On the sex of ideas, the Karma Sutra, and our reader survey and competition for the Surround Sound on Sustainable Precincts

The Surround Sound for Sustainable Precincts in Sydney really exceeded our expectations, and many other people’s – judging by the comments and the frequent, if a little nervous, “We didn’t know what to expect.”

Good, we said. AECOM’s James Rosenwax, our host for the night, in totally good spirits admitted in his welcome speech his team had laid out neat rows of seats in front of the stage. As you do.

Oops. TFE arrives and takes half the chairs away, rearranges them messily. Very messily. (The host team did look a tad horrified, then shrugs…)

We also rearrange the soap boxes and the panellists chairs, of course.

Next time we will be messier we vow.

It was all about action from the audience (100 of them in the end), no east-west divide here. MC Maria Atkinson had the measure of the room from the start and directed the action: soapbox, panel, soapbox, panel …and there were queues for the soapboxes.

Right up front Atkinson gets the feistiest (if both very softly spoken) people up on the soapbox, Chris Johnson from The Urban Taskforce and Jeanette Brokman co-convenor of the Better Planning. It was sparks from the start. But in a collaborative respectful kind of way.

Atkinson had set the rules of engagement early. We wanted to be like Silicon Valley that some guru said the other day could not be replicated anywhere else in the world because what SV had going for itself was extreme collaboration of ideas. Everyone open to sharing (and not possessive/clutchy-clutchy, as the kids would say), which breeds all sorts of synergies and new ideas – some yours, some borrowed, some shared.

Think of it as “ideas having sex”. And pro-creating, Atkinson said. Lovely. So Laurie Anderson was right, “Language, it’s a virus”.Last night the (good) virus spread in abundance. And abandon.

So what did they all say?

Well you can get a gist from the Twitter feed #TFESurround and Cameron’s piece in this issue.

But, well… we’re not giving too much away yet, we’re holding back a bit on the sex of ideas in a Karma Sutra kind of way. We want a nice build up for the ebook we’re going to produce ever so soon… so you will really really appreciate the interaction.

In the mean time we will be prepping for the book, by fleshing out some of the big topics that everyone wanted to talk about but somehow got shoved aside by other big topics.

Williams is a bit of a mover and shaker and right now he has another big issue he wants to flag – affordable housing. It seems to really annoy him that Sydney is failing so miserably on doing something about it. In fact it’s getting worse.

Right on cue today (Thursday) he released a new bold paper with some radical solutions. Such as pointing to what London does by mandating that 40 per cent and sometimes 50 per cent of big housing development projects be made affordable.

Williams didn’t mention a figure that Sydney could impose, but we bet he would like to.

See our coverage here

What is astounding is that he says developers are backing him. If it means a quota so be it.

This was clear at the Surround Sound too. David Rolls, head of cities and urban renewal for Mirvac specifically said he wanted to talk about affordable housing at the not just as a developer, “but as a person”. Paul Walker head of investment urban regeneration for Lend Lease likewise.

The thing we’ve picked up in the prepping with the panellists and various stakeholders ahead of the Surround Sound was that the developers are going a tad mental trying to compete with the tsunami of foreign money coming into town and buying up all the sites at way over the price that the locals can afford. So it’s not just the regular home buyer down the street that’s missing out because of “market pressures” but the big end of town as well.

What they’re wondering (ever so politely) is if the government would consider selling targeted public land to them at a price that makes affordable housing realistic. And yes, maybe a quota for affordable housing would work then. That could be the deal.

The sparks that flew soon after and rocketed up the charts of excitement confirmed it: why don’t we get rid of this addiction Treasury has to Standard and Poors and AAA credit ratings? someone asked. Why is the dollar and profit ruling everything we do?

We kid you not. These ideas, or words to their effect, were out in force, and starting to fool around like a Roman orgy.

It was as if we had a room full of people calling out the man with no clothes on only to realise he’s not only naked but not actually the emperor after all. They are.

Now all this (and loads more) from a town that is traditionally known as rather conservative, in the sense of not embracing change much at all. (Was it only this week when someone said Sydney was still a Rum Town? Surely not…)

On the topic of government, someone invoked the name of NSW planning minister Rob Stokes. Then it was on. Yes, it’s a bromance, one man confessed. Others swooned.

We reckon there a big bunch of people who want change and they want it now.

OK Mr Stokes, pressure’s on.

The ebook

Our ebook will cover a heap of issues raised during the evening and those flagged in our reader surveys and interviews with panellists and stakeholders.

Reader survey and competition

Here is a sample of the topics you, our readers, told us you wanted the Surround Sound to canvass, through the survey we ran and the competition.

You’ll find most of these topics will be covered in the ebook we produce on the event.

The most pressing issues:

  • building design standards and minimum requirements
  • mixed use development
  • communal ownership models to remove duplication of services
  • sense of place
  • climate adaptation and resilience
  • integrated transport
  • public transport
  • community engagement
  • coordinated planning
  • government regulation
  • understanding local context
  • affordability
  • appropriate density
  • energy efficiency
  • celebrating leadership
  • a clear pathway for developers to monetise the benefits of sustainability
  • coordinated land use and transport planning
  • new governance and delivery frameworks

The barriers:

  • the planning system
  • a lack of effective models to deliver affordable housing, key worker housing, and more diversity in age, social demographics and interest groups
  • a lack of focus on social sustainability
  • an obsession with planning around cars
  • the need for more bike infrastructure
  • over-regulation stopping people using spaces for gardens
  • a lack of community involvement
  • government policy and planning
  • the mindset and education of consultants
  • not enough support from local government
  • people being too busy to care
  • NSW government policy setting BASIX as a limit to ESD requirements
  • a developer focus on maximising profit only
  • a lack of holistic thinking
  • a disjoint between local and state government
  • the narrowness of the AER’s distribution exemption categories
  • tired governance models that just can’t cope with sustainable precincts
  • and of course, a lack of federal interest in cities, apart from building roads

But it’s not all pessimism. Australia has strengths too, you say:

  • ESD was a value add 5-10 years ago. Now it’s baseline
  • we’re leaders in building design
  • a great knowledge base
  • we have egalitarian values and an education public
  • great weather!
  • lots of local examples and people power
  • Research institutes like the CRC for Low Carbon Living
  • Local governments in touch with local communities and understand what they want
  • Smart people and strong property sector
  • Though one of the answers on strengths was “very little” – “appalling build quality, very poor thermal and energy efficiency, ridiculous planning regulations and poor transport integration”

We’re not out of the woods yet.

Leaders you all seem to agree are in Europe – particularly Germany and Sweden. The US and Canada also got a few mentions. Someone said China and Russia, but we’re guessing they were pulling our leg!

Your pick of local champions (many represented on the night) include Stockland, Australand, Lendlease, Cities of Sydney and Melbourne, Aeris Capital, WSP, Brookfield, Flow Systems, Allens, Sustainability Victoria, Sustainable Chippendale, EcoDistricts the Green Building Council and every single landscape architect.

The same person who said China and Russia were leaders lauded Villawood Detention Centre as a precinct development champion.

The less said about that the better.