Seldom has a week has gone by over the last several years where there hasn’t been a story in the media about the escalating housing prices in our major cities. While the media ramps up its’ focus on the impact of foreign investors, the most noticeable thing for me is the absence of government intervention on housing affordability or the cost of living.  

This ambivalent treatment of the ‘affordability crisis’ is just the most recent example of what I see as a gradual dilution of the influence and impact of planning policy in Australia over the last two decades.

Nowhere is this more evident than in our Metropolitan Plans. Every metro plan in the country advocates for things that no one could disagree with; more housing choice and affordability, less time spent in cars and more on rapid transport, better access to jobs, cleaner environment and better public amenity. But the reality is, no state or city in Australia has even come close to executing it’s vision through systemic and enforced policy.

Its now accepted practice for metro plans to effectively get dumbed down to unenforceable dwelling and job targets for local authorities to deliver. Hardly an inspiring proposition for the community to embrace and a poor prospectus for public and private investment.

The current BCA chief and former head of the NSW super agency DIPNR Jennifer Westacott says that metro plans should be considered as economic development strategies, fully backed by local, state and federal tiers of government. In short, if the states truly believe in their vision for cities, then it’s their responsibility to ensure they are funded and executed. This clearly isn't happening.  The real question is, why?

Here are three reasons that are in the frame:

1.    The current approach is out-dated.

No-one believes in the science of planning any more, probably for good reason as it’s a profession it really needs to be kicked into the 21st century. The top down, guideline and codified driven planning orthodoxy, which time has forgotten, or at least moved on from, needs to be rethought.  It needs to be re-energised with an evidence based approach that can quantify the benefits, create the conditions for investment and evaluate the urban propositions generated against criteria that clearly demonstrate if we are making the city and people’s lives better or worse.

2.    They are speaking the wrong language

The growth targets established at the recent G20 summit are the latest reminder of the immense power of economic dogma in driving collective vision, direction and investment. It is clear that politicians of all walks of life have put their faith in economic growth. This was re-emphasised this week when the NSW Government put an economic growth narrative around their new infrastructure strategy predicting the economy would be 3.6% bigger in real terms as a result of the infrastructure announcements. Additionally, the strategy clearly is tied to funding to be made available by the partial sale of the poles and wires infrastructure owned by the state.

However, rather than speaking in this language, planning orthodoxy rolls out dwelling targets as an indicator of growth.  Typically, these housing targets rapidly turn into political flashpoints and community angst. 

3.    The planning focus has been shifted to ‘mega-projects’.

At the recent Bays Precinct International Summit hosted by UrbanGrowth NSW one key note speaker produced a slide with the following text:

“Projects Trump Plans”

The summit was a fantastic first step in building the capacity and place making required for such a key part of Sydney’s development. However, while these projects play a vital role in pushing the envelope of city making and urban regeneration, singular projects alone cannot address the wider metropolitan development across the city as a whole. After all, not all of us will live in these major urban regeneration sites.

That said it was clear the approach, process and content delivered and discussed by the summit participants was light years ahead of what gets considered under the current local and metropolitan plans established throughout Australia’s major cities.

However, there is hope.

While the current state of planning is undeniably dire, we now have tools available that can overcome many of these obstacles.  However, this will require a fundamental shift in approach to one that relies on the strength of evidence-based science and the foresight of predictive analytics to ensure that the outcomes of key planning decisions are not left to chance.

This process has already begun. In collaboration with UrbanGrowth NSW, Kinesis developed a strategic urban design and infrastructure planning tool that was originally conceived to assess if planning instruments helped make the city ‘a better place’.  PRECINX provides an evidence base to planning that is both confronting and information rich, allowing for the timely development of practical, on-ground strategies to achieve meaningful change. Not only that, we are using it early enough so we can test alternative propositions and work at a scale where we can clearly see how the environmental, social, financial and economic benefits are distributed.

Additionally, some private developers have been exploring urban solutions that are less reliant on cars, leveraging private capital to provide real mobility choice, partnering with private utilities to green up and cheapen urban living whilst fighting planning codes that are neither spatially or systems intelligent (typically drafted whilst looking in the rear vision mirror). However, none of that can be optimised without a strategic context that can only be established by government.  This is the role of a Metropolitan Plan.

Let’s bring planning into the 21st Century.

I am confident of the impact that evidence based decision-making and predictive analytics can make to ensure the best outcome for our urban areas. I hope that rather than exclusively relying on mega-projects, our urban planners can learn to adopt some of these tools so we can see the entire city benefit from a modernised approach.  

It has been over a decade since the online BASIX regulatory platform was implemented in NSW to control greenhouse gas emissions and water consumption from residential development.  It is inconceivable that in all that time (Google wasn’t even listed as a public company then), not one smart e-planning tool has been delivered to guide and control the things we know that matter in addition to economic growth; affordable and diverse supply of housing, parking and mobility infrastructure, access to a variety of open space and social infrastructure – dare I say it “quality of life”.  

Why are we even leaving this to chance?