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Building people-first cities: A new approach to city planning

Imagine a city where everyone has everything they need, from employment to entertainment, within 30 minutes of their home.

That's the idea at the heart of PwC's Cities Agenda, an initiative that improves the wellbeing of citizens by improving the liveability of Australia’s evolving metropolises.

It’s well understood that commuting times impact on quality of life. We instinctively, if sometimes unconsciously, know when the city is letting us down. We know when we turn down an interesting job offer because the commute to the new workplace is just too long to be worth taking. We know when one parent has to drop out of the workforce because getting from work makes it impossible to pick up the kids on time. We know when we lose contact with friends and families because they are separated from us by the tedious commute times of the city.


The converse is also true. When we move toward the 30-minute city we start seeing the reverse. People see more friends and spend more time with family. They invest more time on education, leisure or keeping fit. They take the job that makes them feel more satisfied. They become more productive.

Ultimately, a 30-minute city has more social cohesion, stronger social capital and a happier, healthier population. It’s also more appealing as a place where people from around the globe want to live.

Take Brisbane GP, Kelly Watt, who lived and worked in Sydney for five years, dealing with long commutes and high rents, before making the move north in search of more affordable housing and less congestion.

From her current home on Brisbane's northside, everything she needs is nearby: her workplace, parks and major entertainment and shopping options are all within a short drive. Compared to Sydney, where hour-long drives were common, the change has been significant.

"I work long hours some days so it's good to be able to get home to my family sooner," she says.

"Driving less means we spend less money on fuel and tolls and I just feel better generally," she says.


So what does the 30-minute city of the future look like? It's a place where people can prosper and thrive, where they can feel connected, included and inspired. A great city must provide equal opportunity, encourage diversity and cater for people of all incomes and roles, from service workers to surgeons.

Importantly, each region within a city must include convenient places for people to live, work and play.

Inconsistent data

PwC Analytic Intelligence Partner Alastair Pearson says the people charged with shaping our cities have traditionally focused on too narrow a list of criteria, preferring the clarity of economic and environmental indicators over difficult-to-quantify measures like liveability.

"Traditional economic or financial indicators, like return on investment, often ignore the broader effects of a project, on all the things that actually matter to people, like how they spend their leisure time and how far they are from their workplace," he says.

A key to better planning, he says, is ensuring all stakeholders are able to speak the same language in terms of data and planning assumptions. Currently, it's common for one stakeholder, say the local council, to base their decision making off one data set while the developer uses a different one.

"If people are working on disparate, inconsistent sources of data, decision making stops being evidence based and becomes very subjective," he says.

The result of this way of thinking is plain to see all over the country: inequitable access to infrastructure, amenities and services – a divide between have and have-not suburbs.


"If people are working on disparate, inconsistent sources of data, decision making stops being evidence based and becomes very subjective."

PwC Analytic Intelligence Partner Alastair Pearson

Thinking differently

The planning challenges have motivated PwC's Cities Agenda. PwC is bringing all key stakeholders - governments, business and the community - together to create places of vibrancy, diversity and productivity. The focus is on creating liveable cities, rather than simply cities that people live in. It’s a citizen-centric approach to developing cities.

Recent and projected future growth of major Australian cities

Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics. Population Projections, Australia, 2017.

Liveability is more than just a buzzword. It's about switching the focus of planners to a broader set of data beyond population size and growth.

"This is about trying to create a single source of truth - a common platform that everybody can use to guide decisions that create the best results for all," Pearson says.

Liveability is more than just a buzzword. It's about switching the focus of planners to a broader set of data beyond population size and growth.

What makes a city liveable? The definition will change from person to person. For some citizens, affordability is a key issue, for others its proximity to infrastructure, to shops and cafes, to green space. And, for many it's a place they can work profitably and live safely. A liveable city should encompass all of these and more.

Green space in sq m per capita

Source: Australian Government, 2016 SoE Built environment Proportion of people living with access to greenspace and greenspace per capita. 

"Our goal isn't just to talk about the issues, it is to actually solve them." 

PwC Cities Agenda Lead and Infrastructure and Urban Renewal Partner Kylee Anastasi 

A new lens

To start the important conversation on citizen-centric cities, PwC created CityPulse, a data tool that allows a deep, neighbourhood-level understanding of our major cities across three measures – Live, Work and Play.

With CityPulse, decision makers can use a new lens to look beyond the economic opportunities (like jobs) that exist in a particular area and see from a more detailed perspective of what life is like for those residents.

CityPulse uses data from a wide range of sources, taking into account individual factors and the relationships between them, like peak and off-peak commuting times, how close an area is to leisure spaces, dining precincts, schools and hospitals. These factors are weighted by what people really care about in their lives.

PwC Cities Agenda Lead and Infrastructure and Urban Renewal Partner Kylee Anastasi says it allows anyone to get a granular understanding of what life is like in a given area of a city - what is accessible, what is not, who the amenities favour and what is missing.

Since its introduction in 2018, CityPulse has prompted hundreds of different conversations with various government bodies and other stakeholders across the country. But it was only the beginning of PwC's data dive into cities.


Explore your city using the CityPulse interactive maps below

Bringing the city to life

While CityPulse is about starting the conversation about the problems in planning processes, PwC’s new city planning platform is about finding real solutions from all the possible options. "Our goal isn't just to talk about the issues, it is to actually solve them," Anastasi says.

Building on the work of CityPulse, the new platform provides stakeholders with a tool they can use to visualise, assess and adapt scenarios for the future of a precinct, in a single view accessible by all stakeholders. It creates a single, unified source of data for the development of connected precincts and the ability to ask ‘what-if’ questions to explore different possibilities. The idea is to make the planning process more efficient.

PwC are currently working with a client on a test precinct in Sydney. The project - a real precinct with a real master plan that incorporates the data and lessons which will serve as a model for the future.

"We'll take that model (which will be specific to a precinct), then we'll create a version of that model which can be applied to precincts nationally," Anastasi says.

This will lead to better decision making by the stakeholders involved in planning and building our cities and, ultimately, better liveability for the people who live there.

Here's how stakeholders can benefit:

Planning agencies and councils

will be better able to assess and determine future infrastructure needs, test planning proposal scenarios and the impacts of development. Ultimately it will allow for more citizen-centric planning.


will be able to use the platform to analyse what will bring the best return on their project and determine what will make their precinct attractive to citizens, investors and government. It will also provide them with the data to differentiate their precincts from other competitors in terms of liveability.

Asset owners

will be able to analyse what will bring the best return on their land and determine the best use of the asset.

Government land agencies

will be better able to determine the best use of and area and so put a more defined value on it.


will be able to see the drivers underpinning planning decisions and take a more active role in the discussions fuelling those decisions.

Contact us

Alastair Pearson

Partner, Integrated Infrastructure, Infrastructure Advisory - Data & Analytics, PwC Australia

Tel: 612 8266 5345

Kerrie Young

Director, PwC Australia

Tel: +61 (2) 8266 0628

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