Professor Ed Blakely, chair of the Future Cities Collaborative at University of Sydney, got up on that soapbox and made it pretty clear. “Our future is in our cities, and for Australia, the outlook is bleak.”
Speaking at The Fifth Estate’s Surround Sound on Sustainable Precincts in Sydney earlier this month, Blakely mentioned a word that many cringe at – tax. And his reference was in relation to recent motion in Los Angeles, California, where the community voted to impose a tax on them in order to make sustainability investments and enhance outcomes within their community.
Along with density and trust, tax is the third word that we shall vow to not speak of in modern day city building. These often considered “voodoo” words end the careers of politicians. There is outright lobbying against some of these concepts in many communities. And in a highly urbanised country like Australia, current mindsets don’t match the opportunity that these words bring.
Let me unpack these a little more, and highlight some opportunities.
Special Assessed Precincts
In Australia, we love a good battle when it comes to tax. In the property sector, there is rarely another tool so despised than tax, particularly new ones. However, over the past two years I witnessed first hand how thoughtfully curated applications of levying is helping communities thrive, building the competitiveness of cities as they create the sustainable precincts and neighbourhoods that people are loving.
Used as a tool by municipalities across North America, Tax Increment Financing is one of the key ones, a means of allocating property tax revenue from increases in assessed property values within a precinct. These funds are then used to make investments in infrastructure and other community improvements. In last years Productivity Commission enquiry into public infrastructure, TIF was again raised, as it has been over the years, but with little further debate.
Similarly, Business Improvement Districts and other Special Assessed Districts are popping up over the United States as a mechanism for building district-scale governance and raising capital by applying a levy on properties. BIDs and other improvements districts are helping fund everything from streetcar, light rail, affordable housing, public open space and green infrastructure.
A recent example from San Francisco, the Dogpatch Green Benefit District, see’s local residents and businesses pay a small assessment that goes toward maintaining and improving public space. Of the $500,000 the GBD will generate each year, its first investment will be developing an app that will help local residents identify areas for public space improvements. Further capital investments will be made over time using the funds generated, along with ongoing maintenance tasks where 30 per cent of the annual revenue will be allocated.
The Dogpatch GBD is just one example of how communities are accelerating sustainability investments, and not having to rely on the local authority or private sector developers to fund new initiatives. These finance tools – TIF, BIDs, GBDs – are now common place across North America and playing a successful role in funding sustainable infrastructure and programs at a precinct and neighbourhood level.
Are we ready for such a conversation here in Oz? Who is brave enough to embark on establishing Australia’s first Sustainability Improvement District?
Density by design
On density, well, we continue to struggle. Ground zero NIMBY battlegrounds are still active. Many parts of Australia still hate the word. As much as we have tried to soften the blow – with “Density Done Well” and “Ecodensity” concepts – I think our progress in the land down under is questionable.
Sure, the current slate of brownfield redevelopment projects are upping the density on CBD fringes, as with major cities like Melbourne, however the battle remains in core regional centres and the greyfields – where the majority of the population live.
Above all, the quality of public debate has been poor, with the typical focus being on height, rather than liveability, affordability and sustainability. The community just seems downright against this planning tool, that in some cases will be what ultimately saves the day when their cities are blossoming at over eight million people when 2050 comes around. With population growth projections of up to 180 per cent in areas like Greater Perth, if density is not embraced, irreparable sprawl takes hold, and the carbon deficit builds, leaving future generations with an almost impossible problem to solve (see The Fifth Estate’s article on Detroit’s sprawling demise).
It will probably take a generation for us to shake this fear of density, a turnover in our population that makes way for Gen X and Gen Y urban leaders to emerge and shift the narrative to one that associates density with vibrancy, liveability and opportunity. In the meantime, our obsession with home ownership will continue to see us charge outward into greener pastures, literally, as the advocates for the “land release will solve the affordability crises” continue to win the day in some states.
To further compound the problem, designing for density has not always been our strong suit, and continues to haunt us in some cities. However the last federal government did make inroads by supporting the development of an Urban Design Protocol for Australian Cities, only to be buried by our current national leadership.
The density opportunity, for Australia, is but one of the “mission critical” strategies a Federal Minister for Cities needs to own and action. Only when it becomes a national issue, of importance to our long-term prosperity and productivity, will we be positioned to unfold the complex interconnections between land economics, the development process and (lack of) consumer awareness, and reach a level of maturity on the issue.
Less politics, more governance
And finally, on trust. Australia has a culture of doing “urban regeneration with bite”. Part politics, part legal and part technical best describes our approach in Australia, with our efforts to collaborate and innovate in urban regeneration often derailed by an underpinning lack of trust. Development agreements framed around cost, risk and regulation, as opposed to public-benefit deal making, innovation and knowledge sharing.
Stakeholder engagement processes that are addicted to “have your say” showcases tend to dominate today, building expectations within the electorate that government agencies are listening. While this type of engagement can be useful (politically) for our plan-making processes, a totally different approach is required when it is time to implement – an approach (called collaborative governance) that is still wanting in major Australian urban regeneration projects.
Maybe we can learn some tricks from our civil engineering peers, who have successfully launched many public-private partnerships and alliance contracting models that often unite odd-bedfellows and competitors to achieve collective outcomes. Project teams are given the wriggle-room to innovate to the max, in design approach and technology application, with the rule-makers at the table shepherding opportunities for public benefit.
I worked within engineering firms for more than 15 years. State by state, government agencies brimming with senior highway engineers were immersed in solution-making with the private sector. While I am not necessarily an advocate for highway building, the way government and private sector often came together to innovate was nothing short of spectacular.
And for those of us playing around in precinct scale urban regeneration, unfortunately I believe our talent pool still lags behind our horizontal infrastructure brothers and sisters. Less experience brings less confidence. This directly affects our ability to trust each other and do deals for public benefit. But there is opportunity here, by facilitating strong international partnership between state and local government in Australia and connecting them with their North American peers – Seattle, Portland and San Francisco – who have mastered deal-making for public benefit.
And back at the Surround Sound, Ed didn’t mince his words – unless we embrace these concepts in our policy-making and city-building efforts soon, “we’re screwed!”. While a glass-half-empty view, possibly, Ed was one of the few who showed his passion on how critical the situation is, and the dire need for some urban innovation to be embraced, yesterday.
Adam Beck is director of innovation at EcoDistricts, a global non-profit based in Portland, Oregon, US.