We already have the knowledge to building sustainable communities that we actually want to live in, writes Greg Warren. Which begs the question, why is NSW’s planning laws so ineffective and captured by lobbyist and commercial interests?
Acclaimed Russian-born American developmental psychologist, Urie Bronfenbrenner stated while addressing a global development institute:
“In the planning and designing of new communities, housing projects, and urban renewal; the planners both private and public, need to give explicit consideration to the kind of world that is being created for the children who will be growing up in these settings. Particular attention should be given to the opportunities which the environment presents or precludes for involvement of children both older and younger than themselves”.
Ultimately, Bronfenbrenner’s statement refers to the creation of an environment that is both appropriate and worthy for our children to grow and live in. However, Bronfenbrenner also draws a direct correlation to the importance of a good foundation for sustainable communities to prosper and provide opportunity.
Every new resident of developing communities deserves the same opportunity, prosperity and good lifestyle that existing residents enjoy. Ultimately, this point would undoubtedly be one of the major motivations in the decision-making process of most new aspiring home owners.
Whilst this concept is idealistic, it will only occur with the support of Government – specifically, the delivery of services and infrastructure to cater for the needs of urban population growth.
Roundtable discussions, conferences and focus groups have been convened by the NSW government and backed by selected groups. Those groups’ agendas have been commonly and closely followed by ambitious, broad and popular statements by the NSW Government with limited context or subsequent delivery – other than a far outweighed pendulum towards NSW Government lobbyists and interested parties.
The numerous contributing factors to the discussion around establishing and preserving sustainable communities are widely engaged and valid. The question of sustainability has become an important economic, political, and social issue in every community throughout this great state. Legislators, economists, and Mum and Dads alike endlessly ponder the navigating challenges of this issue.
The term ‘sustainability’ can often be associated in environmental terms alone. Whilst important, sustainability also needs to be considered and applied to broader sociological circumstances and the kinds of paid work and leisure that people in the future are likely to aspire to or experience.
It’s about the economics, stupid
Some within the economics profession have remained reluctant to fully embrace and address the issue of sustainability in its full context. Some global economic theories tend to limit the discussion of sustainability to a resource economics issue, a public policy issue, or an economic development issue. The economics of sustainability is treated similarly to the “economics of externalities”, as referred by the new international Journal of Ecological Economics. However, the authors also acknowledge the concept of sustainability is far broader than conventional economic theory itself.
There are many varying views that could draw reason to this position. However, what is clear, in order to truly achieve an effective and prosperous long-term sustainable community, a holistic approach that engages all stakeholders without limitations can only result in better outcomes for all interest groups and communities.
To establish a constructive discussion of “sustainability” requires a new, inclusive theory of economics. I am of the view that modern economic theory plays a vital role in not just establishing a sustainable community, but preserving that community’s sustainability for generations to come.
Whilst it cannot be underestimated how crucial a good planning framework is in guiding humanity toward sustainable development, it is important to not allow the complex and detailed nature of the issue to overshadow some of the basic principles and the fundamental point – that happiness, like success, is ultimately defined by the environment in which we find ourselves, and with whom we surround ourselves with.
Further, there are two important key factors in sustainable communities: good health; and a high quality of life. Neighbourhoods that are sustainable are walkable; they have choices for housing and transportation; they provide access to shops, schools, parks and other social infrastructure.
Economic, environmental and social influences must be considered collaboratively in order to deliver sustainable frameworks including jobs and more localised economic growth. Once established, a foundation will be laid to provide all residents with the opportunity for a more sustainable quality of life.
Former Secretary-General of the United Nations Ban Ki-moon made reference to this point in an address to the general assembly in 2014, when he stated:
“Sustainability is the pathway to the future we want for all. It offers a framework to generate economic growth, achieve social justice, exercise environmental stewardship and strengthen governance.”
The priority of building a sustainable community must supersede the construction of any singular, profit-motivated construction. The planning of a sustainable community must not be limited to architectural lines or numerical indicators – it must be a consolidated plan that brings together all parties for an economic, sociological, accessible and diversified place to live.
A person’s capacity to live a good life is determined by several factors including their surrounds; their physical and mental health; and their ability to establish and maintain healthy relationships. Ultimately, as the population expands and a greater number of people continue to populate cities, both metropolitan and regional, it is important to have a framework that continues to sustain and improve the social fabric where they reside.
Community concerns in most cities today are not just limited to affordable housing, accessibility, transport options, connectivity, jobs and economic growth, preservation of habitat, clean air, green space, and water supply. However, a balance can be found to deliver all of these fundamentals while maintaining a committed focus on building sustainable communities.
In NSW, our planning system is considered robust, with numerous layers that at times have conflicting agendas. This results in an adverse effect on relevant stakeholders. This is no better displayed than the feeling of disengagement felt by communities in determining their future surroundings, and their place in their future community.
Government policies and regulations must never discount the community in the broader process of planning a sustainable community. Those policies and regulations must ensure they take their rightful place as the most important consideration when developing planning framework.
The complexity of the NSW planning process is widely considered economically sterilising and out of balance, to the point where communities are shackled to a destiny beyond their control. For an applicant to navigate their way to the level of consent, the NSW planning system has more hurdles than a British National Hunt Horse Race.
The NSW planning process is near gridlocked by numerous layers and varying unelected influences including the Greater Sydney Commission (GSC); city planning panels (CPP); the Cities Deal; the Department of Planning and Environment (DoPE); private certifiers; the independent planning panel; delegated authority; the gateway process; and independent hearing and assessment panels (IHAP), now known as local planning panels (LPP). In addition, there are also the various opaque committee models that exist within some councils.
A local planning panel has one community appointee of four. The remaining three are appointed by government – a clear imbalance.
It would be beneficial if a collaborative synergy between key stakeholders occurred. Those stakeholders could include the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA); NSW Department of Housing; Urban Development Institute of Australia; Transport for NSW; Infrastructure NSW; and key community members.
All these organisations would then be able to work together to improve access to affordable housing, increase transportation options and lower transportation costs.
All these outcomes could be achieved whilst also maintaining a focus on environment and accessibility.
For example, San Francisco has a ‘precautionary principle’, a framework that provides a synergy between planning laws and social inclusion to make the city healthier and more sustainable. The precautionary principle provides more power to communities as the development industry have to prove their intentions to minimise environmental harm and promote sustainability – not the other way around.
This concept has empowered community partnerships to help provide economic momentum and to help the city compete for jobs as it becomes more attractive for businesses to relocate there. Obviously, if the business is also located in areas where people live, it helps reduce transportation costs and promotes other healthier ways of commuting to work – such as walking or using a bike.
Walkable neighbourhoods are the most interesting for two biggest generations – baby boomers and millennials – as these areas not only offer access to work but also offer different choices in terms of transport, housing and leisure.
These communities can assist the government while planning in the shared pursuit of economic development, affordable housing, transportation alternatives or community sustainability. Communities are efficient as they reduce resource consumption and pollution per capita.
By making neighbourhoods liveable and efficient, it is possible to protect natural systems and improve the quality of life. In these communities it is important that different people would share in the benefits.
In the early ‘90s while on airborne operations and awaiting despatch from a C130 a few thousand feet above the Pacific Ocean in the early hours of a winter morning, my despatch Sergeant said to me: “Don’t worry son, none of us get out of this alive in the long run”. His point has remained with me in a broader context because as sure as we are born, we’re going to die. The in between is up to you and I.
Less philosophically but along the same lines, it’s commonly stated that there are three certainties: birth, death and taxes. Clearly, we can’t control the first two, but we can the latter – so let’s ensure our taxes are used to not only maximise commercial productivity but also deliver a virtuous, happy and enjoyable time for all.
Or simply, sustainable joyous communities.