Our Surround Sound panel

Our first Sydney Surround Sound for Sustainable Precincts drew a stellar crowd with some exceptional ideas.

The goal of the night: to co-create content for our next ebook on sustainable precincts. Though what we discovered on the night was that people don’t just want to talk about precincts – sure they are key to shaping cities, but that last part was at the heart of last night’s debate – how do we shape the cities we want?

Sydney, as host of the discussion naturally became the centre of debate. It’s going to see a population of eight million and we need to talk about planning for that city in 40 years, not the one we have now, panellist Tim Williams, chief executive of the Committee for Sydney, told the crowd.

He joined an influential panel of developers, government representatives, innovators and thought leaders:

  • Matt Plumbridge, UrbanGrowth, Senior Manager – Sustainable Development
  • Erin Flaherty, Infrastructure NSW, Executive Director
  • David Barnard, AECOM, Urban Design Leader
  • Terry Leckie, Flow Systems, Managing Director
  • Sally Betts, Waverley Council, Mayor
  • David Rolls, Mirvac, Head of Cities and Urban Renewal
  • Paul Walker, Lend Lease, Head of Investment, Urban Regeneration
  • Michelle Tabet, independent strategy director

There was serious passion in evidence for providing the best outcomes for Sydney. The big question posed by a clearly talented audience of about 100 people, is how do we get there?

James Rosenwax, business leader, Design + Planning and Architecture at AECOM opened proceedings (AECOM was also host for the night and co-lead sponsor  with UrbanGrowth NSW and Flow Systems, with supporting sponsor Waverley Council).

James told the audience no one knew what to expect, and it was true! The Surround Sound format has only been tested once before in Perth; this was our first trial with an East Coast crowd. Our plan is to get the audience – stacked with some of the best minds in planning, architecture, design, development, governance, academia and community engagement – to be the drivers of the conversation, and to get up on soapboxes to throw as many challenges and curve balls as they can to the panel, and to each other.

It’s new ground for us, but all indications have been positive.

Our MC, the incomparable Maria Atkinson (who did an amazing job keeping the night engaging, fast-paced, respectful and upbeat), took the reins. Starting out in “Tony Jones mode”, Maria threw the panel some opening questions to warm up the room and start the audience thinking about what needed to be discussed.

We’re not going to give too much away now (you’ll have to read the book) but here’s some of the things that came out.

First to Waverley Mayor Sally Betts we found out how Waverley will reinvigorate Bondi Junction with an ambitious, replicable environmental strategy, and why light rail needed to be part of the solution.

Committee for Sydney’s Tim Williams was asked about inequity. He said sustainability discussions often did not bring in the question of equity. Sprawl and inequity were linked. The people ranking lower on health, education and economy were now those furthest from the city, a “great inversion” of the norm over the past generation. The challenge was to have a proper discussion with all of Sydney, and better prosecute the case for “why the high-density city?”

“Is it about sustainability? Is it about economy? Is it about productivity? I want to introduce this notion that it’s also about equity.”

Matt Plumbridge, asked what the vision was, said UrbanGrowth NSW’s developments would address the issue of social equity. In Atlanta, he said, the likelihood of being born into poverty and getting out of it was four per cent.

“What we want to see is inclusive and engaged precincts… connected, with a vibrant and enduring local economy both day and night. We want ultimately green buildings and green infrastructure. I mean that’s almost default position these days.”

It’s gotta be fun, he said, and each precinct needed to have its own identity.

Michelle Tabet, speaking on the fear of developers, development and gentrification, said there were developers driven by what the market allowed, and those that were driven by what they should do. With Sydney’s residential market at the moment, “you could sell anything”, she said. The onus was on developers as city leaders to do the right thing.

“That’s where the dilemma is,” she said. A close brush with calling for raised, better enforced minimum standards, but an issue that didn’t get off the ground. (On that note, in our ebook, we’ll be writing on the event, the issues raised, as well as those that weren’t – raising minimum standards, new governance models and WestConnex just a few of the things raised in our survey and pre-event briefing to not get an explicit mention on the night.)

On the soapboxes

Maria morphed into “Jenny Brockie mode” for the major part of the evening, which was audience involvement via our soapboxes.

First up was Urban Taskforce’s Chris Johnson, who said we were being too tentative – we were moving to an urban city fast and there was a communication message that wasn’t prosecuted strongly enough.

Infrastructure NSW’s Erin Flaherty talked about “the polycentric city”, with Parramatta the next city, to be followed by Liverpool. Eight million people just could not come and work in the CBD, she said.

Lendlease’s Paul Walker said polycentricity was a theory that did not work well for Singapore – people ended up having twice as far to go to work when their business relocated to the west, but they lived in the East.

“People can’t uproot their homes as fast as cities want to go polycentric,” he said.

The Better Planning Network’s Jeanette Brokman said the community needed to receive more credit, and to be engaged earlier.

“We’re getting the conversation wrong. We’re not having a robust conversation. We’re not game to have it.”

The community had lost faith, and the industry needed to show leadership to get it back on track.

City of Sydney’s Chris Derksema prosecuted the case for strengthening enforcement of our BCA minimums, so we were building what we say we are building.

EcoDistricts’ Adam Beck said the US had worked out how to collaborate on urban renewal projects, and coming back to Australia had been trying.

“You guys kill me here,” he said. “This is a really adversarial environment when it comes to urban renewal. I think we’ve got a lot of changes to do and I think we’ve been scared to do it.”

We haven’t put enough pressure on ourselves to change, and we’re having the same old conversation, he said.

There was debate in the room on how applicable other models were for Australia, but consensus that we should draw on international best practice.

If one thing was clear from the closing statements, it was that NSW Planning Minister Rob Stokes is both charming and handsome. From Sally Betts to Tim Williams, it was a fact no man or woman could deny. What was debatable, however, was whether Mr Stokes was the most important person to influence to get the outcomes Sydney needs and deserves, which was our closing question to the panel.

Some said they wanted to change the general public’s outlook, others wanted us to get to project managers.

Tim Williams wanted to influence the Premier and the make-up of parliament.

“Gone are the days where we need a separate roads ministry,” he said to a round of applause.

It was a “structural flaw” at the heart of government, and we needed an integrated transport approach.

David Rolls’ advocating for changing the rules around Standard & Poor’s gained more applause.

“What [the current rules do] is cause governments to have to hold onto AAA credit ratings, which means they can’t invest in infrastructure, cant invest in affordable housing…”

There’s far too much good content to wrap up here, but it will be explored more fully in the pages of the ebook, which we’re very excited to be working on.

Thank you to our panel, MC, sponsors and audience for helping create some wonderful content that can hopefully assist Sydney to realise its full potential.