Image by Anna Palinska

Senior policy and campaign officer at the PIA, Audrey Marsh, provides a step by step guide for how to overhaul planning systems across various levels and jurisdictions in Australia to help solve the climate crisis

The tools of planning are vast.

It’s everything from the site-specific controls that dictate the design of a home renovation, to the highest-level regional plan for swathes of the country. Planners are accustomed to drawing on everything from archaeological reports to flood maps to community surveys to do our work.

The best planning happens when we bring together all this information – from the regional to the site-level and across the many disciplines that contribute to our work – to make informed decisions with our community about how we want places to change or grow.

This network of tools is too powerful to leave out of the equation when it comes to addressing climate change. 

It is obvious that climate change will have significant impacts on our cities, towns and regions. Australia is one the most vulnerable countries to a changing climate in the developed world. Our climate is warming, rainfall is decreasing, fires are getting more extreme and sea levels are rising.

Although efforts for a national climate response continue to stall in Canberra, we don’t have time to wait. Sector by sector and at all levels of government, concerted reform is needed to make every Australian planning system climate-conscious.

Huge progress can be made by stepping forward together and ensuring that every planning system from Launceston to Perth to Cairns gives planners the tools to respond meaningfully to climate change. 

With a federated system of government and planning reform notoriously tricky, a clear blueprint for action is needed. So, here’s what needs to happen in every state and territory:

A legislated goal in the Planning Act

Where one doesn’t exist, every Planning Act around the country needs to include an objective to address climate change. This gives authority to every cascading decision made by each individual planner. It’s a symbolic but critical element of reform.

Strategic planning guidance relevant to climate change

Strategic plans do more than just set out where different land uses should be accommodated. They preserve open and green space, link growth with infrastructure and express a vision for each community. Strategic plans have the capacity to embed good climate outcomes right at the beginning of the planning process and planners need guidance to ensure these plans fulfil their potential.

Clarity in assessment and conditions for buildings, infrastructure and other development regarding carbon mitigation and adaptation

Planners responsible for assessing development applications and other proposals can’t determine the climate impact where no climate criteria exist. The public reasonably expect decision makers to consider the climate implications of different developments, but currently not every state and territory has the assessment criteria needed to make informed decisions. The benefit of every new development around Australia being assessed for its climate impacts means this reform can’t wait.

Building performance indicators for carbon as a requirement for all buildings

A patchwork of building performance indicators exists around the nation. Every home we build and workplace we construct needs to be energy efficient and comfortable to occupy as the climate changes. We need a strong and updated basis for measuring building performance.

Landscape scale hazard guidance supported by strong digital tools

Guidance about bushfire, flood, sea level rise and other hazards needs to be provided at a scale that allow planners to make sensible decisions about where people live and work. We will never make progress on ensuring people are safe in a changing climate if we can only make these decisions property by property.

Resilience strategies at regional level

Improving community resilience is about making trade-offs about where and how we can live. Resilience means building in more choices on how we face a changing future, rather than repeating past mistakes. We need clear place-based strategies to ensure we can make communities safer and manage risks effectively. 

Streamlined pathways for renewable energy and carbon offsets

We need to move rapidly to cut carbon. The climate benefits of renewable energy and  carbon offsets means planning must quickly enable their development. Clear development pathways ensure proponents and government are on the same page and rapid decarbonisation of the grid can occur.

Carbon budgets at the precinct level

The development of a new precinct is a unique opportunity to embed low carbon  outcomes in a place in a coordinated way. Carbon goals can be met and measured at this scale in a way that is not possible in one individual building. We need to set the rules for how this happens to make sure it becomes business as usual.

Planning controls that promote urban vegetation and the retention of bushland 

Planting the right tree in the right place and preserving the existing tree canopy has a wide range of benefits – building biodiversity, addressing urban heat and making places more comfortable to live in. We need planning policies to make this happen.

Urban design that promotes accessibility, walkability and sustainable built form outcomes 

These fundamentals of good planning need to be reoriented to achieve the climate outcomes we need to make urban places resilient. Planners know accessibility, walkability and sustainability are the best outcomes for a place, but without the policies to make sure this happens, it is not guaranteed. 

The way this reform turns into action will look different in every state and territory. Some governments might have set off on this path already and others might be at the starting blocks.

Planning reform can be complicated policy, but planners are ready to work with government to make it happen. To find out more about the Planning Institute of Australia’s campaign for climate-conscious planning systems, check out the national campaign document here.

Audrey Marsh is PIA’s Senior Policy and Campaign Officer. She has a background in urban and regional planning, government and politics, with a particular focus on social planning, community engagement and advocacy strategy.

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