This is a series of articles based on themes derived from Randolph Hester and others exploring the productivity, livability and sustainability of cities using an Australian Ecological Democracy framework. The interviewer is Tony Trobe and the interviewee is Viv Straw, President of the ACT Division of the Planning Institute Australia.

TT: Viv you have some radical ideas about the future of planning in Canberra and our cities in general would you like to explain them to us?

VS: Tony, globally four major trends characterise changes in metropolitan typology. The first of these is urban resurgence which is a function of people moving back to cities. It is common for urban centres to be seen as attractive, lively places to live and work, and as centres of intellectual and creative capacity.

The second is the High-tech, global economy which has been a driver of recent economic expansion and new opportunities in cities.

The third is a recognition that there is a need to diversify land uses and build solid revenue basis and the need to create liveable urban centres.

And the fourth is a trend towards an increased investment in mass transit or urban transit opportunities and to orient development toward urban transit rather than private commuting options.

The convergence of these trends leads to the realisation that a substantial market exists for new forms of walkable, mixed use urban development around new light rail, rail or rapid bus interchanges. More than 100 American cities are looking at introducing trams at the moment. These trends are reflected in Europe and elsewhere.

Our cities are defined by congestion, growing obesity problems and other community health issues and the rising cost of running individual transport systems as well as isolation from our neighbours to name a few. Canberra is not immune to this and while we are a long way ahead in terms of being a beautiful city set in a beautiful landscape we are not immune to the need to provide for those that will want to live car free lives in the centre.

TT: How will planners and our civic leaders deal with these changes in the future?

VS: I think that last century’s planning ideas that got us out of trouble with polluting industrial development is having unintended consequences this century. Planners will gradually review zones that create residential enclaves, commercial areas and industrial areas and we will begin to live in more diversified localities using collaborative diversity as a planning principle, putting together more things that add to improved amenity and being more selective about things that create conflict.

TT: But how can that be achieved when our planning systems are so entrenched and the infrastructure and fabric of our cities is in place?

VS: Recognition that the private sector has the money, the imagination and the innovative capacity to develop city spaces to meet the changing economy and our technological base is a good starting point. The private sector and the marketplace are open to change as a process while the government sector plays the guiding hand through a governance framework rather than a command and control framework. Changing our land use systems to provide for more versatility and creating more compact cities will enable the private sector to leverage greater land values over time. It took more than a hundred years to get here and it will take some time to make the required changes. Planning implementation can seem like a glacial project but it also tends to have glacial momentum.

TT: Viv you talked about four global megatrends, city centre living becoming more popular, technology driving the new economy, a diversity of land uses together and the re-emergence of mass transit as an alternative to connecting people to other parts of the city; what do we need to do to take advantage of these trends?

VS: Tony, the first thing we need is a clear vision about the type of city that we want and what we want to get out of the city. I think it’s apparent that the global trend is toward lively mixed-use centres that are walkable, provide employment that is meaningful and give us a healthy lifestyle. Communities will need to be more inclusive, adaptable and open to changing trends. But diversity is important too and we have some beautiful suburbs and a city set into a great landscape that already works on a lot of levels. Its framework, thanks to the planners who went ahead of us, is robust and will allow for a lot of change.

To develop a vision our civic leaders need to have a clear understanding of the type of city that we want to have: is it to be more inclusive, is it going to be innovative? There is going to be a great deal of debate about the difference between a dense city and a more compact city if we are going to introduce mass transit systems. How are we going to service parts of the city that are sparsely populated and how are we going to manage developments in the inner-city that will need to be more transit and less private motor vehicle oriented? City centres will become transit oriented rather than transit adjacent.

TT: It is difficult for people to connect with the vision when they think that it is going to change in a few years because our circumstances have changed.

VS: Yes, it is clear that a vision must have three components to be successful. A vision needs to have a wow factor that people can associate with and want to be part of.

A vision of the future needs to be owned by the people rather than imposed from above and needs to connect existentially, it needs to identify the “what’s in it for me?”

And thirdly vision needs to be anchored in the reality of the current situation be deliverable and be based on an understanding of how cities will change over time. Only if its outcomes are consistently applied will it have acceptance and visions create expectations so that is why people expect us to continue to deliver on what they had in the past. Changing a vision needs to be done with care and thoughtfully, you can not just get onto the next political whim. People realise that particular politicians are here today and gone tomorrow but their expectations and investment decisions are here for the longer term.

To deliver on a vision it is important that we have an appropriate governance system in place. It is important to recognise that while the global mega trends are changing the shape of cities they are also changing our perception of government. Any vision for the future needs to recognise the development of deliberative and inclusive government processes.

TT: Viv after you develop the role of vision what comes next?
VS: Tony, well the third thing we need is a good governance system. The age of command and control is dead. Successful places will develop a more collaborative approach to delivering city outcomes and municipal services. This is all about using the community, government, the private and the not-for-profit sectors to deliver a more diverse future. The future will require living, working, recreation and services that are delivered locally. Many will remain in suburbs but the life of the city will be close to its centres. Canberra is already a poly-centric city which gives it a great skeleton to facilitate these changes.
The century old design and control approach of dividing the city into zones must be replaced by a system that encourages collaborative diversity: people, land uses, economic and social activity as well as urban styles can cohabit in close proximity. Putting things together that go together and preventing conflicts as much as possible. The rationale for land use separation is no longer a substantial driver for the inner city, it makes for lazy planning because it is easy to implement and control. Moving away from the zone model will facilitate the compact city. It is not just a dense city. It is a city characterised by nodes of activity and lifestyles and is compact but not high-rise density. It will be a place where people make connections and thrive on the exchange of ideas.
I think that in future our cities will be deliberative, inclusive, innovative, compact and great places to live; they will be characterised by collaboration.
TT: You will need to explain that…collaboration by whom?
VS: There are three levels to this, how we deliver services, how out cities are structured and how we build connections, physical and communications connections.

At present our planning, municipal services providers and commercial delivery are functionally separated. There are ideological and practical walls both within government and between them and service providers and the community. It is time for government to stop doing all the heavy lifting and share the load. The private sector understands what needs to be done, often before government. It can often deliver more functions more effectively but not all of them.
Places that are successful have great leadership across all sectors that recognise the issues and share in the outcomes.  The vision needs to be connected to the current understanding of the situation and clarify for people what is in it for them. Good governance provides clarity of purpose, develops a climate that facilitates debate, is collaborative and recognises success and failure quickly, while building capacity for delivery.

TT: Viv, what are we trying to achieve here that we need to change a system that seems to have worked so well for so long?

VS: The modern city draws its vitality and land values from a clever mix of human activity and enterprise that makes cities exciting and accessible. Cities have been described as the greatest achievement of the human race. However cities develop; access to facilities, services, entertainment, work and other people are the most important determinants of land value.

The greater the diversity of land uses and opportunities that cities have the more appealing they become. Cities need to be internally competative and need to be able to compete in an international arena.

TT: One of the characteristics of Australian cities is that they are incredibly liveable, most people put this down to our leafy suburbs, are you trying to change that?

VS: No, I think this is a matter of adding more opportunities to our urban environment rather than diminishing the quality of our suburbs. There will always be suburban living, but we need to recognise that a proportion of our population want to live closer to where it is all happening.

Mass transport systems will not reach into the low density suburbs, but for those who are not interested in owning a car or living the suburban lifestyle, transit oriented centres are more appealing.

People are choosing city centres because they provide a lifestyle they want. To make these places work we need to get the right mix of opportunities. Getting the mix right, is what I call developing collaborative diversity.

TT: But some land uses cause pollution like noise, odours and so on, where do we put them?

VS: Obviously, we can’t just jam everything in to the centre of the city, some uses cause conflicts, and need to be separated out. But we need to be more judicial about that. Others work together to create exciting places. Getting the mix right is about putting things together that work together. Residential, commercial, education and recreation uses together with some forms of entertainment and access to open space all add value to the city and reduce travel and health costs.

TT: Do you want to develop dense cities?

VS: Canberra is a beautiful city that is set in a magnificent landscape, we need to protect that. I think we can have more compact cities with; creative, innovative, inclusive, active and liveable centres. We like to be in close proximity to each other. More compact cities allow for greater exchange of ideas, less travel cost and time and healthier places. With some thought we can create collaboratively diverse town centres for people to live in and enjoy. But they might be a bit denser than our current city centres but they might never become dense in the global sense of that world and I am not advocating for highrise.

TT: Viv, what role does location play in this?

VS: No place exists in isolation; every place is connected to its hinterland, other urban areas, food sources and water supplies and to other people and information. How these connections function is fundamental to the live-ability and efficiency of the city. The most liveable cities are ones that facilitate freedom of movement and access for everyone.

TT: One of the characteristics of Canberra is that it is incredibly reliant on private transport, how does that affect us?

VS: Well there are four parts to this, the internal connections and the connections with the rest of humanity and resources. But we also need physical connections and telecommunications systems.

Interestingly, the better our electronics communications become, the more we want to be in close physical proximity to each other. Perhaps this can be explained by Jevon’s corollary. It is so much easier today to organise impromptu meetings. It is all about the way we share goods and services.

TT: But, what about our internal physical connections?

VS: Well this is a complex area, but it is vital to get it right. Private transport provides more flexibility than large scale mass transit systems and there are occupations and life circumstances and urban structures that almost dictate the car, bike or walking modes for people. The sealed road is one of the great success stories of the last century, but the car is not available to everyone and there are costs.

On the other hand mass transport systems will not reach into the low density suburbs, but for those who are not interested or capable of owning a car, public transport is essential. It enables people who don’t have direct access to a car, nearly 40% of the population to travel. So the subsidy to public transport can be seen as an input into productivity.

In 2011 we subsidised public transport to the tune of about $3billion, and private car transport to about $17billion. So Transport is subsidised to a total of about $20billion in Australia. And private transport seems to be subsidised to about five times the subsidy of private transport.

TT: Why do we do that?

VS: Simply our transport systems are used to connect us, and when people connect they are productive. Time spent travelling is lost to production, except that it pushes up demand for fuel and more transport which creates work for the transport industry.

In Canberra we have the freedom to travel free of congestion. But not all of us can, and without public transport many would be isolated and unproductive.

TT: Viv if you have one thing what does it all come down to?

VS: Putting it all into context, I think that cities are places where people engage each other, they make things, exchange ideas and generally gather. People in close proximity to each other are productive.

TT: But Canberra is not a dense centralised city, so what works for us here?

VS: There are lots of very liveable and productive cities around the world that have less than 500,000 people and Canberra is one of them. Canberra is a city in a landscape, but it’s more than that; it is a city of villages that relate together. Civic is perhaps the first among equals, Belconnen, Woden, Tuggeranong, Gungahlin, Queanbeyan are all hubs that work well.

TT:So you are selling Canberra, but are there things that need to change?

VS: Yes, cities need to be adapting, forever changing, Canberra is no exception. It needs to be more internally competitive. It needs to reduce its reliance on government and the property industry. It needs to become a place where people can set up a business at low cost and be able to compete internationally. Places grow in two ways; they grow their population, they innovate their economy. Canberra has done well at growing its population but now it must turn to innovation.

TT: If I look at the global stage cities seem to be becoming more important in commercial terms, is that right?

VS: Cities are becoming the new centres of global activity. There are two trends globalization and localization. Cities are becoming centres for national and international attention. More and more we talk about competitiveness in terms of cities. It is cities that build the strength of the national economy in Australia and the world. Two cities Sydney and Melbourne account for 40% of our population and for a larger proportion of our GDP, cities are the powerhouse of our economy and the focus of peoples attention and activity.

TT: So what can we do in Canberra?

VS:We need to be very clear about how we differentiate ourselves in the international market. What is it that will attract investment; is it low tax, is at liveability, is it the place where great minds meet, easy investment regimes, is this a secure place with reliable legislatures, we need to be able to say something like, this is a great place because it is…

I think Canberra is a meeting place that is innovative, inclusive well connected to the world and diverse; a city of villages in a beautiful landscape.