New York state of mind for NSW councils

New York Sunset - HDR

Six NSW councils have headed to Brooklyn, New Jersey and New York City for some inspiring lessons in urban planning, Big Apple style.

Professor Ed Blakely, from the United States Studies Centre at Sydney University took mayors and urban planners from Canada Bay, Gosford, Hornsby, Pittwater, Marrickville and Wollongong Councils to six East Coast cities in September 2015 to give them a fresh slant on urban regeneration so they could return home and make their backyards more liveable.

Mr Blakely, who was the New Orleans recovery czar after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, said American cities provided useful comparisons to Australian cities because they had a similar government structure and many had made historically poor planning decisions guided by money, not people, that were coming back to bite them.

Each council was matched with a city that had been grappling with a similar planning problem. For example, Marrickville Council was partnered with Brooklyn, because both were concerned with regenerating industrial areas with arts precincts and live music.

The Future Cities Program, which Prof. Blakely set up in 2011, aims to lead by example and show councils how to recreate spaces and make them more sustainable, with a mix of housing, businesses and social life, while avoiding past planning mistakes.

But these study tours are not junkets or high theory – the aim is to confront a planning problem, map out a possible solution, go on a comparative fact-finding mission to the US and then help councils to make their dreams real.

“When you’re overseas, all of a sudden the phones stop. It allows staff and decision makers to see something in a different environment together,” Prof Blakely said.

“They see places that were broken down and had to face the future using their current urban fabric in new ways. Factories closed down in Jersey City, they were a toxic waste dump, and they now have one of the most beautiful, sustainable and habitable wetland parks system in the world.”

Council staff come back super motivated and ready to roll up their sleeves.

For example, Parramatta Council’s new $100 million Draft Parramatta City River Strategy, with its city beach, board walk and square, was directly informed by a Future Cities study tour to the American West Coast in 2013 and particularly by Santa Monica’s boulevard and beach.

“They loved it. They loved the square, the promenade and the intersection between existing and new retail,” Prof Blakely said.

He said that city residents were often already aware of how different cities and spaces in other countries looked.

“Almost nobody here comes from here so they have some pretty good ideas of their home environments, many of which are walkable and interesting, from Tehran to London. So many of our people travel and see these things.”

Marrickville councillor Rosana Tyler went on the September US tour and said it had been invaluable in working how to invigorate an industrial area around Marrickville and Sydenham and turn it into a hub for creative industries, temporary artists’ accommodation, live music and perhaps even the odd boutique hotel.

“It certainly broadens the mind. It’s a culture that’s very similar to ours, even though they often do things very differently from us. It’s nice to think what you could do with more integrated planning (which Marrickville Council has been trying to do for a while),” Ms Tyler said.

She said the process had been good for testing out ideas with other NSW councils and planners from the US Studies Centre too.

“It gets you out of your comfort zone because you have to present your project quite a few times and it’s critiqued. You also get everybody else’s projects.”

Already known for its pop-up shops, small bars, artists’ studios, craft brewers, coffee roasters and authentic multicultural food the Sydney inner west council is considering zoning the parcel of land known as the Marrickville/Sydenham Industrial Lands as a ‘free for all’, where the only thing taken into account will be the potential impact of an activity.

Permanent residential buildings are out due to aircraft noise and the flood plain.

Ms Tyler visited New York’s meatpacking district, famous for rising phoenix-like from its empty factories into a centre for live music and art. She said Brooklyn was also interesting for its creation of an area for creative arts.

The Future Cities program does not exist in other Australian states but Prof Blakely thinks it should.

“They could all benefit from a program like this. It would bring universities together to help solve urban planning problems. At the moment, universities act as critics, with very little involvement in most cases.”

Prof Blakely said that American universities were compelled to develop such relationships with the cities they were in and they were often asked to contribute towards solving current planning problem.

Future Cities Collaborative: Lessons on Housing Affordability from the USA

The delivery of housing to first homebuyers, renters, key workers and the disadvantaged poses a significant issue across Sydney and the state of NSW.
As participants in the 2014 Future Cities Program noted, there are currently very few meaningful ways for local governments to respond to this challenge to deliver both housing that is affordable relative to household incomes and financially assisted ‘affordable housing’.

Even the definition of affordable housing is hotly debated in Australia. Realising the lack of constructive discourse on the issue, and demand for action by local governments, the Future Cities Collaborative has engaged a leading American public policy, finance, and development consultant Dr David Rosen.

The crux of the issue is the fact that the social dislocation and economic disadvantage caused by the inability to deliver housing of the form and price required by key parts of our communities is likely to worsen unless meaningful and urgent measures are taken. Ever increasing housing prices, both in real terms and relevant to gross income, is causing the net migration 18-34 year olds, forcing them to leave family, friends and networks, to move to areas of a lower price point. The disparity between areas with strong job opportunities for this key demographic and areas with an affordable rental market is continuing, and set to worsen. Similarly, many keyworkers in the service, hospitality, and public sector cannot afford to live in the community they work, leading to longer commutes, congestion, lost productivity, and social impacts on families and relationships.

Cities within the United States are also facing these issues and are addressing housing affordability through a number of levers created at a local, state and federal government level including the provision of tax incentives for corporations to assist in affordable housing projects, affordable housing targets, inclusionary zoning, and increased diversity of housing products. The Future Cities Collaborative is leveraging their unique position as a facilitator of bilateral learning to bring Dr Rosen to Sydney for an intensive week of workshops, seminars and lecture in March.

A recognised authority in the field of US affordable housing finance , Dr Rosen shared his thoughts on how these levers may apply to the Australian context during a lecture tour in March including a public lecture as part of the Sydney Ideas series at the University of Sydney.

Under the theme of “ Can You Afford to Live Where You Choose?” the speaking tour examined some of the present challenges facing US and Australian cities in delivering affordable housing and how tax incentives and inclusionary zoning can be used to combat the problem.

While in Sydney, Dr Rosen will also took part in a number of events for Future Cities Collaborative members including a roundtable with government and industry leaders and workshops with New South Wales Government representatives and senior council leaders.

The Future Cities Collaborative brings together policy, practice and research to inform city leaders into inspired action to build great cities.

An initiative of the United States Studies Centre, the Future Cities Collaborative’s primary role is to promote sustainable urban development by supporting city leaders with leadership and strategic management tools; creating a forum in which mayors can share ideas and information; and develop skills and knowledge in building sustainable cities.

Get in touch with www.futurecities.org.au and the United States Studies Centre at http://ussc.edu.au/ for more information.
This story first appeared in Government News magazine April/May 2015

 

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