Planning rules around Australia are still based on the separation of supposedly incompatible uses.

In NSW, we have 12 industrial and business zones, each with different objectives, but the world of work has changed along with the introduction of environmental laws that mean many uses can now co-exist.

In his book The New Geography of Jobs, Enrico Moretti explains how heavy industrial jobs are being replaced by jobs in the creative and high-tech industries. He goes on to note that traditional manufacturing jobs are declining and that technology and creative industry clusters are forming in these spaces.

The technology industry attracts an educated work force with large disposable salaries to spend on a range of services and products. They tend to go to restaurants and movies, use taxis, therapists and doctors as well as spending cash on clothes, shoes and technology. Technology firms also attract localised services such as security guards, lawyers, janitors and so on much more than industrial and manufacturing activities. This kind of agglomeration drives the need for broader mixed use zoning to allow these clusters to form and grow as required.

In 2012, NSW was in a reforming mood and released a White Paper which proposed to rethink land use zoning. The White Paper proposed to consolidate the existing 35 land use zones into 13 broader, open zones where a greater diversity of land uses will be permitted, with less focus upon the intensity of development towards the management of outcomes and impacts. Genuinely incompatible uses would be separated, but there would be far greater scope for complementary uses to develop.

Despite the slowness to change the zoning laws, there are some moves forward. Zoning for retail was recently broadened in NSW with the addition of ‘hardware and building supplies’ and ‘garden centres’ as permissible uses in the general industrial, light industrial and business park zones.

There are also some good examples of mixed use development. In Victoria Park between Sydney’s CBD and the airport, the East Village development has an amazing 6,500 square metre sky garden surrounded by five-storey apartments sitting on top of five floors of commercial and retail space. Included in the East Village project are a full-line supermarket, grocery and  specialty stores, restaurants, cafes, a gym and a range of services including banks and a medical centre.

Mixed use needs to also work at a precinct level in urban areas. Old concepts of commercial-only cores need to be opened up to mixed uses where many people can live in cities along with the work places.

Looking back over the last few decades, the blending of uses has moved a long way but it is highly likely that over the next few decades, the changes will exponentially increase. Existing office buildings may be retrofitted with apartments on the top levels along with restaurants and supermarkets take over a lower level.

In the past, mixed use developments have favoured horizontal configuration, bu vertical mixed use developments are gaining popularity as a feasible compact model. The pressures of limited urban land to develop is encouraging this trend. Generally, more public uses are provided on the lower levels with residential higher up.

Mixed use development is also responding to social trends, particularly as designers, architects and developers try and respond to the sociological needs of their customers – for example, the desire for face-to-face contact and connectivity with the community and creation of spaces where people interact intentionally or by chance. Studies show that younger home buyers and renters actually prefer living in mixed use precincts and have little desire for a free standing home in the suburbs, a car to collect groceries and do shopping and a long commute to work.

As developers compete to sell their product, they are increasingly focusing on the amenity that mixed use developments can provide to residents, including sophisticated food and beverage, green spaces, dog parks and services. The Boston Seaport is an excellent example of this.

One fundamental problem with zoning in Australia is that the planners who decide the rules are often a decade or so behind where industry and the marketplace stand. Just look at the rapid rise of Airbnb, Uber, EBay. Look at online shopping and so many other areas and fast forward to how this may impact on the built environment. The end product may well be “flexi-space” that can accommodate a range of uses that can be changed annually, or even more frequently than that.