From left to right: Dr Brad Pettitt, Mayor, City of Fremantle; John Daley, CEO, Grattan Institute; Nicole Lockwood, Director, KPMG Australia; WA Planning Minister John Day; Greens Member for South Metropolitan Region Lynn MacLaren; Labor Member for North Metropolitan Region Ken Travers; and facilitator James Lush.

“What exactly is Perth about, and what’s its vision?” was one of the key questions raised at last week’s Built Environment Meets Parliament conference in Western Australia.

According to key industry figures, sustainability, quality design and better approaches to planning and delivering density are key elements of any answer.

Hosted by the Planning Institute of Australia, Green Building Council of Australia and Australian Institute of Architects, BEMP WA brought together about 150 people from across the three major political parties and built environment industry.

And while there were no clear targets set around sustainability in the built environment, GBCA, PIA and AIA members who attended said it is well and truly on the agenda as fundamental to the future of the state’s cities and regional centres.

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Katy Dean, director of advocacy for the GBCA, said the major themes of the Q&A style discussion included affordability, lifestyle, liveability, the need for a clear vision for Perth and protecting areas of biodiversity on the urban fringe.

She said Greens MLC Glen McLaren noted that if the property sector could get everything else right, it should not be necessary to expand the city footprint further into critical habitat areas.

Ms Dean said one of the challenges was convincing the community that density, and a mix of housing typologies, could be “done well” – as there have been plenty of examples of it being done badly. This had created a certain “fear” of the concept of density, she said.

And while there are some who will always want a large house with a yard, and “we need to respect that choice”, there are also those wanting different choices, who should not be “forced to the edges” of the city.

The issue of public transport was raised, and Ms Dean said it was acknowledged there was “strong debate around what are the best ways to provide it”. Options that have been mooted for Perth include light rail, heavy rail, bus networks and increasing road capacity.

She said the intelligence of the community should be respected, and that given clear ideas of the costs and benefits of different modes, the community are capable of weighing up the options.

With a panel made up of WA planning minister John Day, Labor member for North Metropolitan Region Ken Travers, Greens member for South Metropolitan Region Lynn MacLaren, City of Fremantle mayor Dr Brad Pettitt, KPMG director Nicole Lockwood and Grattan Institute chief executive John Daley, a bit of discussion around politics was inevitable.

Ms Dean said it was noted that governments would often listen to the “loudest noise” they heard, but that doing so might not get the best overall outcome for the city in the future.

John Daley, she said, made some points that the political system was not perfect, and that sometimes politicians “fall in love with a particular option… but whether it’s the best option is sometimes debatable”.

The need for objective and independent advice was emphasised, she said.

Water was acknowledged as an issue that would need to be considered in the context of meeting the needs of a growing population, but no targets or firm strategies were discussed. Renewable energy, similarly, was raised in terms of the importance of looking at low-carbon energy options, but not a major focus for discussion, Ms Dean said.

She said that based on the discussions at BEMP WA, “it does seem people care about sustainability, but the most useful way to pursue it is around affordability and liveability.

“If we talk about it as part of the whole package, it will get more traction with industry and government to pursue that conversation.”

Perth faces identity crisis

Ms Dean said there was substantial discussion around the opportunities for the city of Perth, and how to create pathways and a vision. There is, however, a lack a general lack of consensus on what Perth’s identity is, and what it is people want from the city in terms of the future.

“There is an opportunity to talk about water and energy security [in that visioning process],” she said.

“How do we progress that conversation? There’s always so many directions things can go in.”

Emma de Jager, executive officer Planning Institute of Australia WA Division, said the need for Perth to develop a clear vision was one of the key messages she took away from BEMP WA.

“It is clear that business as usual will not deliver the city we need in terms of sustainability, design and planning,” Ms de Jager said.

“We need a long-term strategic plan with community buy-in. And there needs to be ongoing collaboration between industry, community and government.”

She said the planning and development process needed to be looking more closely at providing diverse housing choices in middle ring suburbs, while also taking into account the context of developments. Access to transport and jobs is crucial.

“There are also opportunities to look at re-greening our outer ring suburbs,” Ms de Jager said.

Changes to residential design code

Coincidentally, on the same day of the BEMP gathering, the WA Department of Planning released some changes to the residential design code, including an information toolkit setting out design considerations for diverse housing types ranging from standard detached dwellings to densities of up to 40-100+ dwellings a hectare.

Ms de Jager said PIA, the Office of the Government Architect and the Department were currently in discussion around further reform of the planning code, which could include the introduction of a NSW or South Australian style design review panel or design advisory committee for multi-residential and other major projects.

She said this body would be tasked with assessing design quality, she would also want to see sustainability as a factor that is assessed.

The greening of infill areas was also raised at BEMP, with a slide presentation of best practice ideas from Europe and the USA. Ms de Jager said she would like to see outcomes like Toronto’s green roofs as “the norm rather than the exception” in Perth.

Public transport

On public transport, she said it was needed to support density, but that the gathering acknowledged there was a need for the state to develop alternative funding models for its delivery.

“We need to do something sooner, rather than later,” she said.

The impact of the sharing economy, in particular the trend of Gen Y delaying buying a car as car-sharing grows in popularity, was another trend she said was interesting.

“Watch this space in terms of planning for the future generations.”

There were one or two comments around cycling, and how to encourage uptake.

Ms de Jager said that along with the growing trend of commercial projects installing end-of-trip facilities, and increasing connectivity of cycle paths, the two things needed to encourage cycling were improvements to safety through grade separation for cyclists on key routes, and the provision of very simple low-cost infrastructure like places to lock a bike up.

“If we make some of these changes we might see more people swap modes [from car to bike] for short distance trips.”

Ms de Jager said the issues raised at BEMP would form part of PIA WA’s advocacy and policy agenda, particularly around the upcoming Western Australia state election.

In particular, traffic, congestion and sustainability in planning and design would “form part of the debates”, she said.

In terms of the big picture vision for the city, she sees an increasing focus on tourism, and the state’s natural landscapes and environment as assets that should be emphasised. Major sporting events and cultural events also open up new possibilities.

The need to look into new industries was crucial, she said.

“With the mining downturn, we can’t just be about [mining],” Ms de Jager said.

There is also a momentum to capitalise on Perth’s closeness to Asia and examine the “synergies and opportunities” of doing business there.

On design quality

WA state manager for the Australian Institute of Architects Michael Woodhams said there was a “lot of serious agreement” on the importance of design quality among attendees.

He said sustainability was core to the way the Institute was thinking about design, particularly in terms of projects of significant size such as multi-residential developments.

Mr Woodhams said there appearsed to be an understanding on the part of “both sides of politics that [quality and sustainability] will matter.”

There was also, he said, a growing appreciation of the role iconic architecture can contribute to the state’s identity and to the growth of tourism.

“The state economy has to diversify. That came out of [BEMP] very strongly, and there was a lot of agreement,” Mr Woodhams said.

“One of the things [the AIA] wanted to achieve by hosting this was the creation of common ground between the state and local governments about the built environment, and agreement on the importance of quality design and sustainability.”

He said AIA had also made contributions to the current process of planning reform in WA, and that the planning minister had acknowledged that design quality issues would be addressed.

And while there were some developers starting to focus more on design quality in their projects, Mr Woodhams said there was “probably a way to go yet” on that front.

He also said the question of “what is Perth about” was hard for most people to answer, and that whatever the answer actually was, it needed to be about “more than we’ve got good weather and great beaches”.

“Developing some iconic [built] infrastructure is going to help [with the answer],” Mr Woodhams said.

In terms of great outcomes for all buildings, the ideas of sustainability and quality “ought to be just part of fundamental thinking”, he said.

“There are fundamental things we want people to think and do [in terms of buildings] and sustainability should just be inherent in that, also designing for climate,” Mr Woodhams said.

He said the reason the hosts brought together a think tank like The Grattan Institute and KPMG on the panel was to bring together the government that makes decisions with the private sector that consults to it.

“Getting that common ground is so important.”

He said that having brought together like-minded industry bodies to influence government at BEMP was not the end of the conversation.

“We are not going to let this be a once-off talk fest that gathers dust on the shelf, we will continue to follow it up and push these things,” Mr Woodhams said.