Good planning is critical to making Australian cities liveable and sustainable. A well-planned city can encourage people to spend more time outside, commute more sustainably and connect with their community.

We speak with planning expert Associate Professor Wendy Steele on the challenges of rethinking urban life, how good planning can reduce our impact on the climate and the unusual ways planners are driving the future of cities.

Why is good planning so essential to Australia’s way of life?

Australians are predominantly urban dwellers. We are a city-oriented nation. The majority of us live in the five largest cities located along the coastline.

We work and play in cities, we build careers and raise families, and these places must respond in turn to the changing needs of our growing population.

Fundamental to this is the balance between sustainability and development. Good planning is essential in helping coordinate growth that is environmentally sustainable, and ensuring the outcomes of development are fair and reasonable for all members of the community, regardless of wealth or circumstance.

There are a few key questions that need to be kept in focus. Who wins and who loses in the city? Who gets ahead and who is left behind? In what ways – and by what means – do we create, build and inhabit the cities of the future?

Planning has a major role in mediating these (often competing) community concerns.

Planning initiatives, such as encouraging urban greening, can boost sustainability and help reduce the impact of climate change.

What are the biggest challenges of planning for future populations?

Good strategic planning spans the past, present and future. It builds on lessons learnt from the past, critically interrogates current urban activities and patterns of development, and draws on diverse resources and community vision to plan for future generations.

Planning issues are complex and interconnected. We live on one of the driest continents in the world and our cities are built in the most fertile regions, so planning for water and food security within the context of a growing population is an essential but not at all simple task.

Planners have to address competing interests and claims on land use from farmers, urban populations, recreational users, environmentalists and so on.

But Australian cities straddle all  three tiers of government – federal, state and local. So this means cities are either managed by all levels – creating duplication and confusion over roles and responsibilities – or, more commonly, they are not directly managed by any of them, resulting in neglect and oversight.

Critical infrastructure such as roads, ports and telecommunications are examples of areas in cities that require planning and investment to respond to the needs of future populations, and yet this has proven to be difficult as a result of the federal governance system deficit.

To address this, some people have suggested a fourth tier of government that focuses specifically on cities, but this is still just an idea. So, watch this space!

How can good planning help reduce the impact of climate change?

Planning has an important role in addressing climate change in cities through mitigation and adaptation.

Energy, materials, building and waste are central to the functioning of cities and a focus for action on climate change.

Transitioning to a low-carbon future requires a move to renewables and reducing the use of cars in favour of public and active transport. Responding to the impacts of climate change (bushfires, floods, heatwaves and other extreme weather) will necessitate new building materials and innovation in planning approvals, systems and schemes.

We are being called on to rethink the way we consider and design our cities.

This may involve greater concentrations of community hubs, which co-locate services, meaning people do not need to travel so far to access them.

It will require a stronger focus on urban greening and green buildings to counter the effects of concrete environments that retain heat, as well as capturing excess carbon dioxide from coal burning.

Ultimately, however, it will require rethinking how we live our lives – a shift away from a society of “conspicuous consumption” to one that better values the Earth as our habitat through an ethic of care and environmentally sustainable action.

Addressing climate change is a collective task for the whole of society that is clearly beyond the remit of planning alone. The close link between the way we live in cities – that is, our collective consumption and production – and the impact to the Earth in terms of global warming means that action is required now and into the future.

Every individual needs to consider how they can contribute to this transition, professionally and personally.

Creating bike-friendly roads and paths in cities will encourage people to commute more sustainably. Photo: Alana Tayl

What are the future directions for cities and urban planning?

Planning is increasingly diverse, and the nature and type of roles that planners are involved with is continually expanding and changing.

These include planning at different scales (international, national, state, local), in different areas (e.g. water, energy, climate change, transport, housing and environment) and with a different focus (e.g. strategic, statutory, legal, economic, social, environmental, community and heritage planning).

There are some interesting changes going on in planning that reflect these contemporary times.

The Clara Plan proposes to build two inland cities in Victoria and six in NSW as advanced, sustainable SMART cities with a design focus on connectivity, innovation and liveability. The plan also includes a high-speed rail network between Melbourne and Sydney to open up regional areas to the benefits of the Australian economy and reduce car and freight travel on the roads.

Within Melbourne, there is a proposal to build bicycle highways or elevated bike lanes through the Melbourne CBD to facilitate active commuter transport from the suburbs to the city centre. This would also reduce carbon emissions caused by intensive travel by fuel-powered vehicles to and from the CBD.

A final example of change is the development of subterranean or “iceberg” housing developments. Given the shortage of land in cities and the restrictions on building up, a number of people are opting to build down as much as three floors below their existing house. While it could offer a solution to the urban squeeze, the move has raised concerns about the potential impact on fragile water tables and surrounding homes.

These are but a few examples of new directions in planning at different scales, but one thing is for certain: the future of planning is not static, and the shape of our future cities will be determined by how our planners embrace and strategically direct urban and regional change into the 21st century.


About the expert: Associate Professor Wendy Steele is Program Manager of the RMIT Master of Urban Planning and Environment and an active member of the Centre for Urban Research.


First published 13 February 2017.

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