People at the heart of good urban planning

27 November 

Kylee Anastasi - Partner, PwC. This article first appeared in The Weekend Australian, 25 November 2017

Visit any Australian capital city today and it’s clear we’re in the midst of an infrastructure boom focused on improving our transport networks. Sydney has it’s $40bn plus investment in metro, light rail and motorways; Melbourne, its metro expansion and highway upgrades; Perth, the Metronet expansion; Brisbane, progress on the Metro and Cross River Rail projects. Even Canberra is building its first ever Light Rail.

Arguably, the link between investment in transport infrastructure and creating jobs and growth has been well established, including to justify investments. But perhaps more important than medium term job creation is how these massive investments can be leveraged for the long term, beyond budgets and election cycles, to stimulate new communities and directly improve the day to day lives of the people who live within them.

The value of transport investment is much more than simply getting from ‘A to B’ more easily. It’s about the opportunities created along and around the transport network, and in this boom time, it is incumbent upon all of us to lift our thinking and focus on how we leverage these investments to help solve some of the big challenges our rapidly growing cities face. Challenges such as the supply of affordable housing, our digital needs in a modern economy, and what behavioural changes we need to make to boost our liveability.

Improving transport connections is a good place to start, but we’ve missed an opportunity if we rely on new assets alone to increase the prosperity of our people. In our biggest cities our day to day lives will only be improved if we reduce commute times and the solution is more than improving capacity and transport connections from our sprawling suburbs. Instead, it also lies with stimulating investment, jobs, housing and amenities in our suburban communities. Not all roads can lead to the CBD if we want to improve the daily life for a working family, a young couple or an ageing parent.

Our neighbours in Asia provide some strong examples of well functioning cities and we can look to them for best practice. Tokyo is a world class example of a modern city. It’s a dense, futuristic metropolis today, but we easily forget the condition it was in after World War 2. It was rebuilt with a focus on it’s people, with flexible zoning rules, active user involvement, incremental development, and the integration of distinct neighbourhoods into a larger urban system. Neighbourhoods became self-reliant and provided housing as well as suitable industry, mixing pedestrian streets with significant infrastructure such as subway systems and high speed rail.

Singapore is another city with a strong reputation for sustainable development, investing in communities and industry for the long term. When there’s talk of the new Western Sydney airport, Incheon in Seoul is often the gold standard aerotropolis – something to which Badgerys Creek might aspire. And then there’s the famous Hong Kong subway system that takes a ‘rail plus property’ approach to expansion and generates revenue that is an astounding 175 per cent of its operating costs. These cities show what can be achieved when we take a holistic, lifestyle focused view around our large scale infrastructure investments.

With the current boom in Australia, our opportunity to build great cities and improve our quality of life is right now, and a “precincts approach” to planning must be the scaffolding underpinning all these new projects. One idea to ensure this is to build a strong planning framework that helps us shift the focus from singular development opportunities to precincts. This framework would incorporate three key principles: connected decisions, connected activities and connected communities.

The place to start is with connected decisions. This means comprehensively integrating industry and community into decision making, not just consulting with them at arm's length. Building a process for the community to be genuine partners in developing, funding and delivering solutions is key, as is a flexible governance model that enables government to act as a facilitator rather than deliverer of precincts.

The community needs the opportunity to see, understand and buy into the true value created by infrastructure investments and new developments. Articulating the shared outcomes, in language that talks up the individual daily lifestyle benefits, at every stage of the project, is fundamental to drive delivery and manage through the disruption.

An emphasis on understanding the conglomeration of our connected activities is also essential. We must be thinking about how we build and deliver flexible, multi-use spaces where the barriers between work, school, home and hobbies are permeable. For example, how communities and families can use school halls and canteens after hours, or how multiple sporting groups can contribute to a world class set of amenities and share the same green space or how we can open our office buildings to the flexible worker at night. We can do more with what we already have.

Many of us agree that it is our communities, not our roads or rail, that shapes our cities. Creating inviting places, sustainable practices, active transport and technology that encourage interactions between people and their local places will drive stronger community connection.

Truly connected communities will mean that everyone is able to access the services and facilities that are essential to their everyday lives without having to be stuck in traffic for three hours a day.

The key ingredient to make this happen is proximity - and that’s what precincts planning delivers. If all the essentials for a fulfilling and productive life could be provided in proximity of where people want to live, then travel times would reduce, allowing people to spend more time with their families and friends, improve their health and well-being, and boost the productivity of our cities as a whole.

A good city is the sum of many parts and our rich local communities can be precincts of strong employment opportunities, fantastic healthcare and education, with wonderful green space and retail amenities. Like many cities around the world these precincts would vary in size, scale and types of activities, but together they provide the fabric for a wonderful place to live, work and play. However, unless we stop thinking about issues in the singular frames of transport or new housing developments, we won’t see any progress made. It’s happy, prosperous and productive people, not infrastructure, that is the true heart of our cities.

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