City Planning Part 1: A Reform Agenda

The Need for Reform

A decade ago, Ross Garnaut warned Australians that a Great Complacency had descended upon the country after a decade of exceptional economic growth, a decade underpinned by the economic reforms of the 1980s and 1990s.  In this series of articles, I will argue that a radical planning reform agenda is needed to tackle systemic problems that threaten the liveability of our cities.  Planners must play a role in framing this agenda, or risk being considered complacent or even irrelevant. 

The 1980s and ‘90s were a period of reform in national economic policy, reforms that underpinned the prosperity this country has enjoyed ever since.  There are parallels in the planning of Melbourne.  I was fortunate to be at the City of Melbourne when the 1985 Strategy Plan overturned many planning orthodoxies, and set in place a reform vision that has been consistently adhered to ever since. 

Today, many in the planning profession assert that Victoria has the country’s most sophisticated town planning regime, with its solid foundation of governance arrangements.  Planners continue to be busily engaged in strategic initiatives, such as greenfield planning, urban renewal, implementation of new zones, and national economic clusters. 

Surely this is enough of an agenda to occupy our professional minds for the foreseeable future?  None of us is complacent, there’s always more to be done, the essentials are sound.  But let’s stand back for a moment and consider some of the fundamentals that city planning should be delivering. 

Photo: Freiburg, Germany – “the city that did it all” according to Peter Hall, “the city that took on every challenge – economy, housing, transport, environment – and did best at it” [Good Cities, Better Lives, 2014].  Low energy, pre-fabricated housing around green open spaces resembling London squares, high quality design, traffic-calmed streets, citizen cooperatives, tram infrastructure provided in advance of housing.  Planning reforms of the kind envisaged in this article would be necessary if we are to attempt to emulate even a small part of Freiburg’s achievement.  [Image (c) City of Freiburg]


How would you judge the success of a city in which:

  • There is no credible plan to deal with transport congestion and pollution
  • Public transport infrastructure to growth areas cannot be afforded
  • A modest family house in an accessible location is beyond the means of an average young couple
  • Statutory controls like building heights can be varied by discretion to such an extent as to render them meaningless
  • Many development decisions are taken by councillors elected to oppose the very developments that State policy requires them to approve
  • The most important development decisions, conferring windfall financial gains on the proponent, are effectively made in secret

The city I describe is no jumped-up, wild-west frontier town – it is Melbourne; it could equally be Sydney or another of our larger State capitals. 

These shortcomings must be addressed if city planning is to have credibility and relevance in coming decades.  We can only tackle major challenges such as climate change, population ageing and infrastructure investment if we have first resolved these shortcomings.  They must be addressed if city planning is to have credibility and relevance in coming decades. 

A Reform Agenda

Identifying problems is one thing, suggesting solutions is another.  There needs to be debate about the most effective policy response to these issues, and we enter the realm of ideology and politics as much as technical analysis in searching for solutions.  We need to find pathways to reform that offer practical prospects for success.  If some of these stray beyond the territory of day-to-day town planning, I make no apology; planners need to be involved in wider debates about public policy. 

Here are the components of a city planning reform agenda that, in my opinion, would have a good chance of resolving the shortcomings identified above, an agenda that will be enlarged on through this series of articles:

  • Road pricing
  •  Value uplift capture
  • Housing market transformation
  • A simpler, more accountable planning system
  • Bi-partisan support for planning fundamentals

Roads are the only piece of infrastructure where the government owns the assets, funds them through taxes and charges, and then hands out the services for nothing.  Road pricing has the potential to transform travel behaviour and infrastructure funding.  It might even obviate the need for key land use planning policies, and therefore reduce red-tape. 

Value uplift capture is partly practiced in Victoria, but could deliver much more.  The European experience shows us that value capture is a vital tool for effective master planning, vital also for funding fixed rail infrastructure. 

Housing policy is a topic much discussed, usually from perspectives that reflect the narrow concerns of a particular profession or industry group.  There are deep-seated problems with design quality and affordability, and with achieving the right housing types and the right housing mix.  An effective reform agenda needs to address a broad spectrum of issues, from Federal fiscal policy to local urban design principles. 

The discussion about a simpler, more accountable planning system will examine concepts of political philosophy and governance, and touch on the nature of planning controls, subsidiarity, accountability, transparency and the potential for corruption. 

Public & Political Acceptance

There is little doubt that many of these suggestions will be considered unrealistic and impractical – Utopian or Dystopian, depending on one’s ideology.  The last article in the series will confront the fraught question: How to win bi-partisan support for a radical reform agenda. 

None of the concepts discussed in these articles is actually new, though all pose significant challenges of implementation.  Some at least are what economists call “wicked problems” – difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize.  A wicked problem is also a problem whose solution requires a great number of people to change their mindsets and behaviour.  Achieving public and political acceptance of such a reform program is, I believe, the biggest challenge of all. 

Why do we Plan?

When I trained as a planner, decent, affordable, well-located housing was a fundamental of city planning, a birth-right of the Anglo-Celtic post-war generation.  Few things are more important to the efficient operation of a city than transport infrastructure that can deliver employees to work, goods to factories and shops, and people to shops, services and recreation. 

Reflecting on a forty year career can be unsettling.  Yes, there have been lasting achievements, but the perspective of four decades forces a re-evaluation of some of the basics.  Why do we plan?  What is the justification for the hurdles we make applicants jump?  Is planning becoming little more than a profession whose rationale is to administer planning schemes: half of us resolving neighbourhood disputes, the other half running a development facilitation service?

Surely the reason we plan, the reason why we become planners, is to make better cities.  And if that is the case, then we must confront the fundamentals, no matter how complex or apparently intractable. 

Reform is Hard

Reform is confronting and challenging – reform proponents need clarity of vision, exemplary leadership and communication skills, and thick skins.  It is easy to forget that some Melbourne strategy plan proposals from the 1980s, such as residential in the CBD and mixed use buildings, were ridiculed at the time by leading planning professionals; bluestone paving involved a battle with red brick fundamentalists; and the removal of through traffic from Swanston Street was bitterly opposed by powerful interests. 

Journalist Paul Kelly offers hope in response to Ross Garnaut’s Great Complacency warning.  In Triumph and Demise – the Broken Promise of a Labor Generation (2014) he writes:

Politics, however, moves in cycles.  The death-of-reform cycle will surrender, at some point, to the revival-of-reform cycle.  As one age dies a new age is born.  Because Australia is a stand-alone nation running an open and competitive economy, it will be driven back to the reform path by the public-interest imperative.  This was the impulse for the post-1983 reform era.  It is as relevant today as it was then.  There is no future in retreating to the abandoned, introspective fortress of the past ... The real art of political leadership is to change the established order in necessary and enduring ways. 

I am as optimistic about the future of planning, as Kelly is about the future of our economy.  At some point, radical reforms will have to occur if our cities are to meet our needs; without these reforms, our cities face a bleak future. 

I hope these articles will stimulate a debate about the future of city planning in Australia.  Other perspectives and suggestions are welcome. 

Posted on May 11, 2015 .