INTERVIEW: Chris De Silva has received the top gong at this year’s Planning Institute of Australia awards, named Planner of the Year for his enduring versatility and leadership across more than 30 years in the industry.
The awards also recognised the contribution of new technologies and approaches in driving the industry forward, with the Cutting Edge Research & Teaching award going to a NSW-based consortium, the City Futures Research Centre, for their Smart Cities toolkit.
A transferable action plan created by the City of Hobart to bridge strategy and on-the- ground outcomes received the Improving Planning Processes and Practices President’s Award, while the City of Palmerston received the Public Engagement & Community Planning President’s Award for its involvement of marginalised community members.
Other winners on the night included Young Planner of the Year Daniel Krause, as well as Dr Cameron Murray who received the Planning Champion Award.
The balance between current and future communities
Mr De Silva told The Fifth Estate that the voices of planners were being heard now more than ever and that planning concepts held more weight than they did 30 years ago when he began in the industry.
“There very much is an emphasis on consultation as a primary input into setting of directions and decision making in relation to planning matters.
However, he said this had become a double-edged sword.
“The emphasis on consultation whilst well intentioned and necessary is in some instances I think tipping the bias towards the interest of current communities as opposed to the interest of future communities – which is something that planners grapple with on a regular basis.”
He said that while planners did not always have all the answers, prolonged consultations and proliferation of opinions on the field were lessening the professional respect towards the views of planners.
“As opposed to say, an engineering view or an architectural view, the planning view is often a more generalist view and it’s subject of opinion and debate. To a large extent that’s healthy but sometimes the consultation based approach can lead to a bias view in terms of the interest of the current community.”
Spanning public to private
As a planner Mr De Silva spent nearly two decades with the City of Whittlesea in Victoria before founding his own private firm, Mesh, which has grown to around 20 employees.
During that time his ability to conceptualise the strategic benefits of projects has seen him close the divide between the planning and development industries and improve on funding practices.
“The particular local government entity that I was with attracted a real reputation right across the country for in house work and clarity of direction and implementation. That was a particular period that I don’t know will be repeated in local government to be honest, it was one of those rare alignment of the stars that sort of came together at that time,” Mr De Silva said
“It shocked everyone when I resigned from government at that time, to go to the dark side as it were. But (we’ve been) able to maintain some integrity and quality of output and specialise in some interesting areas.”
The company consults both to the private and public sector, and at any one time can be working with up to eight local governments on projects ranging from preparation of structure and development contribution plans through to implementation advice.
Following the initial uncertainty of COVID-19, which continues to plague Melbourne on and off, Mr De Silva said Mesh had been busier than ever, adding that the pandemic had also shaken up the way that some people in the industry were thinking about planning.
The shake up of localism – do we need to be in the office?
“At a strategic level there’s definitely been a real questioning of the longer term impacts associated with this sense of localism and whether or not you actually need to be in an office in a central location,” he said.
“The trend towards decentralised living, whether it be throughout regional Victoria or other locations had already started, but COVID-19’s probably kicked it along. I do see some longer term sustained changes but maybe not to the extent that some are perhaps predicting.”
Irrespective of COVID-19 trends, Mr De Silva said that planning for the future of Australia’s biggest cities will be a challenge, particularly as populations balloon.
“It wasn’t so long ago that we were talking about a population of three million for Melbourne, then it became five million and now there’s predictions of eight million and they’re not unrealistic predictions by any means.”
Mr De Silva advocates for the simple proposition that transport systems drive economies and drive land use patterns and from that perspective continuous investment in the system is required.
“I think the popular view is there needs to be — and we’re already seeing — significant investment in rail-based public transport infrastructure at the moment as a generational investment. Most people would agree with the view that you can never get enough of that in a sense.”
Mr De Silva described the major uptake of electric vehicles as undeniable, however he was doubtful whether that would create a lessening of impact on the road network.
“I just think it’s another form of vehicle that will be competing for road space, but others are more optimistic about some of the savings associated with electric and driverless vehicles.”
Mr De Silva’s company is currently involved in Australia’s largest urban renewal project with the aim of accommodating around 80,000 residents and as many jobs in the 480 hectares of Melbourne’s Fishermans Bend.
Mesh specialises in creating development contributions plans, to determine how much developers should pay towards the cost of necessary infrastructure for residents.
With a development the size of Fishermans Bend Mr De Silva said necessary infrastructure improvements included creating open spaces, schools, community centre, drainage networks and even the possibility of extending tram services into the area.
“Inevitably the debate becomes, what should the appropriate contribution level be that’s reasonably associated with the impact of development?”
“A precinct of that scale will inevitably generate particular infrastructure needs and it’s about how to plan for meeting those needs over a 30 year timeframe or longer.”
Mr De Silva said the contributions plan would be released for review and consultation following the approval of the government planning authorities.