Big ideas for better cities

23 September 2016
Rapid population growth demands new approaches to urban design and architecture

The Australian population is growing more rapidly than previously predicted, putting huge pressure on urban areas. University of Sydney people are part of the urban design debate so future cities are more liveable and sustainable.

More people. That single, simple concept is driving one of the most rapid and  dramatic urban redevelopments Australia has ever seen, underscored by the fact that Australia’s population just reached 24 million – 17 years earlier than expected.

To give a sense of the scale of change, Australian building projects currently underway are valued at more than $400 billion, and it won’t end there.

The concept of more people might be simple, but the implications are anything but. More people means more cars, garbage, air pollution, urban sprawl, water demands and housing pressures. And less biodiversity.

As previously sleepy Sydney streets become apartment canyons, there is the very real possibility of a gridlocked city where services and resources buckle under the demands made of them. In recognition of the pressing need to find better urban planning solutions, the NSW Government agency, UrbanGrowth NSW, formed an alliance earlier this year with the University of Sydney and other universities across the state. The agreement promotes opportunities for undergraduate students, postgraduate students and researchers to work with the agency on urban planning projects as part of their academic studies.

When announcing the agreement, NSW Planning Minister Rob Stokes said the agreement recognised that collaboration between government and the university sector is “critical for the delivery of innovative approaches to urban transformation”.

Garry Bowditch is working to improve urban development projects.

Garry Bowditch is Executive Director of the Better Infrastructure Initiative at the University of Sydney’s John Grill Centre for Project Leadership. The centre was established by a donation from Sydney alumnus John Grill AO (BSc ’66 BE (Civil) ’68 DEng (Honoris Causa) ’10). It now educates executives and conducts research aimed at bringing Australia’s sometimes wasteful major projects up to the standards of world’s  best practice.

One key focus for Bowditch is making sure those big projects deliver value and the solutions people actually want.

“We have to shift the mindset away from  physical assets to the services that are provided by those assets,” he says. “People aren’t interested in whether we invest in a tunnel or a bridge or a road. They are concerned with the quality of the services provided and  whether they are delivered in a way that is efficient and adaptable to changing circumstances.”

An important part of any successful city is easy transport. It is a well-loved feature of some of the world’s great cities and a regular criticism of Sydney. Already, about 30 percent of Sydney’s driving commuters spend the equivalent of three weeks of their year getting to and from work.

“We need to make sure that our mobility is insured for the future,” Bowditch says. “And it needs to be structured so that people can change from bus to bike to train to car seamlessly and without penalty.”

Professor Peter Phibbs

Australian cities now have the chance to integrate land use and transport planning. Sydney’s WestConnex project, for example, will connect the outer and inner suburbs of the city and provide an opportunity to develop large-scale, pleasant and affordable housing along the road corridor. This should be built into the DNA of such projects, says Bowditch.

It should be an Australian style of high-density housing, rather than a replica of high rise elsewhere.

“Australians want to be able to see the sky and  feel a breeze and have some sort of openness to the environment. What is lacking so far is an Akubra hat of densification. We need to address the land-use regulations that are preventing proper experimentation,” says Bowditch.

The John Grill Centre is addressing these issues through courses such as its Executive Leadership in Major Projects, a one-year program for senior executives who are further developing leadership skills to head up major infrastructure projects. The centre also has a thought leadership program that focuses on resource management and  allocation, aimed at driving greater intellectual enquiry into the infrastructure sector, which has also been sorely lacking, says Bowditch.

Now is the time to create a vibrant, affordable, sustainable and desirable place to live
Caitlin Hanrahan

Professor Peter Phibbs is the Chair  of Urban and Regional Planning and Policy at the University and also Director of the planning-focused Henry Halloran Trust. He says it is time to take the politics out of urban planning and adopt a long-term view.

The best city planning looks at least 20 years ahead.

“If we are to deal with strong population growth in our cities and  maintain liveability, we can’t just leave things to market forces,” Phibbs says. “In Sydney we have a housing crisis and people are starting to realise their kids can’t live in the same city once they leave home, as prices are too high.”

In New York, developers are obliged to include a proportion of affordable housing in their new projects. Another idea is to establish planning mechanisms for newly developed housing around transport modes. Instead of the owners of existing housing making a profit of 300 or 400 percent, the regulations could restrict this to 100 or 200 percent, with the balance going into providing affordable housing.

“We need to find ways of funding the infrastructure we need,” says Phibbs. “And if we want to attract the smartest and  brightest people to live and  work in our cities, they must be affordable.”

Caitlin Hanrahan has seen her city planning ideas recognised with a scholarship.

The University of Sydney has a number of programs that aim to promote new ways of thinking about city planning, including those under the umbrella of the Henry Halloran Trust. One of these, the Practitioner in Residence program, supports research by an experienced practitioner who then delivers a public lecture on their findings. The Trust’s Blue Sky grants also foster innovative research into areas that may otherwise find it difficult to attract funding.

Other programs, such as the Smart Seeds innovation competition and Festival of Urbanism, aim to promote new ideas and better approaches to city building.

Another new initiative is the Lendlease Bradfield Urban Vision Scholarship which encourages academic excellence and creativity in first-year and second-year undergraduate students in studies related to urbanism.

It gives special emphasis to encouraging women into this field of study. Caitlin Hanrahan, the inaugural recipient of the scholarship, has a vision for a future Sydney comprising central living districts interconnected by an efficient transport system. The combined Bachelor of Engineering Honours and Bachelor of Commerce student says these central living districts would include essential infrastructure such as healthcare, education and entertainment services.

“Now is the time to create a vibrant, affordable, sustainable and desirable place to live,” says Hanrahan.

A trust for building the future

The early 20th century was another time of great change, and one of the innovators was Henry Halloran. Henry introduced new concepts of town planning in the many settlements he established as part of his contribution to nation building. The Henry Halloran Trust was created through a gift from Henry’s son, Warren, and supports research to drive better outcomes in town planning, urban development and land management.

Written by Lynne Blundell
Photography by Louise Cooper and Stefanie Zingsheim