Dr Joanne Jakovich

After BEMP comes BPN.

The Better Planning Network came out in force last Tuesday night to show what it’s made of.

Like the Built Environment Meets Parliament conference two weeks ago, it too met at Parliament House NSW.

Professor Anna Yeatman
Professor Anna Yeatman

Both events were a show of strength, the venue a symbol of the political cache held by each of these two groups. In some ways you could see them as two sides of the same coin: BEMP representing the built environment’s main professional and advocacy bodies, BPN representing the community and an increasingly feisty network calling for a bigger voice in the planning process.

At BEMP the big conversations were around value uplift capture; inclusionary zoning (mandating a percentage of affordable housing for specified development projects); visions for the city in 2026; walkable, more village-based cities; and diverse housing – amid a growing range of challenges, not the least of which is population growth.

On the residents/community side the BPN had a similar line up of professional and informed speakers including Committee for Sydney’s Dr Tim Williams, the Greens’ David Shoebridge, architect Philip Thalis, former deputy mayor of Sydney John McInerney and founder of SOUP Dr Joanne Jakovich, a former UTS academic who spoke of how young people saw the planning challenges. University of Sydney’s Professor Peter Phibbs moderated.

The audience listened respectfully to all, controlling their inner fire… until pretty much near the end.

First up was Professor Anna Yeatman who impressed with a calm and reasoned call for a civilised and inclusive system for our cities.

Close to a full house at Parliament House NSW for the BPN conference
Close to a full house at Parliament House NSW for the BPN conference

Would our future have “neighbourhoods and communities that flourish” and places that “inspire love and care, and can support creative sustainable economic development?” she asked.

Or would they have too much high rise, “carelessly built” with too many people and “worker mice” trying their best to get along?

The notion of “open for business” … disaggregates community, sets one group against the other

Yeatman, a professorial research fellow at the Whitlam Institute at the University of Western Sydney, who has also held a Canada Research Chair in Political Science at the University of Alberta, touched the democracy nerve – the idea that planning and cities were a democratic thing. The etymology of cities was of places for citizens where they could participate in the democratic process, she said.

She questioned the notion of “open for business” that is almost the government slogan. It disaggregates community, she said – sets one group against the other.

“If a city if to grow and prosper and develop there must be a process of public planning.”

Neoliberal ideology came in for blame. It pointed a government towards the needs of private investors and saw community involvement as a hindrance.

At the same time, though, neoliberalism was failing, delivering weak business investment, widening inequality, growing part-time and insecure work practices and “alarming levels of debt”.

Greens' David Shoebridge
Greens’ David Shoebridge

Committee for Sydney chief executive Tim Williams agreed on the neoliberalism but said government was more neoliberal than corporates, and felt compelled to sell land at top dollar, instead of choosing to follow sound models, such as in London for instance, where the government placed strategic dividends on affordable housing and better community outcomes ahead of Treasury’s bluster for a balanced budget.

Governments were skint though, he said.

This mention of a cash-strapped government forced to sell public land at market prices without covenants that could deliver affordable housing or other social/economic outcomes, seemed a great shame (and strange to comprehend) in a city that Williams said produced 30 per cent of the nation’s jobs.

The private sector only does good because the government is good

“What outcomes do you want?” he asked. “That comes back to an accountability gap.”

When London didn’t have a strong mayor it was not a great place.

“I’m a great believer in co-production,” he said.

Later he said that where he came from he was used to a very strong public sector.

“The private sector only does good because the government is good.”

Philip Thalis
Philip Thalis

His theme swung to density done well. He showed a photo of a charming street in Barcelona with four to five-storey buildings, but with wide pathways and a narrow roadway, fringed by a canopy of trees. The impression? A place that was clearly much loved, thronged with people.

Government needed to be less nervous about sharing information and plans, he said (picking up on a rising theme).

“Government invents an idea; they don’t tell the private sector then the day before they announce it, they ring up the NRMA and ask if they can back them.”

People want density, Williams said. They want to walk to work and live there as they get older. And these places need to be pleasant to walk in. They need to be interesting so that walking is better than driving. So green helps.

“If we are to gain consensus we need to embrace green infrastructure.”

Who doesn’t love a park and trees?

“Money does grow on trees,” he said, pointing to research that shows higher values in green canopied places.

The real problem is sprawl, he said.

Dr Joanne Jakovich wanted people to close their eyes and think of their favourite place. Then imagine it 15 years from now.

It was not a pretty sight for some. Ringed by high rise, said one member of the audience.

Dr Tim Williams
Dr Tim Williams

The potential Jakovic focused on was around engagement, teams that had alignment, mass participations. It’s possible with the technology we have, she said, showing a video of one such event she has run with a highly engaged creative young crowd.

She liked Tim Williams’ idea of cities as filled with creators not consumers.

Yet the attachment to protest was strong in the room, and derision of the WestConnex motorway and Barangaroo development inevitably spilled into the public space as the formal talks ended and question time picked up pace.

Sydney’s median age is 35 and for many young people, protest doesn’t fit their modality, or their mindset

An age issue emerged. The room was predominantly grey haired: but the younger audience members were not  prominent. One young man in the audience wanted to make a comment but was quickly shut down because it was question time (not comment time).

Jakovich pointed out that Sydney’s median age was 35 and that for young people, the students she’s taught and those in the collaborative and interactive projects in which she’s made a name, protest was not part of their lexicon.

It “doesn’t fit their modality and their mindset”, she said.

Some said other young people were very much involved in protest.

Incoherent patchwork plans, perhaps deliberately

The Greens’ David Shoebridge, spokesman on planning, understood where at least some of the anger came from.

Question time was vigorous
Questions from the floor

Partly it’s because the government decided to replace the planning reforms that failed to pass through Parliament with an incoherent “patchwork” planning system that’s impossible to deal with. Now only those who can play the patchwork planning game win, he said, with the community forced to pick elements and let the rest slip through to the keeper.

He also thought it ridiculous that the idea of costing our infrastructure had now extended to parks. At Wyong, he said, the cash strapped local council planned to sell a pocket park unless the local residents could show that “dog walking and so on” was also worth the $1.2 million it would fetch as a development site.

Bad planning decisions can be challenged – Barangaroo’s casino for instance

Bad ideas, though, might just have the potential to be tumbled. At Barangaroo, former deputy mayor of City of Sydney John McInerney said a community group he was leading planned to challenge the approval for James Packer’s casino on the site.

The decision by the state government to reject the 13 proposals offered by the private sector for development of the White Bay portion of the Bays precinct was both surprising and welcome, though. Perhaps an admission that Barangaroo would have benefited by fine grain development by a range of interests, in harmony with the way the rest of the city had evolved.

Protest, but don’t demonise those in power

Question time
Question time: only questions not comments

The most important issue, though – and it’s strange how it’s usually just one person who raises it at these big events – came from the EDO’S Alec Bombell, who said we needed to make sure all planning laws would uphold the goal of cutting greenhouse emissions.

Yeatman added another. She asked people who protest not to demonise the people in power. To not make it personal.

It was a way perhaps to say that the removal of the personal from the battle would perhaps offer the best way of all to create the collective citizen’s city she so strongly advocated in her opening discussion.

Professor Peter Phibbs
Professor Peter Phibbs
 Alec Bombell, Environmental Defender's Office
Alec Bombell, Environmental Defender’s Office

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  1. Great wrap of the event. An impressive line up of professionals who had an ability to take us to the city streets, parks and areas of concern. I was hooked on every word.
    A pity that we did not see more young people in the audience.
    Although I appreciate that question time is not comment time I felt that the young man who made a comment was dealt with in a harsh manner.

  2. Excellent presentations. Good to know there are still some planners that know what they are doing.
    I wish they would do more in in my corner of the universe.
    Don’t know about ‘not demonising’ those in power. They are doing a lot of permanent damage.