21-23 Apr 2020
Melbourne Convention & Exhibition Centre

DesignBUILD 2019: How can architects and urban planners plan for a “big Australia”?

The possibilities associated with re-imagining the Greater Sydney metropolis were explored at DesignBUILD 2019, as experts in architecture and planning talked through how this vision will transform the city and region.

However, that was just part of a bigger discussion about how good design and sensible planning will see  a vision for ‘big Australia’ achieved.

Jake McCallum from News Corp moderated the panel and began by examining some of the realities that are driving the vision of seeing Sydney transformed into three cities where most residents live within 30 minutes of their jobs, education and health facilities and services. Australia continues to grow rapidly, having just passed 25 million people with no signs of slowing down. Some have projected Australia to have than 40 million people by 2060. How can we plan for the new frontier as the population continues to grow? How will planners take existing communities and effectively plan for inevitable economic and population shifts?

David Tickle from Hassell mentioned that the most important thing associated with this kind of transformation is to talk with the community about what such changes can and should look like. It’s something that is often forgotten in these transformation processes. Working alongside communities as early as possible is essential to understanding what that community cares about and to understand the complexity of change. It doesn’t mean you have to do everything they want, but if you do it early enough you can take people on the journey with you, and that allows stakeholders to best deal with growing and changing populations.

Rob Mirams from Fender Katsalidis said that this vision for Sydney is a necessary one. However, he did wonder whether decentralizing is the right thing to do. He didn’t want to see cultural institutions that have roots in one area taken to another on account of this change. These developments should be about additions, rather than shifts. That turns into a financial matter, but they’re the kind of changes that will ultimately allow people to live and work outside the center which is why this vision is such a necessity.

Craig Allchin from UTS was asked about how this vision for Sydney would ensure it can remain affordable, and he said it would ultimately be driven by the kind of magic that the harbor and opera house created. How can that magic be recreated elsewhere? How can what they’ve enabled serve as a springboard to distinct attractions for other areas? To make an affordable city, you have to have themes and attractions that people want to live near. The affordability will come if people want to live out by them.

That question of affordability turned into a bigger discussion about whether affordable housing was a critical need, and the panelists mostly agreed that affordable housing shouldn’t be the primary motivator. Saying that we need more affordable housing or creating small, tiny houses isn’t a solution. Instead, affordable neighborhoods make more sense than affordable housing.

An affordable neighborhood isn’t just about the costs of housing. If you build a neighborhood where you have to drive everywhere, then health issues can come out of that. What is the economic impact of congestion? There are questions of affordability that need to be considered beyond housing.

Karima Palafox from Urbis mentioned that all of the changes we have and will see with cities are about population density, and it’s not something that has traditionally been approached in an especially sensible manner. When she moved to Sydney everyone told her that she didn’t want to live in Sydney CBD, but that was where she’d be working. If there were more employment opportunities in the suburbs, then there would be less pressure to come into the city. The question of how to make housing available and affordable for different kinds of people is really the one that needs to be asked.

That concept of living and working in the same place got the panel to talk through how expectations around separating such things out is changing, and why concepts like residential and commercial zoning are quickly becoming antiquated. So many people are connected to their work 24 hours a day, meaning that there’s no clear distinction between the two in people’s lives anymore. If you’re working from home, what sense does it make to be located in an area that’s only zoned for one of those things? It’s why many on the panel said they advocated for mixed-use zoning since that would allow more flexibility around what can be done in different parts of a city. That flexibility can allow the market to impact development, which is something that has been limited due to rules and regulations that continue to be piled on top of one another.

The role that government can and does play in this kind of city development was one of the most enlightening aspects of the discussion, as the kind of master planning that can be enabled at the federal level can drive especially positive change. The interaction between public and private entities can’t just be about two sides in a battle though. There needs to be more of an effort by public officials to work with the private sector to enable commercial benefit, and there are countless examples of what kind of opportunities can be opened up when this happens.

That kind of partnership can help eliminate inefficiencies, and Karima mentioned her company has looked at the economic costs of inefficient planning. Millions are being lost in terms of the bureaucratic system not being consistent or easy to navigate. It’s complex. Planning resources are insufficient, and many are not well trained to address innovative design. That’s why it’s so essential to make sure everyone has an understanding of policies and plans.

How such plans and policies can influence development led the panel to discuss the concept of build-to-rent, and how that was a model many in Sydney are looking to make sense. It’s a concept that speaks to the changing priorities of a new generation that might not be as set on owning a piece of property in their 20s. Build-to-rent is really about boosting the rentals, but is the build to own a better model? Right now, some businesses are paying triple what they’d be paying elsewhere, but that’s their preference.

All of these changes factor into the shifting priorities of individuals and communities, and how such changes impact the future of Sydney and the growing population of Australia. A successful ‘big Australia’ can only be achieved by understanding the major shifts in employment, population and preference, but by also addressing those changes with solutions that enable flexibility and innovation

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