Speech to the Green Cities Conference 2017

In Parliament | 06.03.17

'For density done well there needs to be community support'

Green Cities Conference, 6 March 2017

Have you ever stood in front of a community meeting of 200 people who have gathered after finding out about the urban renewal plans for their suburb?

I have done this many times. First as a local councillor, then as a state MP.

I have found, to nobody’s surprise, that these meetings are not a place where you will find a community interested in talking about density done well.

A meeting I went to in recent times is a fairly typical example.

It was called after the announcement via the media that this community now live in an urban renewal corridor where 36,000 new homes and around 80,000 new people are being proposed over the next 20 years.

In this community, population growth has been steadily increasing along with house and rental prices.

This community is well serviced by public transport yet traffic congestion is increasing.

The local schools are overflowing with demountables and there is not enough sports playing fields for all the kids.

There is a strong community connection to the heritage houses and the character they provide to the suburbs where these residents live.

There is a myriad of community organisations working hard on bush care and river care projects, fighting to save remnant bushland, improve water quality and encourage the growth of open green spaces.

The factories and warehouses of old have become places where artists and food outlets and performing arts spaces have emerged where to date the rents have been cheaper.

At this meeting the community were bewildered that there had been an announcement, they were concerned about what it means for them and they were thirsty for information.

But – and this is very important, they were also very cynical about the information provided by government and by the paid community relations consultants hired to provide the information.

I was the third speaker. There were 2 speakers before me who set the scene.

They drew together the examples of poor urban planning in the local community with the images of ugly, poorly constructed developments that they had fought against - and predicted that there was more to come.

They pointed to the loss of community input and control through forced local government amalgamations and changes like the doubling of the business vote verses the resident vote in the City of Sydney.

They expressed fears that the Greater Sydney Commission was just another tool to force more housing into areas where the beneficiaries are not the local community but the developers who stand to make a lot of money from increased density.

Prior to the meeting I had been asked to talk about Labor’s vision for better cities.

I had prepared a speech about the need for Sydney to grow up and not out, some nice statistics and examples on sustainable urban design and Labor’s commitment to growing green space –

By this stage the audience wanted none of this.

They just wanted me to say no.

And it would be the easiest thing in the world to just say no.

And here in lies the problem with any conversation about density done well.

The way the community see urban renewal projects is not through the challenge for Sydney to come to grips with population growth of 2.1mil in the next 20 years.

They do not see it through the excellent case studies, many of which we will hear about today.

The community see increased density through the prism of population growth they do not understand nor have asked for, in a context of growing congestion, no consideration of the natural environment and a failure of government to plan for demographic changes that have left them with overstretched schools, hospitals and community facilities.

The challenge we all have to face is how to gain the support and trust of cynical communities where there have been virtually no medium to high density that has had the support of those living in the suburban houses surrounding it?

How can you reassure communities that there will be good design and public amenity when every day they walk past or drive past previous poor design, loss of public space and ugly buildings in their community?

Since the meeting I attended the master plan and rezoning proposals have gone out for consultation. I understand that of 1400 community submissions only 90 were in favour.

Not going so well is it.

Something has to change because density cannot be done well without community support.

I’d like to put forward three suggestions for improvement.

The first suggestion is for elected representatives.

If we are serious about accommodating population growth in the most sustainable manner, we have to work with our communities to explain the challenges, debate the options and find ways to build trust in the governance processes that oversee the planning of our city and our state.

We need to do more to explain the opportunities that come with population growth otherwise the debate is only framed in the negative and the voter dividend for elected representatives in just saying no will not change.

The second suggestion is for governments.

State and local government provides the services that communities rely on. The schools, the hospitals, the public transport, aged care, footpaths, parking, the roads, the parks, the sporting fields.

As urban renewal projects are planned, the work of state and local governments must be explained, the investment in community services and infrastructure identified and budgeted for so that communities can see that growth will be accompanied by the services that are required.

The third and final suggestion I will leave you with is a plea for the environment and a plug for some promising work that has already been done through the Greater Sydney Commission Independent Environment Panel.

The plea is for better recognition of the economic, social and environmental benefits that flow from our natural assets and heritage. Our trees, wetlands, waterways, parks, urban bushland, beaches and oceans are not just nice to have. They are fundamental to our states sustainability and the well -being of our community.

Density done well has to preserve our environmental assets not just because it is good for the environment but it would also go a long way to improving community trust and willingness to accept greater density.

The plug is for the Environmental Statement and Vision for Sydney the Environmental Panel has developed that recommends the Government commit to:

• A city that values its unique environmental landscape and biodiversity; and which all citizens can enjoy and protect

• A healthy city with clean air and water and sufficient green open space and tree cover providing widespread opportunities for relaxation and exercise

• A resource efficient city where the environmental impacts of water and energy supply and disposal of solid, liquid and gaseous waste are minimised

• A resilient city, able to cope with extreme events

• A city that knows and values its history

The Panel has also identified 15 key environmental issues that should be addressed in the District Plans for the Greater Sydney area.

Including • Waterways • Biodiversity • Open space • Urban trees • Local character • Heritage* • Scenic protection • Air quality • Noise • Waste management • Climate Change • Electricity supply and energy efficiency • Water supply and water efficiency • Natural hazards • Peri urban areas

I highly recommend this work as a good place to start to address the deficit in environmental planning that needs to be addressed. I will be watching how it is adopted by the Greater Sydney Commission.

The case for greater density is undeniable. The challenge for all of us is to chart a path that is different from what has gone before because the current system is not working.

It does not have community support and density done well is an exception rather than the rule.

I am fundamentally an optimist.

If our governments and the industries involved in the planning and development of our cities do better, I know our communities will want to be part of a conversation about how we deliver the best outcomes.

Thanks for having me.