Monday, August 2, 2010

A good decision - but where to from here?

The decision by Brisbane Lord Mayor Campbell Newman to compulsorily (if necessary) acquire a major inner city development site so that it can be used for public open space might have plenty of people in the planning and development industry shaking their heads in disapproval. I won’t be one of them.

Lord Mayor Campbell Newman’s bold move to purchase the disused Milton Tennis Centre site in inner city Brisbane for public parkland has been welcomed by a host of so called NIMBY groups in the area, who opposed high density development. The 3.5 hectare site had been acquired by a prominent developer and had existing planning approval for a range of development to around seven storeys in height. The developer was in the process of seeking planning approval to increase the development density to closer to 20 storeys in height, for the tallest towers. That proposal was generally consistent with the stated intentions of the State Government’s infill strategy under their regional plan, which sought to deliver much greater density throughout the Brisbane area, especially for sites close to transit infrastructure (as is the Milton site).

But the scale of development proposed did not sit well with local residents. Community opposition in the area was widespread – it was the talk of the supermarket aisles on the weekends and school pickup zones during the week. An active NIMBY group campaigned aggressively against more high density development in the area and they’ll be congratulating themselves on a win right about now.

But the decision goes deeper than simple local community opposition, however vociferous. It highlights some of the inevitable conflicts of a State imposed regional plan which mandates higher density, and a community which hasn’t bought the talk. The decision, I think, was a good one for this local area, given the scale of development which will take place in and around the Milton area in years to come. It signaled that the Mayor is acutely aware that higher densities will mean more pressure on open space. And it also signaled that there is still a place for democracy in public policy, as opposed to the imposition by elites of mandated policy dogma.

On the flip side, it reinforces the legitimacy of political intervention in planning matters. In this instance, a Mayor made a good decision, in the community interest. But other politicians have notably made some very poor interventionist decisions, and not always in the community’s best interest.

The decision also exposes the failures of the density advocates to win public support for their case. This is ultimately the highest test for public policy in a democratic system. The alternative is a Soviet style system where elites dictate direction without reference to the will of the people (or without reference to basic fundamentals of economics, or of market demand).

But perhaps most of all, the decision throws into question a range of issues which have yet to resolved, except for the ‘pro’ and ‘anti’ rhetoric of the protagonists. Clarity, and community agreement are, it seems, a long way off. Consider the following:

· The Milton Tennis site is only 500 metres away from ‘The Milton’ high rise residential tower, by another developer. This tower has been approved for 30 storeys, after being ‘called in’ by the State Government Planning Minister as a ‘matter of state significance.’ Ironically, the existing town plan for the area permits less than 20 storeys, but a draft neighborhood plan by the Council would have allowed 20 storeys. It’s now approved for 30, because the proponent succeeded in convincing the State Government that this was something of great importance to the state. Will other high density proposals required to meet the density targets of a regional plan be equally important, and receive the same treatment?

· Part of that argument no doubt rested on the need for at least some ‘Transit Oriented Developments’ to see the light of day. A decade of discussion has achieved precious little, which would be an embarrassment to the succession of plans and planning reviews which have hailed TODs as the urban planning equivalent of a second coming. Having faith is one thing, but there’s a desperate need for TOD advocates to attend at least one ribbon cutting ceremony, at some stage, to vindicate themselves. ‘The Milton’ looks like it will be ‘the chosen One.’

· Anyone who thought that actual planning permission for a particular site could be found in a local town planning document would be mightily confused. The 30 storey Milton tower gets an OK despite community objection and a planning scheme which provides much reduced height restriction, while 500 metres away a site with existing approval for around 7 storeys gets the opposite treatment – it’s to be resumed and turned into parkland.

· Proponents of high density living have cited many promised virtues as outcomes. These have included less traffic congestion, a cleaner environment, a more environmentally sustainable approach to urban growth, and the list goes on. But the limited evidence offered in support and the affront to common sense suggested by some of these arguments run counter to community wisdom. Even schoolchildren were smart enough to realise that more people per square kilometre will mean more congestion, more crowding in shopping centre carparks, more crowded buses, and more people wanting to walk dogs or play cricket in parks. So while the planning elites maintained their mantra, the community saw through it and called ‘bull.’ Here is where the density advocates have failed. Until they can support their arguments with hard evidence, and until they can mount convincing arguments that win community support, what they are proposing is in effect anti-democratic.

· The realities of higher density housing will inevitably mean more people, more cars and more congestion, and more demands on open space for inner city and middle ring neighborhoods – not just in Brisbane but everywhere that the density mantra has taken root (which is most Australian capitals). To what extent should community opposition be written off as ‘NIMBYism’ or, alternatively, treated as their democratic right to influence public policy? This alienation of local community opinion from the preferred patterns of urban expansion (or ‘in-spansion’) outlined in most of our urban planning schemes is a real problem. Planning elites cannot expect political leaders to fight a tide of community opposition, unless they have in mind a more determinist political system.

· This problem will only get worse, as more pressure is placed on our urban areas to grow within confined, existing boundaries. As it gets worse, the primacy of planning schemes will be further eroded. Unless some fundamental changes are made to planning schemes, more and more politicians will seek to intervene, case by case and site by site, in planning matters because of community confusion and neighborhood opposition. Given the average standard of an Australian politician, this won’t be a good outcome for the developers, for planners, or for the community at large.

So where’s the resolution to this? Solutions aren’t so hard to identify. Here are a couple of suggestions:

· The backyard may or may not be a ‘right’ but it is considered to be one by a majority of the community. Backyards of detached houses, as a place for children, for pets, for BBQs or family gatherings are important to a wide cross section of people. Density advocates may need to give some serious thought to how high density living will ultimately affect family living, and give serious and open thought to the consequences of their preferred policy approach. The same serious consideration to the management of increased demand for road space and open space would go a long way to answering legitimate community concerns. Just dismissing the concerns or ignoring their legitimacy won’t solve the problem.

· Planning schemes based on a democratic and transparent agreement of future development have a stronger chance of meaning something to all parties. The Brisbane City Council recently announced a ‘virtual’ 3D model of the CBD and inner city, which will ultimately be used as a tool for assessing future proposals. There’s no valid reason and no technological obstacle to such a tool becoming the planning scheme itself. A visual realisation of future planning intent has a better chance of clearly communicating with the community at large. Widely accessible and readily understood equals transparency, not just for the community but also for the industry. The archaic regulatory and legislative nature of current planning instruments, with their convoluted terminology, only serve to confuse and alienate, which leads to distrust.

· Finally, elitism in planning whereby policy decisions are made by a collective of highly placed officials or industry professionals, with only limited reference to evidence of market preferences, to broad community opinion or even to accepted ways of life, can only fail. Democracy has its place in planning. That place should be in first determining an agreed overall strategy, right down to the local implications. Communicate that via a transparent and ‘virtual’ model widely accessible to all, and then leave the plan to do its job.

None of this is new but if we’re to avoid a future of even greater confusion in planning policy, it’s now time the spin of planning reform was replaced with substance.

[Disclaimer: Yes, I’m a resident of the area affected by the Milton plans. No, I didn’t take part in any of the protest activities].

1 comment:

  1. Why is Milton now considered so valuable by the Council for a park, when the site has been sitting vacant for years?

    Yet again the public sector acquires a site from a developer and simplistically it looks like someone is getting special treatment.

    Why didn't Council purchase the site some time ago and save ratepayers from handing a profit to a smart developer?