Around the world, there is a shift from globalism to localism and from support for growth to the protection of local character.

The Brexit result in the United Kingdom signalled a local protectivist approach over a global free market approach, and the success of Donald Trump’s campaign for the position of President of the United States of America reflected similar sentiments.

A recent book on urban planning titled The New Localism – How Cities can Thrive in the Age of Populism by Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak raises similar issues with its thesis that power has moved downward from national and state governments to city and metropolitan areas. The authors call for a 21st century localism as demonstrated by cities like Pittsburgh, Indianapolis and Copenhagen as leading case studies in dealing creatively with local problems.

In Australia’s largest and most urban city, Sydney, similar sentiments are playing out 12 months before the next state election. The NSW government had previously championed maximising housing supply as the way to manage spiralling house prices. They nominated key growth areas as “Priority Precincts” with a message to residents that the government was going to drive new development fast in these neighbourhoods.

As part of a package of reforms to get more housing underway in June 2017, the NSW Government announced another 16 Priority Precincts, but local communities were not very impressed. Action groups emerged against new development, the state opposition said it would eliminate Priority Precincts if it was elected and then the government announced a name change to “Planned Precincts” with the message that change was being carefully planned. But the government messaging has gone a lot further.

The NSW Government has legislated that from 1 March 2018 each council will need to develop its own Community Participation Plan that demonstrates how the existing community is being involved in protecting or enhancing their towns, centres and suburbs. Added to this is a recent (16 January 2018) Department of Planning Circular that defines “Local Character” and sets out a framework for protecting this local character.

The circular clarifies this, stating that “Respecting character does not mean that new development cannot occur, instead, it means that a design-led approach needs to be implemented which builds on the valued characteristics of individual neighbourhoods and places. Built form, bulk, scale and height as well as landscaping and good design all play a part in ensuring the character of an area is maintained while still allowing for new development to occur.”

The clear implication is that the existing character will be maintained. But where two-storey detached houses will be replaced by 20-storey apartment towers, clearly the existing character will not be maintained. The circular goes on to explain that even in the Planned Precincts where significant new development is planned “that existing local character can be reflected and strengthened in planning for the future.”

In the same package of materials that the NSW government issued in June 2017 was a report from former Governor of the Reserve Bank of Australia, Glenn Stevens about his take on housing affordability. Stevens picked up on the essential political problem: governments were asking existing communities to be involved in planning their neighbourhood but there was no group to advocate for the future community, for the children and grandchildren of the existing residents sitting comfortably in their million dollar plus homes. Stevens defined three interest groups involved in new housing:

  1. Some existing residents, who value amenity from hitherto quiet suburban neighbourhoods of detached dwellings
  2. Other existing residents who would be keen to realise the potential uplifted value of the land on which they presently live if re-development were allowed
  3. Potential new residents – both from natural population increase and interstate and international immigration.

Stevens believes the third group is not represented by anyone.

“Local councils are elected by the first two groups; the question is whether anyone at the local level represents the third group, apart from developers who of course have their own interests,” he noted. “My judgement is that political leadership at State and Federal level is critical if the interests of the third group are to be given adequate weight.”

To satisfy Stevens’ concerns, we will need a New Residents Advocacy Group to be involved in the formulation of each council’s Community Participation Plan.

I was closely involved in community meetings in the development of the master plan for the Central Park site on Broadway next to Sydney’s Chippendale suburb. The local action group mainly came from nearby terrace houses and they were very fearful of the arrival of apartment towers. Most of the project has now been built and the neighbouring community has gained a new park, new shopping centre, medical facilities and child care centres – amenities that benefit everyone.

localismWhile the NSW swing to New Localism seems to be aimed at involving the often worried local community in a precinct, the New Localism book by Katz and Nowak sees the involvement more in economic terms with a focus on the free market.

“Cities start with market power, the cumulative effect of real economic, physical and social assets,” they wrote. “Successful cities then actively experiment with deploying this power in a way that unlocks more public capital (fiscal power), as well as private and philanthropic capital (financial power). The authors go on to say: “The key missing ingredient is leadership.”

Stevens in his report on Housing Affordability also comes down on the side of leadership.

“My judgement is that political leadership at State and indeed Federal level is critical if the interests of the third group (potential new residents) are to be given adequate weight,” he noted.

Katz, Nowak and Stevens each come with an understanding of the economics of cities and it is how this understanding with its focus on leadership can be blended with the involvement of local communities that will be required in Australian cities.