Monday, August 3, 2009

Planning Never Never Land?

The one thing you should expect from any half decent plan of any sort is that it should have at least some vaguely remote chance of actually delivering on its ambitions. Otherwise, it isn’t a plan because the end result is unrealistic and falls into the realm of fantasy.

The release last week of the revised South East Queensland Regional Plan brings into focus many issues, but one central assumption – that infill housing targets can accommodate future population growth in existing urban areas – suggests this plan might have about as much chance of realistically being achieved as Peter Pan being told to ‘think happy thoughts’ so he can fly.

The revised SEQ Regional Plan attempts to ‘manage’ the growth of south east Queensland by containing future population growth largely into existing urban areas, and limits expansion on the fringe by imposing an urban growth boundary. The philosophy owes much to concerns about ‘sprawl’ (a pejorative term which on a global scale is hardly applicable here) and has its roots in land use policies developed in parts of the United States and Europe.

Setting aside any critique of ‘smart growth’ policies and their impact on housing choice and costs, the attempt to contain future growth in SEQ into existing urban areas is perhaps the most contentious aspect of the SEQ Regional Plan. Put simply, it is hard to see how the numbers stack up.

The targets.

The plan proposes that half of all new residents are to be accommodated in existing urban areas via infill housing (medium to high density). Within the City of Brisbane, the target is even higher at 88% of new growth. That figure isn’t really surprising given there’s really no large parcels of land left suitable for detached housing. But when you start to look at the raw numbers of infill dwellings required to meet the plan’s targets, the credibility gap widens.

For south east Queensland, the plan acknowledges the need for 754,000 new dwellings to accommodate predicted growth. Of that, 374,000 dwellings are mandated as infill (townhouses or high rise units). Within Brisbane City there will be 156,000 new dwellings of which 138,000 will be townhouses and unit type dwellings, according to the plan.

That’s a lot of units. Some back of envelope sums are helpful here. Imagine a twenty level highrise unit block, with four units per floor. That’s 80 units. The 138,000 dwellings infill target, if it was all delivered as 20 storey highrise buildings, would equate to 1,725 such twenty storey unit towers across Brisbane, between now and 2031. That works out to roughly 78 unit towers, each year, for the next 20 years or so.

For south east Queensland, the 374,000 dwellings infill target equates to 4,675 twenty storey apartment towers or 212 per year, every year, for the next 20 years.

Now the SEQ Regional Plan makes precious little comment about how the planners expect this scale of infill to actually be delivered. It’s a bit like envisaging a Dubai-scale apartment boom right here in Brisbane.

Does this sound like a plan, or are we being asked to think happy thoughts?

So where will they go?

The revised SEQ Regional plan does at least suggest that there are some preferred areas for infill development activity, particularly around transit nodes – which makes sense. Transit oriented development exploits existing public transport infrastructure (however overtaxed it may already be) and mixed use development to create work-live-shop-play environments. It can be tremendously successful, and Brisbane has a couple of notable examples already, with more on the drawing board.

But bring the issue of scale back into focus – the hypothetical 1,725 apartment towers are for accommodation only. They do not include additional requirements for more office space, more retail space, more schools, hospitals, medical centres etc – it’s a long list.

Chermside, Indooroopilly, Carindale and Upper Mt Gravatt are some of the activity centres expected under the plan to accommodate this frenzy of building activity over the next twenty years. But within these centres, the plan again is silent on precisely where the activity is to take place. It seems fair to ask the question: have the proponents of this plan at any stage pulled out a map and decided which entire suburban blocks are to be demolished to make way for the 1,725 apartment towers needed for infill development, or is there some new approach to infill which somehow creates new development sites in built out neighbourhoods?

The credibility gap is actually much wider than this. Infill housing is usually delivered as a mix of medium (townhouse style) to high density. Medium density projects by nature occupy a larger footprint than a high rise tower. So the reality of the numbers is that the foorprint needed to achieve the infill targets will be much greater than our hypothetical 1,725 towers in Brisbane (or the 4,675 towers throughout south east Queensland).

Where exactly are these sites? I’ve had a good look at Chermside, Indooroopilly, Carindale and Upper Mount Gravatt, and even the wonders of Google Earth don’t reveal vast hectares of vacant land adjoining transit nodes just waiting to be developed as housing.

Has anyone asked the people?

The physical impossibility of the target numbers being delivered is one fatal flaw of the SEQ Regional Plan, and will remain so until the plan’s proponents explain – in precise detail – where and how these numbers will be delivered. Only with that sort of street by street analysis of available land can the credibility gap be closed.

But then there’s another, significant gap in all this. The SEQ Regional Plan proposes perhaps the most fundamental change in the way of life and urban environment for Brisbane and the south east ever proposed in the history of this state’s development. Did anyone actually ask the people if this is what they want? It is a democracy after all and we have debated and voted on lesser issues than this.

The reality is the community are highly likely to object strenuously to dozens of 20 storey towers appearing in their neighbourhood. Jim Soorley was once savaged by the Liberals for proposing a ‘sardine city’ but his ambitions for infill were miniscule compared to what the SEQ Regional Plan now proposes. The scale of community objection to the infill targets of the SEQ Regional Plan, once the community realises, could be sufficient to unseat local Councillors or State MPs, and the prospect of that is another fatal flaw for the plan. Politically, it is hard to see how it could ever be delivered.

Then there are other market realities to deal with. Families overwhelmingly prefer detached housing and backyards for the kids, so even if deprived of housing choice, will there be a big enough market to buy all the units and townhouses proposed? There’s an issue of cost also – high to medium density is expensive to deliver, inflated by infrastructure levies and build costs. So will there enough people who could afford to buy all the units and townhouses proposed? There’s an issue of planning polarity, in that while the SEQ Regional Plan is a state instrument adamant on infill, many local council planning schemes don’t support it. Once again, how that tension will be resolved adds yet another wedge to the credibility gap.

Never land?

Is it possible that such a comprehensive planning scheme which purports to deliver on so many noble objectives (preservation of open space, quality of life etc) actually failed to do the most basic maths on the key assumptions that underpin it? And if that maths was done, why is the plan silent on the answers?

The questions are already being asked and the answers are not forthcoming. At the end of the day, unless and until the Plan’s authors and proponents can answer the physical realities of ‘where’ and ‘how’ in fine detail, site by site, street by street and neighbourhood by neighbourhood, the SEQ Regional Plan is suffering a yawning credibility gap from day one.

In the meantime, a region with a demonstrable housing shortage could find the shortages worsen, affordability deteriorate and growth – the economy’s engine room – falter.

And that doesn’t sound like much of a plan.

[If you haven’t searched through the SEQ Regional Plan for all the details yet, this is a good place to start: Chapter 8 on ‘Compact Settlement’ sets it out. You can find it here - ]

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