On why sustainable precincts could be the Uber of infrastructure

As if right on cue ahead of our Surround Sound for Sustainable Precincts in Sydney next week, Flow Systems and Brookfield officially launched their audacious challenge to conventional precinct utilities that’s underpinning one of the greenest precincts in Australia so far, Central Park on the CBD fringe.

Terry Leckie
Terry Leckie

Several of the speakers would be at our event. We took it as a great warm up (of course).

Flow’s founder Terry Leckie whose brain child at Central Park is starting to seed itself all over the place, looked slightly bewildered when we greeted him as a “hero of the (green) revolution”, such is his always low key, rather modest front. The truth is though that Leckie challenges conventions, government and their entire regulatory kit and caboodle to create new ways of doing things, but he’s probably too busy to give it much thought and we’re rather keen on finding green disruptors ourselves.

In Leckie’s case what that primarily comes down to is finding new finance models that can deliver services such as water, energy, communications, microgrids and electric car charging stations in a way that complement each other and so create savings, because if they don’t create savings then the ideas won’t fly.  Central Park includes a water recycling system billed as the biggest in the world and trigeneration. More reading is here

Water Minister Niall Blair
Water Minister Niall Blair

Stephen Albin, the Urban Development Institute of Australia’s chief executive for NSW, always one to appreciate a good headline, said what Leckie was doing was the “Uber of infrastructure”. It was providing localised solutions and government authorities had no idea what coming at them “like a bullet train”.

On hand for the launch was Water Minister Niall Blair; Dennis Fotinos from Enwave, visiting from the US; Jeff Kendrew from Brookfield Infrastructure; Sandy Hollway, who led the Sydney Olympics and is now deputy chair of the CRC for Low Carbon Living; Matt Plumbridge, senior manager sustainable development at UrbanGrowth NSW, Rob O’Neill, Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal’s general manager, water and electricity licensing and compliance; and Romilly Madew, CEO of the Green Building Council. Facilitating was Tim Williams from Committee for Sydney.

Jeff Kendrew said the solutions at Central Park, developed by Frasers Property and Sekisui House, provided wins for stakeholders across the board:

Romilly Madew, Tim Williams
Romilly Madew, Tim Williams

the developers who didn’t have to put in individual boilers and chillers in every building, the consumers who paid less for their utilities and the broader community that needed to invest less in the wider infrastructure and councils.

What was good about Central Park was that it was not designed with “overcapacity, but fit for purpose”.

The hardest thing to do was to get collaboration between the various utility elements that make up the whole, he said. “The water guy just cares about water, the energy guy just cares about energy.”

(Infrastructure NSW chief executive Erin Flaherty who will be on the Surround Sound panel said during our briefing interview that perhaps we need a “minister for connectivity”.)

Kendrew said this kind of precinct development “required us to think of precincts as a mini city, with the buildings the customers of the utilities”. It was important to design the whole from the start, to build in capital efficiencies.

Connection to the energy grid was still important – not for backup because the system might fail – but to flatten demand.

“If you can flatten the load for the precinct you can lower the costs for the users, reduce costs for developers.”

Rob O’Neill
Rob O’Neill

“I see the only way we can go forward is to give something to everyone here.”

IPART’s Rob O’Neill confirmed the idea of precinct scale utilities was on the move. He had 16 applications related to precinct scale utilities before him from Leckie’s outfit and another 8-10 from others keen to embark on the same route.

“So we know there is a pipeline of applications,” he said. “People are demanding liveable cities that lead to health and well-being. There is a significant community demand.”

Tim Williams diplomatically pointed out that regulation might hold things up but well handled it can also “create a market.”

O’Neill said, “we need to make sure we’ve got good efficient regulation”.

Messy and complex – interesting

Sandy Hollway famous for leading Sydney’s Green Olympics before joining the CRC for Low Carbon Living, said the CRC was very interested in Central Park in particular, precisely because it was “urban infill which is messy and complex and has multiple stakeholders.”

What drives these stakeholders, what plans they have and what incentives they need was of great interest, he said.

Matt Plumbridge
Matt Plumbridge

The CRC would soon embark on modelling various aspects of the precinct, including stakeholder engagement and governance models around decision making.

We need to move and fast

The Green Building Council chief executive Romilly Madew made a strong call for more ambition.

The game was now global, she said, especially in terms of attracting the kind of capital that was required to fund these precincts. And it was also about metrics and benchmarks such as GRESB and sustainability rating tools these developments wanted to attract green and climate bonds.

In Australia, Madew said, “we lead on buildings but on precincts we’re behind the eight ball.”

“We need to move fast; there are countries already doing it, we need to attract capital,” she said pointing to a string of cities such as Freiburg.

Certainly the sector in Australia was on a roll. The GBCA’s new Communities rating tool had taken the council by surprise, with 41 projects already registered including several it had had not been aware of.


Key to these precincts was radical improvement in green outcomes especially in utilities. What each of their developers was saying, almost without exception, Madew said, was that it was regulatory barriers that most stood in the way.

Why couldn’t water be shared outside the precinct barriers? Why not the energy?

Australia’s population growth meant pressure on our cities would be “massive”, so we needed to respond “really quickly”.

A model to replicate

UrbanGrowth’s Matt Plumbridge told the audience that “ultimately this is the model we would like to roll out” referring to Central Park.

That’s reassuring since UrbanGrowth has carriage of some of Sydney’s biggest emerging precincts including the high profile Bays Precinct and the Central to Eveleigh precinct.

When it consulted with the local council on Parramatta North, the first idea UrbanGrowth proposed was to go on a site visit to Central Park, Plumbridge said.

“This place has crystalised the district utility mind-set.”

Sandy Hollway
Sandy Hollway

The thinking had to be 10-15 years into the future, he said. It also had to be collaborative; thinking how to scale up the pioneering projects others had trialled. Such as his boss David Pitchford’s CH2 project in Melbourne. In some ways Central Park was a “scaled up version” of CH2 in its water treatment and even (“more attractively, it must be said”) in its façade system, Plmbridge said.

The thing was to “lead and cross pollinate”.

In concluding, Williams asked if people optimists or pessimists.

A bit of both seemed to be necessary.

Leckie said building trust with the community was critical. But this was an industry that was gaining momentum; it was “snowballing”

What he was looking forward to was the day when, “What we’re doing in some of these precincts is just mainstream.”


Reservations (you always need reservations)

We had some reservations about all this quicker and easier precinct development, not in the infill sites, logically, but in how it might enable speedier development in outer areas.

Stephen Albin had mentioned on the panel that the massive $180 million cost of an infrastructure pipeline in one zone had halted land release. Flow’s solutions could radically change the dynamic, he said.

But was that such a good idea, without the transport?

The fear of greenfield ghettos is no longer a potential but a reality judging by growing mountain of evidence that poverty and inequity are no longer in the inner city but in the outer areas. OK, the buyers might get sustainable water and energy but where were the jobs and how would they get around?

(We won’t even mention the quality of the construction; that’s another separate and entirely appalling story).

On transport alone Tim Williams in his briefing for our Surround Sound told us just last week that mobility that was one of the biggest factors in inequity. Even Millennials would be happy to live in the west if the centres were more dense and if they could get quickly to the CBD, Williams said. The notion of taking an hour on public transport to go 25 km from Liverpool is “a nonsense” he said.

But what about jobs? Williams said at London’s Canary Wharf, a long way from the centre of London, 100,000 jobs were created when they extended the Jubilee line.

So what would Albin say about that challenge? His answer was shocking – as in something you don’t expect.


Visiting tech guru from Silicon Valley Vivek Wadhwa who we profiled recently and who conducted a workshop in Sydney last Friday was aghast at the spending on infrastructure under way in Sydney, Albin said.

In transport our issues will be solved by driverless cars,  Wadhwa told his guests. What about congestion? None, said Albin, because the cars would be computer controlled and they would be fast (and not crash). What about parking? None because the cars would drop us off and disappear.

(So this is why Uber and GoGet are both seriously investigating driverless cars. )

Of course all this is predicated on a future that’s readable. And futures have a notorious habit of taking their own unexpected paths. Remember the forecasts of flying trains from early in the 20th century?

There’s also the point that no amount of transport can overcome the need to preserve our farmland. We can grow food up a wall but nothing (so far) beats the incredible complexity of soil with its millions of unknown microbes and trace elements to keep us healthy

But whether Wadhwa is right, or wrong, we need to give him a platform. What we make of all these notions is entirely up to all of us. It’s our future and we are creating it as we speak.

Let’s just make sure it’s collaborative.

We can’t wait for our Surround Sound.

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  1. A fruitful discussion. Might “precincts” be, finally, the perspective, tool, motivation we’ve been waiting for to at long last achieve real “joined-up” – comprehensive, holistic, connected – planning outcomes?

    However TFE is right in querying whether the ideas expressed about food land-gobbling green field development fits the bill.

    Though here too a “precinct” perspective might point to solutions. The Heart Foundation, in being fundamentally concerned about our health, has for instance done some interesting work exploring how urban development and food growing might productively co-exist; the food side feeding off the urban wastes to intensify production, and the urban area eating the results.

    And driver-less cars? While one can see some positives, they are still cars (“sedentary transport”) and will not of themselves resolve the landuse:movement limitations of our existing model of low-density sprawl. Rather, they might just further embed it. I was involved in a conversation the other night about the joys, and resultant energy, that comes from walking to work. Now that’s a great basis for a precinct !

  2. With cost of land (??land cost $270,000 per apartment??) in cities like Sydney it would appear that developments like Central Park is the only solution. It has all the aspirations of a development that has every thing going for it. The starting point for reinvigorating a city. Then we have Infinity at Green Square who had there launch last week, not that I think it is the same league as Central Square.

    The questions I keep asking is what is a sustainable height and when are we going to create developments that are about fully integrated communities. You know people who live in them or is that just to hard.

    We might end up with very energy efficient places to live with all the bells and whistles but end with somewhere people live in isolation, disconnected with no community at its heart.

    Remember people live in these places and somehow we have to create places that are safe, secure. A place where there is trust so we require connection (and no not living in each others pockets). They have to be about people not just bums on seats.

    Fifth Estate have a look at website to see the start of a different alternative

    Ian Cleland