Napthine, don't mess up Melbourne's urban renewal

The Victorian Government has approved a plan for development of one of Australia's largest urban renewal projects, intended to house 80,000 people that will leave a legacy for centuries - but all without properly evaluating its environmental sustainability.

So many Australians deal with the consequences of poor urban planning every day of their lives: traffic congestion, noise and air pollution, inadequate public transport networks, urban sprawl, lack of access to shops and services … the list goes on. 

A ‘trial and error’ approach to urban development – in which long-term objectives made way for fast-tracked, short-term results – has delivered cities with a host of environmental and social problems with a real economic cost.

If, as Albert Einstein once said, insanity is “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”, then the rational approach is to create a new blueprint for best practice. 

That’s what the development industry did.  In collaboration with all tiers of government, industry associations, academia and the community, the Green Building Council of Australia developed a rating tool to guide the development of sustainable, liveable, efficient and productive communities.  That rating tool is called Green Star – Communities.

Around Australia, dozens of developments, from small inner-city infills to large-scale projects that will one day have their own postcodes, are being guided by the Green Star – Communities rating tool to ensure they meet best practice benchmarks for governance, design, environment, liveability, financial prosperity and innovation. 

And yet, sadly, a project which the Victorian Government claims is “Australia’s most significant urban renewal project” is not.

This week, Victorian Planning Minister Matthew Guy approved the final master plan for the development of the 250 hectare Fishermans Bend project – a 40-year development that is expected to generate 40,000 jobs, create billions of dollars in economic benefit and provide homes for at least 80,000 residents.

How we plan, design and build a precinct of this size – one that will double the size of central Melbourne – will have an enormous impact on the Victorian economy.  It will also have an enormous impact on the environment and on people’s lives, health and wellbeing.

In the fastest-growing part of Australia – South East Queensland – sustainability is at the heart of some of the largest new developments.  Caloundra South, for instance, spans 2310 hectares and will one day be home to more than 120,000 people, while Ecco Ripley just outside Ipswich will house 10,000 people over 40 hectares.  Both are applying the Green Star – Communities principles to ensure they achieve long-term sustainable outcomes.  In Sydney, the $1.6 billion Parramatta Square project and the $6 billion Barangaroo South project are both on track for Green Star – Communities ratings.  The University of Melbourne has made a campus-wide commitment to sustainability by registering to achieve Green Star – Communities ratings, as have Bowden and Tonsley in Adelaide, and Alkimos Beach and Waterbank in Perth. 

So, without meeting nationally recognised benchmarks, how will the people of Victoria know that their community – one that will one day be home to tens of thousands of people – is efficient, healthy, productive and sustainable?

Meeting best practice sustainability benchmarks does not need to cost more, as many of the ‘male, pale and stale brigade’ claim it might, but sustainability will deliver massive long-term benefits.  And that’s what is at stake: the long-term value of a well-designed precinct that is both economically and environmentally sustainable; the long-term health and wellbeing of Fishermans Bend residents and workers; the long-term prosperity of businesses that set up shop; and the long-term financial returns for the Victorian tax payer.

In the short-term, the Victorian Government may gain political capital from its announcement – but building communities that are resilient, efficient and sustainable won’t be achieved in a three-year electoral cycle.  Fishermans Bend will take 40 years to complete – in which time governments will fall in and out of favour, philosophies will be embraced and abandoned, and new generations of Australians will be born. 

Building an Australia that is efficient and productive, that can expand to meet a growing and diverse population, that is resilient and adaptable to climate change is not a quick win.  A strategic, sustainable approach to building communities requires an eye firmly fixed on the long game.

This is not to deny the short-term financial realities and responsibilities that guide government decision-making.  However, long-term planning, governance, design and innovation are essential to ensure short-term budgets remain in balance.  A short-term decision can have disastrous long-term financial consequences.  Building cheap now may make a place unaffordable in years to come.

To those who are quick to point out that we have ‘an interest’ in whether projects use the Green Star – Communities tool, I’d say “of course we do – we developed it”. But we’re a not-for-profit and our ‘interest’ is in achieving sustainable places for everyone.

The Victorian Government has the opportunity to lead the way in setting world-leading social, economic and environmental benchmarks at Fishermans Bend – it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that we cannot afford to waste

Robin Mellon is the chief operating officer at the Green Building Council of Australia

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