Tomorrowland 2018: “We the people” panel– the (long) highlights
We the People panel at The Fifth Estate's Visit Tomorrowland 2018

The Tomorrowland 2018 ebook is just days away from publishing. But how could we resist giving you a great sneak peek at one of the absolute highlights of the day? Following is the long-ish version of the highlights.

Will we get the urban future we want, and if not, why not? 

This big and burly session was designed to look at the massive challenges facing our future with panelists split in two: one representing the stakeholders in our future built environment; the second representing the development industry responsible for delivering it.

Chief inquisitor and moderator: Tim Williams, Chair, Open Cities and Cities Leader Australasia, ARUP, former CEO Committee of Sydney. 

Panel 1 – Stakeholders in our future

Angie Abdilla, Founder & CEO of Old Ways

John Austen (ex infrastructure Australia) and writer

John Brockhoff, Planning Institute of Australia

Jorge Chapa, Head of Market Transformation, GBCA 

Terry Leckie, Founder and Executive Director, Flow Systems

Panel 2 – Representative of the development industry

Tasha Burrell, Program Director, Western Sydney at Landcom

Jennifer Hughes, Partner, Baker McKenzie

Davina Rooney, General Manager, Sustainability at Stockland and national sustainability roundtable chair for the Property Council

Scott Taylor, Head of Living Utilities, Lendlease,   

Iain Walker, Executive Director, newDemocracy

Embracing aboriginal cultural heritage in urban planning

Angie Abdilla, Old Ways, New kicked off discussion: “I’m a Trawlwoolway woman from Tasmania, and my father is Maltese. I think it’s important to locate ourselves and where we come from to state how we connect. What are the ways in which developers overcome aboriginal cultural heritage as being considered an obstacle in planning and development to being a rich and deep source of inspiration and knowledge, including connection to place, understanding of place, sustainability principles and practices? 

Davina Rooney, Stockland: ”It’s a long journey. We’re lucky to have reconciliation action plans to use as a starting point. Some of the first things we do first is cultural understanding and awareness. At a higher level it is about involving Indigenous voices in our teams. 

We’re still on a journey with the RAP and I’m owning up to this. We’re now looking for higher opportunities, such as taking the RAP to the unique indigenous community on a site to see what they can bring and which aspects of the broader framework they are interested in and redeploying it at that location alone. The cool part of that is they are directly influencing our activities and programs. “

Scott Taylor, Lendlease: the penny is starting to drop. “When you do product development, you think about an outcome and a process, and this is important but it goes deeper than a single project. You can’t learn 65,000 years of history overnight. You’ve got to bring this thinking into the fabric of the business and have a continuous conversation. This diversity and understanding has to permeate every part of the business.”

Tasha Burrell, Landcom: the development industry “hasn’t done very well on this yet” and is working on ways to improve. Recent Landcom initiatives include the Indigenous community of the Blue Mountains and Penrith region approaching Landcom about the land they own and what land they wanted to take back. “We have an equal partnership to work together so that they can look after the land and how this will involve into a money making venture… We now have eight young intelligent people who are working with land councils to see how we can better integrate Indigenous needs into the developments of the future and put this into a new framework.”

Tackling the big problems in our cities

Tim Williams: “I can see we are looking at best practice here. But we need to get this kind of thinking across the whole of the development sector to the smaller scale operators as well. (To MP John Alexander), we are talking about the challenges of keeping up with growth in our cities, you are working on transport infrastructure in cities. Do you think we’ve got it right?”

It was just a week or so before the federal government’s mammoth Building Up & Moving Out report into the development of cities was due to come out. Alexander had chaired the House of Representatives committee that authored the report.

John Alexander, MP: There were two sections of the report, he said: one devoted to retrofitting infrastructure and land use plans in Australian cities, the second, to strategic decentralization the key was strategic decentralisation. We need incentives for immigrants to live in regional places by providing housing opportunities and quality living standards.

Tim Williams – What is the federal government response to these findings?

Alexander: there is now a realisation from both major parties that politicians need to liberate themselves from what has been a destructive 10 years in Australian politics. The appetite for “a contest of ideas” is growing on both sides. 

“The way to win people back is to focus on policy plans and put forward a vision. Central to any city plan or development is opportunities for housing for the next generation. We are in a 60 year low of home ownership and it’s predicted to get to less than 50 per cent in the next eight years. And we have to strategically decentralise, so the way to create incentives for immigrants to live in these places is by providing housing opportunities in those regional areas, and make it viable, and provide a quality of living. 

This idea of high speed rail, which has been tossed around for ages without anyone understanding the purpose of it, is rapid connectivity. Commuting is not judge on the distance you commute but the time. With high speed rail, Wollongong, the Southern Highlands and Gosford are 15-16 minutes from the CBD. The uplift of the value of that land adds the perfect storm of opportunity to value capture and the fund infrastructure through value capture. This also uplifts the value of lands brought into the Sydney or Melbourne market. 

“This is a vision that has captured our party and I think there is some support on the other side. My Labor co-chair, Sharon Bird, and our whole bipartisan committee thinks as one in that we need to get real plans taken to our agencies and department, and not interfered with by our politicians.

“There should be real understanding that when a politician announces an infrastructure project, that that has been a failure of that government because that should have been planned for and rolled out. Infrastructure Australia is a pointless group without a land planner or master planner to determine what land use will accompany the infrastructure. And that the funding mechanism developed by IFAAA should also accompany those two. There should be a commissioner to bring those groups together. Then the only role of the government should be to keep the whip out and make sure those plans are delivered.”

Broken democracy and its impact on planning

Iain Walker:  newDemocracy, supported much of Alexander’s vision but pointed out that “high speed rail is a great idea until the first house has to be demolished”. All tiers of government rely too heavily on public opinion, rather than judgment, to make decisions, he said. When people stop to think, they realise that there are often benefits from new development. A good solution is to listen to everybody, not just the disgruntled, and to stop selling people answers – policymakers and planners should instead share problems and ask for public involvement in planning decisions in ways that don’t antagonise. Did Alexander have any ideas on how to overcome this apparent failure of the democratic system?

John Alexander: One of the challenges with value capture is aligning the three levels of government with the stakeholder, the landowner, as well the developer in a common cause. On the topic of high speed rail coming into Sydney, once it gets into the city it will be underground so it won’t impact housing. It will create a CBD wherever it is located. And the three components have all agreed that this will be in the Homebush area. There will be a new CBD there

A lack of collaboration is holding us back

Terry Leckie, Flow Systems, asked the developers some questions: “I’m in the market for a car. Someone told me it would be stupid to buy a combustion car, I should buy an electric car, what do you think? I’m worried because I keep cars around five or six years so will it hold its value? I’m also in the market for a house, it doesn’t matter if apartment or house. I see solar panels, grey water, smart systems, etcetera. I’m asking developers what should I buy and why?

Scott Taylor, Lendlease: in an ideal world, Terry should be able to move somewhere he doesn’t need a car. This remains difficult because the built environment continues to operate building-by-building and block-by-block, making it difficult to share electricity, water, and mobility, among other amenities. Government procurement is very fragmented and potentially creates “Frankenstein solutions”. If the federal, state and local governments could unlock a new paradigm of procurement, the shared economy would be able to thrive. “Then Terry could move to Pyrmont and not need a car.”

Tim Williams – (to John Austen) Sydney’s far west is going to grow in the next 20 years and become warmer, how do we design to accommodate this?

John Austen, formerly from Infrastructure Australia, and John Brockoff, Planning Institute of Australia, both agreed that persuading three levels of government to agree on whose responsibility the big issues are – let alone act on them – is extremely challenging. 

John Austen – A few comments. The first is the million or so people who are going to move [west], is they’ll chose to move there. What they’ll ask from departments and governments is to make more of it. Second comment is after being in Infrastructure Australia there was a major High Court decision that redefined the powers of the federal government (or how people perceived them). Prior to that was assumed the federal government could fund anything. It can still fund anything, but only through grants to the states. So Commonwealth and states need to fundamentally recalibrate their powers rather than go on the pre 2014 trajectory. 

“During Whitlam, we had a period of in and out of urban affairs, it was considered the ‘policy Vietnam’ in Canberra to be avoided at all costs. Paul Keating was more involved, Howard years there was the perception that the Commonwealth is not responsible for congestion, Rudd/Gillard were more interested in planning. So there’s been an in and out of urban affair without a constitutional responsibility. There is now a rude challenge for the Commonwealth and states. People expecting something from the Commonwealth and the states. 

“There’s a realisation that the way in which our society is governed hasn’t caught up with technology, infrastructure, population, and immigration challenges. How do we govern ourselves when our assumptions since the second world war have very much changed?”

John Brockoff: the Commonwealth is “spatially blind” and  “pulls the levers” on concepts such as taxation (think negative gearing) but fails to realise how these actions affect places and impact the success of cities.

Scott Taylor: governments are not solely to blame for subpar planning decisions. Recent research commissioned by the Property Council City Roundtable found that, in Australia, academia, government and industry struggle to collaborate to solve the challenges of our built environment, whereas in other countries, including the UK and US, the private sector takes a leadership role, and academia, government and industry do a better job of this.

Sustainability has an image problem

Tim Williams – Is lack of collaboration holding us back?

Jorge Chapa, GBCA, wants to reframe the question of sustainability to one of quality.”Do people care about the sustainability agenda? I’d like to reframe that. Australia is a developed country. I’d expect things to be built well. So I’d like to reframe the question of sustainability to a question of quality. I think the breakdown in social licence in development is we’re not getting the quality outcomes that people expect out of Australia’s built environment. So my question to the developers is am I on the right track, and how can we get equality back? Maybe the rest of the industry not playing its part?”

Davina Rooney agreed: the degree to which consumers value sustainability is fundamental, she said. A recent surveying found that at the time of purchase, people didn’t express concern for or value sustainability, but after a year or so they changed their minds when they realised that they were more comfortable and were receiving lower bills.

She wanted to know what it will take to get the residential market excited about sustainability. Could “net zero” be a more exciting proposition; the notion of no bills rather than 20 per cent less? 

Chapa said residents are starting to expect more from their homes – “I don’t want a slightly better house, I want a damn good house”.

It’s an exciting time for the residential sector, he said.

The economic argument isn’t resonating

Tim Williams asked why the economic case for renewables is frequently obscured so that we only hear about on-costs rather than the financial benefits of these energy sources. 

Davina Rooney said that the Property Council and the Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council (ASBEC) had commissioned research into which existing technologies can transition the built environment down to net zero by 2050, and were advocating their finding to government. This as the first piece in a big puzzle that is selling the business case for renewables. 

Tasha Burrell, Landcom said one idea considering a method of pushing the economic benefits of sustainability by selling a house at a certain price, and then returning some money to the purchaser within two years if the occupants make sustainable renovations or additions to their homes. “It’s an easier thing to swallow than if we say: if you don’t put it in we’ll charge you more, and if you do, we’ll charge you less.” 

Tim Williams – I want to ask Jennifer Hughes about her concerns around quality.

Jennifer Hughes, Baker McKenzie said controls on developers are currently too weak to ensure we receive quality buildings. “When developers decide to build, they pull out the guidelines and the building code, and work out the cheapest way to construct their building.

“The building code has improved in recent times, it now requires a 6 star NatHERS for residential building, for example. We do have ecological sustainability as a goal in the environmental sustainability of a major object. The goal comes into consideration on a planning level but for building a single building for residential or accommodation, the controls we have are relatively weak. They could be a hell of a lot better than they are. I believe we need a legal response to this. I do think we need improvements in building code and consistency in planning controls to drive developers to build quality apartments that people will want to live in.”

There are ways to improve the system, Hughes said. “I don’t think it’s fundamentally broken or flawed, but some tweaks around the edges would make things better.”

Tim Williams – Do people care that their home is sustainable?

Iain Walker – I run a democratic reform organisation and to your point, there is a gap between opinion and judgement. If there’s one thing wrong about how we make public decisions across all tiers of government is we rely on public opinion, not judgement. If we get arrested, we wouldn’t ask for a 1000 person opinion poll to see if we should to gaol. We will take a jury, a small sample of people who will hear the evidence and think about it as a group. When it comes to property development, people don’t know about the tiers of govt. Opinion responses are off track. People always say they don’t like development. But when they look deeper they start to realise the cash they can yield form their built environment.

If you announce a building, you’ll only hear from the angriest people. All we ever say in this question on governance is two things:

  1. hear from the representatives of people. You will need to hear the entrenched views and also talk to the rest
  2. Stop trying to sell people answers. None of us like to be sold answers. Tell your partner today that they need to go to the dentist, and they’ll say they don’t want to go to the dentist. But what if you ask how they will have teeth, it’s different.

We need to ask people how can we pay for the system we want and we won’t be default rejected. Share the problem – population and congestion – then put the question to the people.

John Brockoff: People don’t understand how to do density well. Thematic concepts like density, population, they don’t gel in people’s minds. It’s how their local neighbourhood, their community, is going to work. 

Tim Williams – (addressing John Alexander) So about the whole idea of managing our cities? It’s critical to the idea of buying into growth. How do we know when we are making progress on the agenda? What would you like to see in terms of buy in from the federal government as part of a response [to the report Building Up and Moving Out?]?

John Alexander: “I’d first like other politicians and government officials to read it. And then they need to respond by acting rather than ticking the box. It’s commonly understood now that this plan is a response to solving a problem that came about because there was no plan. It’s a response to siloed departments, the ad hoc-ness of responses to problems rather than looking at the problem in its entirety.

“We do the same with droughts, maybe we should be doing something to stop the drought or consequences of drought though infrastructure. This paper will be a launch pad for a point in time for the end to this reactionary culture that we have, and the commencement of planning infrastructure, attaching it to land use, and masterplanning. This reactionary approach to planning can lead to all sorts of problems, such as failing to include important stakeholders in the discussion. 

“During the inquiry, the committee found water utilities were frequently excluded from planning processes, which sometimes meant freshly cemented roads and sidewalks were then pulled up to make way for water pipes. Who would have thought people living in those houses needed water?”

Tim Williams: When will this end?

Terry Leckie: “I think we take planning and decision making for granted. We expect that planning is done the right way. Look at Western Sydney you might be pleasantly surprised. There are simple families trying to buy a place in a community where you feel included. You want the people building this place to think about this. If there is a drought, who is thinking about that? I don’t think we would have thought all of us needed a smartphone a while ago. What do we want, given the opportunity to build a new city? We want to be pleasantly surprised.”

Angie Abdilla said we shouldn’t just be focusing on the economic drivers of sustainability but that we should also consider our personal relationships with country, which will deepen cultural identity and bring back personal responsibility. “We should consider how we can empower residents of a new community development to become custodians of that country.”

What about water?

With the wheels finally now turning on a more sustainable energy system, it’s time to think about improving our water systems. Scott Taylor said we’re up against the same issues with water as we are with energy, and that bringing all tiers of government together under a unifying policy will be challenging. 

He added that technology might be able to help with such issues as recycling water, and this is something the public will need to learn to embrace rather than negate. 

John Brockoff pointed out that technology is fine, but at some point, we need to start living within our means. He used Dubai as an example to warn that city-scale desalination plants lead to oceans so salty that all signs of life disappear and everyone can do 100 metres of the butterfly stroke, whether they can swim well or not.

A thought worth pondering.

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