News from the front desk, issue 467: There’s an election looming for the Brisbane City Council on 28 March and urban planning looks like shaping up as a key issue that could sway the result.
There’s nothing unusual about that. Ever since it moved out of the realm of statutory bodies where the wise old men (usually) made paternalistic decisions for the rest of us on things like infrastructure and green belts, planning has become a fully loaded political weapon. The sharp end of that political stick is used to jab at everything from immigration to the climate debate.
In Brisbane, and we don’t know why, the sense is that modern planning thinking that promotes intelligent sustainable density (and ideas such as strong energy efficiency programs among its office buildings) has taken a bypass.
Obviously there are some highly progressive thinkers and doers up north – a lot of great innovation comes out of Brisbane – but you feel like these are the pearls that have to continually fight to create something valuable.
In Brisbane there seems to be inbuilt angst about medium density and concepts such as the Missing Middle, which aims to densify loose fit suburbs.
Missing Middle as a policy has been put on hold and town house development looks like being banned when the council meets on Tuesday.
Yet as the Labor lord mayoral candidate Pat Condren pointed out this week, this ban is more spin than substance.
“Sixty-three per cent of Brisbane is zoned low density and only 3 or 4 per cent of that is affected by this townhouse ban,” he told The Brisbane Times.
When The Fifth Estate moderated a panel on timber buildings in Brisbane late last year we heard from reliable sources that the Brisbane City Council will not even hold a conversation with the Government Architects office to discuss the density issue.
The thinking for the council burghers must be that banning medium density is a vote winner.
It’s a bit like those who say curtailing or stopping immigration will fix our housing, infrastructure and climate heating problems all at once. It gets attention but these things are way more complex.
Politicos though, say it’s not a bad tactical choice if you want to be endorsed by a generally conservative populace – actually you’ll probably also attract the so-called greenies and progressive who forget that sprawl is the flip side of density.
In Brisbane, they say, the inner city suburbs have had more than enough density, and the burbs, well… they don’t want it either.
Local Greens councillor Jonathan Sri who was elected on urban planning issues in 2016 and has a strong profile in the inner city patch he represents, says you end up with density that’s underserved by enough amenity in the inner city and slightly increased density in suburban areas, where the idea of commercial/retail/community nodes or hubs looks like a good idea but nothing is done to promote them and make them work properly.
A big problem, Sri says, is that the council – which takes in the entire metropolitan area – has control over land use issues, but not the major infrastructure projects that would alleviate the stresses of a growing population. It controls roads but not public transport.
This limits the council’s ability to demonstrate it’s got the needs of its electorate top of mind: It can build bigger and better road infrastructure, but not deliver trains.
It can also build bike paths and walkways but the heat and humidity in the summer months in Brisbane might be a big ask for a lot of people to appreciate and use.
“Right now, planning in council is almost entirely based on land use planning without reference to transport needs,” he says.
So you can rezone a neighbourhood for more density but the transport plan might have no relation to this.
The council could direct more spending to support walking and bicycle paths but the it doesn’t have control over the trains.
The Greens certainly think there should be a much closer connection between planning for densification and planning for transport, Sri says.
Another big problem, he says, is that the style of townhouse development replicated from southern models is that it’s still not dense enough or walkable enough; it still remains car dependent.
So what’s the underlying problem?
We ask him about the recent Member of the Order of Australia award to Dy Curry, chief planner at Brisbane. How does that recognition for excellence in planning gel with the results at the ground level?
Sri is absolutely clear he doesn’t want to comment on any individual in council offices.
“Often planning decisions in Brisbane are made by the politicians who overrule the advice of councils and city planners,” he says.
“So in many cases the advice of experts is ignored or pushed aside simply because councillors have knee jerk reactions to complex issues.
“I do think we need to support more medium density development in Brisbane but it must be accompanied by more holistic planning; and accompanied by public transport.
“In recent months we’ve seen really regressive planning that doesn’t deal with the challenges.”
There’s another possible reason for this stance, and it could be the thing that causes this entire malcontent over planning and density in the first place – not just in Brisbane.
Sri says it’s pretty clear there’s very low urban literacy going on.
Even the Labor Party, he says, spends its time fighting for more parking. A lot of them don’t understand basic principles.
“Labor councillors often call for more parking in suburban development not understanding they’re providing for more traffic congestion as well.
“And the neo liberal rhetoric is to let developers build whatever they want because it’s the only way to deliver affordable housing.”
Sri can see a real opportunity to repurpose vacant public car parks and for a different style of medium density development that’s concentrated around suburban nodes.
“A lot of people talk in vague terms of building up suburban nodes but despite the rhetoric, densification is still concentrated around the inner city with the result that the vast majority remains low density suburban sprawl.
“My view is that we need to drill more deeply into the Missing Middle. But we also need to rethink the underlying assumptions between where people live and where they work and recognise that not everyone wants to live in the city centre.”
We need to understand how we can live sustainably, Sri says.
“A big part of the problem is that developers tend to follow infrastructure, so that if councils upzone areas for slightly higher densities, but the infrastructure isn’t there, developers won’t see that as attractive.
“If council started to decentralise its services and had work based in offices around the suburbs it would signal to the private sector to invest in these areas and they won’t be hung out to dry.”
But there have been so many failed experiments to move people to the burbs.
We point to the countless government programs to shift this department or that to the regions or suburban centres with limited success.
Sri says it can work if it’s done properly.
“The vast majority of employees work in the inner city. If council started to decentralise its services and had work based in offices around the suburbs it would signal to the private sector to invest in these areas and they won’t be hung out to dry.”
Council and state government need to lead by example, Sri says.
State government holds the big policy levers like funding and infrastructure spending and it also has more capacity to decentralise its workforce, Sri says.
“If the government thinks it’s good enough to send people and commercial businesses to the ‘burbs and increase the densities then it should do so itself by moving more of the departments to these nodes.
“Because in this day and age there’s not as much need for every government department to locate right it the CBD.”
There is a bigger conversation about walkable neighbourhoods, of course, and that means densification, which can take many forms, Sri says.
“It’s important to promote mixed use where residential development is close to community facilities and close to commercial hubs.”
As for the council election, Sri says “it’s interesting now we’re seeing a lot of people swinging to the Greens because of transport planning and unsustainable development.”