The built environment sector is great at talking to itself, but is failing to engage the community regarding the benefits of urban renewal, shadow minister for cities Anthony Albanese has told a Green Building Council of Australia event.
Mr Albanese told Friday’s GBCA event on “What makes a city great?” – which also featured NSW Planning Minister Rob Stokes and was moderated by Mirvac chief executive Susan Lloyd-Hurwitz – that engaging the community more effectively could lead to a significant period of change.
The good thing about the built environment industry, Mr Albanese said, is that there are people “across the political spectrum who all essentially have the same view about the way forward”.
A fault, however, is that the built environment sector isn’t communicating its views to the community at large.
For example, Mr Albanese said that when the Major Cities Unit was disbanded, some in the industry remained silent.
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Mr Albanese said he voiced his concern to the sector at an election campaign at Sydney Hilton prior to the Abbott government’s election, where he said: “We have an election campaign on now, and we have an alternative government that says it will abolish the Major Cities Unit, it won’t fund any public transport, it won’t engage in cities, there’s no role for the national government in cities. Don’t say you weren’t told. Why are you just talking to each other about this?”
He told the GBCA audience: “With due respect, the abolition of the Major Cities Unit… was done on day one, and a whole lot of this sector who said it was fantastic didn’t even bother to put out a press release.
“They got away with it. That’s the truth. And it was a stupid policy. The idea that any government in 2015 can say that there’s no role for a national government in public transport, but will fund just roads, was distorting not just the national government, but state governments, including [NSW]… it distorted the market towards roads and away from public transport. And that’s just not very sensible if you’re serious about the design of cities.
“So if there’s critique I have, it’s that the sector tends to talk to each other really well – which is one of the reasons why there’s a consensus – but they often don’t talk ‘out there’.”
Mr Albanese said with urban renewal projects like the Sydenham to Bankstown urban renewal corridor, there was little engagement regarding the alternatives to urban infill.
“Do you really support – if you’re environmentally conscious and you’re concerned about climate change – growth out further and further into the western suburbs of Sydney?” he said.
“If I could implore you to be bold enough, it is to get out there and engage much more outward than inward. That is something that could make a huge difference. I just hope that we end the debate of if there’s a role for cities in national government.”
Put Cities Minister in infrastructure portfolio
While Mr Albanese welcomed the federal government’s renewed focus of cities, he said the Minister for Cities was in the wrong place.
“There’s not much point having a minister with no department or bureaucracy to provide support. And putting it in the Department of Environment was more to do with personalities than with getting the structure right.
“I firmly believe that the issue of infrastructure and sustainability go hand in hand, and that you need to have the cities portfolio and responsibilities firmly within the infrastructure and economic debate if you’re going to be successful at achieving things around the cabinet table.”
Poor residential growth is threatening community buy-in
Mr Albanese also said there was too much poor-quality residential development being approved, which did not take into account pressing factors like the urban heat island effect and a growing threat of heatwaves.
How the built environment affected the natural environment needed to be more than “an afterthought”, he added.
“I am a supporter of higher density, but you need to make sure that you get it right,” he said.
“Part of the aversion that can be there is because of people’s experience.”
Mr Albanese pointed to a “Stalinist-era block” that had been approved in Sydney’s Dulwich Hill, which he called an advertisement against greater density.
“It is an abomination,” he said. “There are no bloody windows in the thing and it looks just terrible. And it alienates an entire community – that one development.
“We need to get it right.”
- See our story Sydney and Melbourne are “building the wrong thing”
Mr Stokes agreed that poor development was a “terrible advertisement for the industry”, and said it was in developers’ interest to ensure it did not occur.
“We’ve got to strive for excellence in design, because if we don’t we’re going to have resisting communities and it’s going to be that much harder to sell the message of growth,” Mr Stokes said.
“Growth is necessary and the challenge for all of us is to sell the benefits of growth, and because development is tangible – you can see it – it has to be good in order for people to support it.”