civil Engineering, University of Sydney started the night with a major wake up call. If we halt carbon emissions overnight thermal expansion in the oceans would still continue for next 200 to 300 years. And that, we know, means not just a rise in the sea levels, but wild dangerous weather.

Scientists have already been horrified at the temperatures recorded in February. They’d underestimated the warming (probably frightened by political pressures.)

We’ll need to focus on adaptation. And be prepared for the loss of many beaches and infrastructure. The results will not only be expensive in terms of dollar values but will also challenge or other senses of value more aligned to community and attachment to place which it’s not possible to put a price on.

On Wednesday night he also spoke of the conflicts and pressures for councils, private and public land.

A second speaker, Tayanah O’Donnell, from the Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis at the University of Canberra, spoke about the legal minefields involved in resolving those competing claims to our beaches.

And that’s a conundrum that will continue to unfold with no doubt spectacular results.

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  1. Research by RAWSA has discovered that apart from the air pollution and health impacts on all of Sydney there is a very huge hazard attached to Badgery’s Creek Airport that should rule it out permanently. This is the only location in NSW where one accident or terrorist attack could take out essential infrastructure for Sydney Water, Transgrid and Jemena Gas. Sydney could be left without water supply and / or electricity supply for as much as a year? If the government was sincere about due diligence on this proposal it would rule it out NOW!