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North West Bicester is the UK’s first zero carbon community. Image: North West Bicester

Last year wasn’t an easy time to start a national “Declare” movement but that didn’t stop a small group of dedicated planners joining forces to declare a climate and biodiversity emergency.

The group of about 15 planners has spent the past year coordinating the movement via video conference, with the most pressing task developing an ethos for signatories to sign up to.

This has been challenging, according to founding members Alexandra Faure, a senior town planner at Tract, and Naomi Beck, senior planner at Niche Planning Studio, because planning is such a broad profession.

There’s plenty of exemplary work to draw on, however. One example is the sustainable subdivisions pilot, which is being run by a coalition of 16 Victorian councils in partnership with the Council Alliance for a Sustainable Built Environment (CASBE) and the Victorian Planning Authority (VPA).

The framework for the pilot program, developed by HIP V. HYPE Sustainability and Spiire, talks about compact, walkable neighbourhoods, thoughtful lot orientation so homes can efficiently generate solar energy, water sensitive design, keeping mature trees for biodiversity purposes, using recycled materials and several other techniques for designing sustainable new communities.

Councils started trialling the framework in October 2020, with the pilot period lasting until March 2022. New subdivisions will be assessed against the framework, and if necessary, councils will suggest ways to better align a project with the framework.

According to Beck, the pilot is about “accepting that subdivision development is going to happen; so ensuring it’s happening in the best way, and even without being able to control who builds the houses.

“It’s about raising standards.”

A Declare movement with difference

What’s becoming apparent is that the planners declare movement will look a bit different to equivalent movements started by engineers and architects.

Because planners are spread across local government, academia and the private sector, it’s not so straight forward to ask all planners to first “clean up their own houses”, that is, to commit to carbon neutral internal operations.

This has more-or-less been phase one of the Architects Declare movement, for example, with the massively more influential – and challenging – next phase to reduce the emissions profile of projects.

Faure told The Fifth Estate that for planners, it will be more about emboldening practitioners to push for low carbon outcomes early in the planning process.

She says planners typically know what climate-sensitive planning looks like – less car dependency, biodiversity protection, etcetera – but it’s not yet embedded in business-as-usual.

“I would say that typically when you are at work, it’s more about people don’t think about the environment as much as they think about social or economic outcome. They have bigger voices,” Beck added.

“So people are obviously interested in making as much money as they can, and also interested in ensuring all people have a voice, but the environment doesn’t have its own voice.

“That’s where the gap sort of is in terms of the day-to-day prioritisation.”

The game plan is for planners to become “climate confident” so that they can have informed conversations with council and developer clients.

“It’s about being able to ask ‘have you thought about how this will impact people’s cost of living in the future?’ … and having done your research on [low carbon] construction materials.”

What the movement has done so far, and plans for 2021

So far, the movement has focused on recruiting members and doing some advocacy work, such as putting in submissions to government inquiries. The group is also talking to organisations like the Planning Institute of Australia.

Next will be holding events and spreading awareness, and building a presence across Australia so that the movement can give localised assistance and advice. Most members are currently in Victoria.

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