Model of high density cityscape
Contemporary planning in Australia is privileging vested interests over those adversely affected by development.

How city planning privileges the (in)vested few

In an economic era where stakeholders are given preference over public interest, how can city planning get back on track?

City planning shapes our cities by regulating land uses and buildings, as well as identifying infrastructure needs. But like any public policy area, it’s significantly influenced by the dominant political ideas of the times. In this current economic rationalist era, we believe city planning has ‘lost its way’ and that reform is needed to a number of important aspects of city planning practice.

Special interest groups (‘stakeholders’) have more influence than the wider community, and the performance of city plans is not well evaluated. It is also widely believed that growing city populations usually need more major roads, and that government charges on developers push up house prices.

How has city planning gone astray?

The term ‘stakeholder’ came from the business world under the influence of economic rationalism. Consistent with this, consultation with stakeholders avoids the question of ‘the common good’; instead, it aims to find a negotiated outcome from different stakeholders’ views. This can result in vested interests having much more power than those adversely affected by development.

Australian capital cities like Melbourne didn’t go into gridlock when major road building lagged behind growing populations

With the rise of New Public Management and its push to make the public sector more ‘business-like’, city plan evaluation has become more focussed on broad scale outcome indicators after the plan has been operating for several years, rather than doing detailed analyses of development options before plan implementation. However, these indicators very often assess broad-brush factors – like the number of jobs or housing costs – that are subject to wider economic conditions, rather than the performance of the plan itself.

Urban road building is seen as vital for economic competitiveness. In fact, the dominant view is that growing cities need more big roads. However, Australian capital cities like Melbourne didn’t go into gridlock when major road building lagged behind growing populations. Instead, they adjusted to the transport system available with median commuting times remaining stable for at least a decade. Claims that traffic congestion costs the economy gloss over observations that any short-term travel time savings on a new road are soon used to travel further, increasing pressure for sprawling urban development.

Concerns about reducing business costs in the economic rationalist era have led many to believe that government charges on developers push up house prices. This has resulted in some governments imposing caps on these charges. However, well-designed, transparent and predictable charges are usually ‘deducted’ from the price developers are prepared to pay for raw land, and are effectively ‘paid’ by the sellers of the raw land and not the buyers of individual houses. This is consistent with the residual land value assessment of project feasibility and was acknowledged by the Henry Tax Review.

Likewise, zoning is often blamed for reducing supply – and, hence, increasing prices – but recent research suggests that up-zoning for higher densities has little relationship to price.

How can we get back on track?

There are several ways to get city planning back on (a less economic rationalist) track.

Alternative city development options should be assessed for their effects on social, economic and environmental parameters prior to community engagement. This would allow an evidence-based discussion leading to the selection of a preferred strategy. The European Union Strategic Environmental Assessment process (different to SEAs under the Commonwealth Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act) provides a possible model. Under a similar model, broad-scale outcome indicators would be much less important.

Community engagement could include deliberately seeking out community opinions like Perth’s Dialogue with the City, which aimed to find out what ‘a large, representative group of Perth residents would want if they were well informed and had the opportunity to deliberate’. This would include using statistically valid survey methods to determine what the community thinks rather than non-representative surveys.

Melbourne is a prime example of where this integrated land use and transport planning is not yet in place

With regards to transport planning, rather than responding to traffic congestion by building more big roads, we should plan to reduce the need to travel so far. A strategy of focussed decentralisation – having attractive facilities and services like jobs and schools closer to home – could be adopted as described by former Victorian chief planner Peter Seamer. Particular locations would be favoured for facilities and services, and better transport services provided for those locations. Melbourne is a prime example of where this integrated land use and transport planning is not yet in place.

When it is understood that well-designed government charges do not push up house prices, these charges (‘paid’ by raw land sellers) would cover more of the real cost of new or upgraded public facilities, in proportion to the demand resulting from the new development. As well as fully covering the real cost of basic infrastructure like local roads, parks and water supply, this approach would provide more funding for a wider range of local facilities – potentially including community and cultural buildings, social housing and bus services – than is currently required in some states. As noted by the Henry Tax Review, real-cost developer charges would also encourage more efficient use of existing facilities. This approach would increase the amenity of developing outer urban areas and potentially reinforce the focussed decentralisation strategy.

While city planning may have gone astray, there are readily available ways of redirecting its intentions. However, this would require an honest conversation about common beliefs that have become entrenched in city planning during the economic rationalist period.

Brian Feeney is an urban planner and independent researcher.
Mark Limb is a lecturer in urban planning at QUT in Brisbane.