At the recent Planning Institute of Australia’s (PIA) National Congress in Sydney, one presenter was discussing today’s modern city and concluded that ‘Master Plans are dead’.

The importance, or lack of importance placed on Master Plans has been debated for a while now, and that debate doesn’t look to be slowing. Two nights after the presenter made his claim, the PIA National Award ceremony recognized planning excellence in…wait for it…a Master Plan.

Dee Why courtesy John OCallaghan

Dee Why, courtesy John OCallaghan

The Dee Why Town Centre Master Plan was awarded ‘Best Planning Ideas – Small Projects’ at the PIA Congress and follows an earlier award received for the same project by the Urban Development Institute of Australia. Both awards recognized there was something special happening in this Master Plan, perhaps an evolution of sorts from the rigid, clunky frameworks of the past. The secret was a focus on place and people.

The Master Plan was prepared by PLACE Design Group and adopted by Warringah Council in 2013 as the guiding document to improve Dee Why. The Awards not only recognize quality design and planning outcomes but also leadership in governance, professional innovation and the relationship between client and consultant. In this way, master planning is a collaborative process that requires creativity and ‘buy in’ from all levels of the community, including the project team.

Dee Why Town Centre Civic Plaza courtesy Warringah Council

Dee Why Town Centre Civic Plaza, courtesy Warringah Council

In recent years, the best Master Plans, including those that have won awards, have moved on from being time focused and obsessed with deadlines and milestones, and on to a place-based approach that finds balance between local environmental needs, social dynamics and economic goals.

Master Plans in this respect are still vision documents but with a purpose to provide a holistic design strategy for improving public spaces and urban infrastructure. A Master Plan will also respond to development issues and evaluate local land use planning. The Dee Why Town Centre Master Plan is that and more. It is comprehensive yet easily digestible, a quantitative study that doubles as a personal story and a bold statement but with practical actions. Could it be the next evolution of master planning?

Option 2 Master Plan courtesy PLACE Design Group

Option 2 Master Plan courtesy PLACE Design Group

“The use of innovation and graphics to support a broader understanding impressed the judges, while an historic floor-space-ratio constraint seems to have been well managed to create a vibrant commercial and residential hub. Environmental and water sensitive enhancements, particularly the use of street trees to reduce greenhouse, sit well here,” said the judges for the PIA Award.

The emphasis and importance of Water Sensitive Urban Design was reinforced by a number of contextual studies and key principles throughout the Master Plan. While these studies and directions are not uncommon to the master planning process, their reference to place and place making highlighted a new attitude and design philosophy that reinforced the local character and distinctiveness of Dee Why.

 Perhaps this is why Master Plans are not dead, and in an age of the entrepreneurial city, more relevant than ever.