How to drive successful communities

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Creating sustainable, liveable communities is no cake walk, but some of the key visionaries in the public sector are using ambitious targets, planning controls and a big dose of grit and determination to make the impossible possible. 

Panel members: Lauren Kajewski, Landcom, Jess Miller, City of Sydney, Helen Papathanasiou, City of Parramatta, Rod Simpson, Greater Sydney Commission, and Eugene Tan, Clayton Utz. Moderated by Alice Thompson.


The communities panel at Tomorrowland19, kicked off with a discussion on the tradeoffs that can be expected when it comes to climate and other environmental and social policies.

Landcom director of sustainability & learning Lauren Kajewski said that ”having it all” is always a challenge, but not impossible.

Part of the challenge is that Australian culture prioritises property and treats it as a commodity.

Lauren Kajewski, Landcom

This isn’t the same everywhere, she said. For example, in some European cities the price of land is managed by local authorities to prevent property bubbles, and governance is via ground leases. This structure allows affordable leases to be amortised over the life of a loan, meaning co-operatives that prioritise sustainable and affordable outcomes can get a strong foothold in the market. 

“With land and home ownership such a strong cultural attachment in Australia that underpins many Australian’s wealth, the European model isn’t one we can simply copy – but should learn from and adapt innovative solutions for.”

Greater Sydney Commission environment commissioner Rod Simpson is not convinced that we need to accept tradeoffs when tackling these challenges. From a planning perspective, he believes with proper engagement and place-based planning, we can have it all. 

Rod Simpson, Greater Sydney Commission

“Co-design and collaboration should be able to cut though what started out as being an apparent conflict,” he said.

He used social equity and productivity as examples of two desirable outcomes that were once seen in conflict but “we’ve moved beyond that now”.

“We now think about an equitable city, and how do we rebalance the city – that’s key to the [A Metropolis of Three Cities] plan.”

Cities are where sustainability and productivity and liveability come to life.

He said that the only real downside is that place-based planning is not necessarily going to be the most efficient way of expanding or renewing a city because it requires a considered and localised response.

Helen Papathanasiou, City of Parramatta

The fine art of collaboration where the rubber hits the road

City of Parramatta manager, environmental outcomes, city strategy Helen Papathanasiou said that local government is probably the most important level of government because “that where the rubber hits the road. 

“It’s where sustainability and productivity and liveability come to life.”

Local governments face difficulties with so many competing interests they need to deal with and the sheer volume of work that means sustainability considerations often slip off the agenda.

But one win for the Parramatta council has been opening more swimmable spots along the Paramatta River, which has largely been closed to swimmers since the 50s due to various pollutants. 

Alice Thompson, moderator

Papathanasiou led an initiative to clean up the river and got various different councils and stakeholders to agree to make the river swimmable again. 

They initially got backlash from people saying “yuck, you can’t swim in that it’s green” and “people will drown” but now the popularity of these newly opened swimming sites is booming. She says four other swimming sites are being explored for 2020.

“It’s not all bad, you can live on the 25th storey and have a beautiful library, and a lovely park and a swimming pool and a sense of community.”

City of Sydney councillor Jess Miller says that the renewal of Green Square has also been a collaboration success story.

The site was a largely disused commercial space with geographical limitations as a low lying area.

“The argument went on for years between the state government and city as to who will put the critical infrastructure, namely a trunk drain, that would afford the value uplift of that area from unused industrial to residential.”

Jess Miller, City of Sydney

She says the City of Sydney put in $60 million for the drain and then the “state government came to the party.”

She said one of the other reasons Green Square has been such a success is that the tender process enforced collaboration.

“We weren’t in a situation where developers were coming and saying ‘we’ll just do this little bit’.” 

In the tenders it was made clear which “community assets would be required to make what will be one of the most intensely dense places in Australia liveable”.

One of those is amenities was a “beautiful, beautiful library”. 

Green Square Library © City of Sydney

She said the ripple effect of Green Square’s success will be that as councils try to persuade other communities that density is not something to be feared, there’s “something to point to and say it’s not all bad, you can live on the 25th storey and have a beautiful library, and a lovely park and a swimming pool and a sense of community’.

“In terms of the role that local government can demonstrate, it’s having a very clear and articulate vision and high level trust from the community.”

It’s also about “putting money into things that may not seem sexy, such as trunk drains, but that enable the vision to come to life.”

Eugene Tan, Clayton Utz

Capturing the value of sustainability

Although there’s been lack of government leadership on the climate emergency, Eugene Tan from Clayton Utz said that he’s seeing leadership from private sector, including the property sector. 

“It’s an exciting space to be in, industry is doing some great things to deliver efficiencies and great liveable cities.

“People are understanding that they need to have a longer term return and performance on the asset, rather than just that it looks good and its close enough to a train station.”

The legal firm is currently working with Landcom to capture the value of sustainability in real estate, which people are already starting to recognise.  

“People see the value of sustainability – SMP Global put sustainable investment at over $30 trillion globally, with $4.5 trillion attributable directly to real estate.” Tan said this means the entire sustainable real estate sector is equal to Germany’s annual GDP. 

Visionaries like the City of Sydney, the City of Paramatta and Landcom are trying to capture that value.  

“So you have a sustainable offering and we want to value that as part of a tender. Not just look at dollar return to government, but look at it as the holistic package because that’s where investors are looking in the long run.”

Tan said long term returns on a sustainable asset are higher than a traditional asset. 

“People are understanding that they need to have a longer term return and performance on the asset, rather than just that it looks good and is close enough to a train station.”

Targets, planning controls and other tactics to affect change

For Landcom’s Lauren Kajewski the key to meeting climate change outcomes on emissions and abatement is setting objectives and “reaching for your vision”.

She managed to drive the adoption of business wide targets that all Landcom residential developments will be carbon neutral, water positive, zero waste and with net positive biodiversity outcomes by 2028. 

What happens when the system is no longer working?

Jess Miller from City of Sydney said that existing state regulation can make it really difficult for councils to enact innovative solutions to environmental and social problems. 

For example, in Green Square the council “plumbed the hell out of that place” in the hope of achieving recycled water but existing state regulation made the project economically unfeasible.

“The fact that we are still using drinking water to irrigate and flush our loos is mental, it’s criminally insane. 

“Is it a question of values when an economic or treasury set regulation is the thing that’s not only inhibiting innovation but a sane response to a set of environmental indicators that should be addressed?”

Rod Simpson from the Greater Sydney Commission believes much of the inertia and failure to innovate when building cities comes down to the “way we’ve set things up based on the values and ideas of the past.”

He said resistance is “not always people thinking it’s not a good idea.”

“I feel like I’ve become a planner – I’m a scientist, planning’s not my thing, but it’s become my thing because that’s the frontline and that where we need to tackle it.”

Although you’d expect urban planning to start with the way the country and landscape is managed before considering pedestrians and then other modes of transport, Simpson says this is the exact opposite process to the way we’ve planned in the past.

“We need to be clear, it’s not that people are against these ideas, but that we’ve set up very efficient regulation and institutions designed to do more of what we’ve done in the past, just more efficiently.”

There will need to be innovation to break through these existing systemic structures, he said.

Helen Papathanasiou from the City of Paramattais is heartened by people “getting on with stuff” to fix the big problems. She sees alternative business models emerging such as Airbnb and Uber that might not be perfect, but they are still signalling a culture of “I’ll fix this problem myself.”

Papathanasiou also said that planning controls are useful to push through the inertia experienced when local governments are planning for the future of cities.

“At City of Paramatta we’ve been really looking at the planning controls. 

“I feel like I’ve become a planner – I’m a scientist, planning’s not my thing, but it’s become my thing because that’s the frontline and that where we need to tackle it.”

“People will either respond out of fear or frustration, or respond to an idea that will inspire hope and aspiration – that’s politics 101.”

The council is mandating piping for recycled water to be installed in every single type of development in the CBD, and energy and water saving targets as much as 25 per cent above state government BASIX levels for some developments.

To combat the urban heat island effect, the council is also working to better understand the way glass facades contribute to warming outside the building on the street. 

It also wants to prepare for the influx of electric vehicles in the future by making sure charging equipment can service most car spots.

Communicating a glowing future to overcome NIMBYism

The City of Sydney’s Jess Miller said getting beyond the politics is where the collective headspace needs to be.

“People will either respond out of fear or frustration, or respond to an idea that will inspire hope and aspiration – that’s politics 101.”

But the current narrative across all levels of politics isn’t particularly inspiring, she said. 

“It’s not about ‘we’re going to take your car,’ it’s about ‘wouldn’t it be nice if you had a place for your kids to play out the front of your house and you don’t need to worry about your bins getting smelly and you get to know who your neighbours are’. 

“It’s about communicating that picture.”

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