Rod Simpson

Most people agree the future is coming at us faster than we’d like but Rod Simpson shows it’s also in a shape that we can’t even imagine right now. For western Sydney, which is expected to carry the majority of Sydney’s growth over the coming decades, the opportunity is to do everything differently.

Simpson, environment commissioner for the Greater Sydney Commission and associate professor at the University of Sydney, challenges on so many levels.

Imagine, he says, a city where autonomous cars not only dramatically reduce the number of cars on the road, but where they pretty much eliminate the need for many structures designed to accommodate them, and currently dominating our planning regime.

“If we have an intelligent vehicle, it can remember how to navigate its way through the traffic like an intelligent human.

“There might be no parking required because there will be an 80 per cent reduction in the number of cars, so no car parking and no parking structures.

“Suddenly streets are treelined and shady and residential density is doubled.”

When Simpson places that image in your mind and you remember that cars lie dormant, their embodied energy wasted for 95 per cent of their existence, you suddenly realise that here is an immense opportunity to do development and urbanity quite differently than in the past.

Think what Airbnb did with those empty rooms in our houses, or what hot desking did when someone noticed that a large number of desks in offices sat empty for much of the day.

The power of urban planning

Simpson also notes the power of urban planning to change the health and social outcomes of our cities.

For instance if you drive around the big western areas of Sydney now you might notice there are no small shops where you can stop for a drink or pick up something to cook for dinner. Instead there are clumps of shops, with the two big supermarkets (Woolies and Coles) usually next to each other and with each centre spaced well apart from the next.

What’s left in between are petrol stations and fast food outlets.

So, what’s the answer to this?

“You get tough and you radically reduce the size of the supermarket,” Simpson says.

“Ireland has done it and the ACT has done it.”

Simpson is also interested in changing deeper habits in our urban development.

It pays to think about the nature of urbanity and what makes a city or a community of interests, he says.

“But let’s examine next this idea of massive malls being built by massive mall owners. Or office owners who keep just building more offices,” Simpson says.

“Is this ideal? Is it the right starting point?”

According to Simpson you could see that a natural starting point for urbanity is the primary school.

“What is the granularity and the structure of the city we will design? So what is the rationale for urban developments in western Sydney? Is it the local supermarket, is it actually a shopping mall?

“Why do people go to malls? To get access to goods or to interact? Look at the retail strategies of the big shopping centre owners. They’re putting in a whole lot of food and beverage because conventional retail is struggling.

“We’ve got a redundant model but we’re tinkering with it, with café culture.

“You ask what are the things that are the most persistent elements in an urban setting and the most persistent are preschools, mothers groups, primary in particular.

“And if those things are the anchors, the benchmarks or the starting points or the seeds, how do you elaborate other activities around this?”

Simpson says it could be that shared workspaces are part of a school and community hub, fresh food markets or recreation and health that become the primary drivers.

“How do all these things link together? (Does this) become a major employment centre?

“There’s a need to think about how all the pieces can come together in the urban form. Housing, greenery, aged cares, schools etcetera.

“I’m interested in the way the whole system works.”

Rod Simpson at an event attended by The Fifth Estate in 2014

The inertia of vested interests

Working against a rational outcome that respects these natural urbanity tendencies, Simpson says, is the “inertia” of vested interests and institutional structures where “we have transport specialists delivering transport and office and commercial owners delivering office buildings and shopping centre owners delivering shopping centres …there is a huge inertia of doing more of the same,” he says.

How do you create the conditions to shift that? Everyone says industry will innovate to do this and that. I think they don’t.”

He says office buildings are expected to deliver returns for the next 25 years, so you have investors locked into that asset for the next 25 years. That’s not a model for flexibility and change.

A  future we can’t imagine

And yet what’s key, he says, is to leave open “a future you can’t imagine”, which can yield different and hopefully better results that our “modernist way of imagining a future and then heading towards it and building it”.

This need for flexibility resonates with the ideas that recently came out of our Tomorrowland event on buildings of the future – that the future is essentially unknown and the need to be flexible to accommodate this unknown is in contrast to the inert and solid nature of our buildings.

Things are improving

But Simpson is optimistic.

There are City Deals being developed with the Commonwealth, and there is some great work under way by highly talented people in state government, especially in transport, he says.

And there is a commitment to the west, namely now through the second airport, which recognises that if you want to “change the geography” of an area, as a government, you need to do something big.

“The government only has a few big things it can do – airports, rail, hospitals, universities.”

With another five million people looking to come to Sydney, and mainly to its west, “big” seems to be the appropriate thinking that’s required.