Disruptive Ideas for Greener Cities

Sunday, March 27th, 2016
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“Cities are central to the collision of ideas and the clustering of knowledge that is essential to Australia’s future and that of the world,” said new Assistant Minister for Cities and Digital Transformation Angus Taylor, as he opened the 10th annual Green Cities conference in Sydney recently.

“As we continue to evolve towards a services and knowledge-based economy, there is no doubt that the pull of jobs towards the centre of our cities is continuing,” he stated. “Half a million people are coming to work in the CBD of Sydney every day – and that number has grown at a rapid pace.”

This creates a whole series of challenges for governments, communities and individuals. As Taylor says, “people are more demanding than ever before about living in cities that are liveable and sustainable.”

He said the federal government was committed to being “partners and investors” in our cities – but that the days of being an automatic teller machine for states and local governments was over.

Instead, the government is currently looking at one potentially disruptive idea – the UK-tested City Deals model which focuses on ‘value capture’ to deliver the large-scale infrastructure projects we need to cater to a growing population while maintaining our prized quality of life.

Sustainability must be a central part of this, and thankfully the Australian government agrees. Taylor said he was “absolutely convinced that some of the best opportunities we face in delivering carbon emissions will be in the way we build our cities.”

Lord Mayor of Sydney Clover Moore agreed. She has put sustainability at the top of her agenda for many years, and is emphatic that “learning to ride a bike again or take public transport is not disruptive, it’s what we have to do.” It’s what other cities are doing, and what Australian cities must do too.

By 2030, 80 per cent of City of Sydney citizens would live in apartments, she said. Green Square alone will house 61,000 residents, and with 21,000 people per hectare, will be Australia’s densest community.

But will this model of living disrupt the Great Australian Dream forever?

Rob Stokes, NSW Minister for Planning, told the Green Cities audience that “mass densification will be one of the most disruptive forces of the 21st century.”

Melbourne and Sydney alone will be approaching eight million people apiece by 2050. In Sydney, 664,000 homes will need to be built to keep pace with these demands, and as the city reaches its natural limits the only way is up.

“But density is more than just tall buildings,” Stokes said. “It’s about diversity”.

He argued that some of Sydney’s densest communities are also some of its most inclusive and liveable, and that his role is to sell the benefits of density – but that our industry must make sure what we build, we build well.

For Lucy Hughes Turnbull, Chief Commissioner of the Greater Sydney Commission, understanding the importance of cities to the fabric of the economy is a disruptive idea in itself.

“The future of our cities is dependent on connectivity,” she pointed out. How governments connect with each other, with industry and the community, and connect our cities themselves is key.

Dr Cheong Koon Hean, CEO of Singapore’s Housing and Development Board, truly disrupted the audience’s thinking when she said her team was “seriously looking at electric and autonomous vehicles in the planning of towns.” She said change was happening faster than we thought – and that it would alter the shape of our cities forever.

Perhaps Peter Verwer, former Property Council chief and now head of the Asia Pacific Real Estate Association in Singapore, said it best. He reminded us that while Gough Whitlam sewered Sydney’s suburbs in the 1970s, Asia is doing both that and the NBN at the same time – and they don’t think it’s disruptive at all.

“Urbanisation in Asia is equivalent to building a new Adelaide every six days,” he said.

Whether it’s urbanisation, global warming or technology, change is happening – and the true disruptor is speed.

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