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Planning Never Never Land?

By Ross Elliott - posted Monday, 10 August 2009


The one thing you should expect from any half decent plan of any sort is that it should have at least some vaguely remote chance of actually delivering on its ambitions. Otherwise, it isn’t a plan because the end result is unrealistic and falls into the realm of fantasy.

The recent release of the revised South East Queensland Regional Plan brings into focus many issues, but one central assumption - that infill housing targets can accommodate future population growth in existing urban areas - suggests this plan might have about as much chance of realistically being achieved as Peter Pan being told to “think happy thoughts” so he can fly.

The revised SEQ Regional Plan attempts to “manage” the growth of southeast Queensland by containing future population growth largely into existing urban areas, and limits expansion on the fringe by imposing an urban growth boundary. The philosophy owes much to concerns about “sprawl” (a pejorative term which on a global scale is hardly applicable here) and has its roots in land use policies developed in parts of the United States and Europe.

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Setting aside any critique of “smart growth” policies and their impact on housing choice and costs, the attempt to contain future growth in SEQ into existing urban areas is perhaps the most contentious aspect of the SEQ Regional Plan. Put simply, it is hard to see how the numbers stack up.

The targets

The plan proposes that half of all new residents are to be accommodated in existing urban areas via infill housing (medium to high density). Within the City of Brisbane, the target is even higher at 88 per cent of new growth. That figure isn’t really surprising given there’s really no large parcels of land left suitable for detached housing. But when you start to look at the raw numbers of infill dwellings required to meet the plan’s targets, the credibility gap widens.

For southeast Queensland, the plan acknowledges the need for 754,000 new dwellings to accommodate predicted growth. Of that, 374,000 dwellings are mandated as infill (townhouses or high rise units). Within Brisbane City there will be 156,000 new dwellings of which 138,000 will be townhouses and unit type dwellings, according to the plan.

That’s a lot of units. Some back of envelope sums are helpful here. Imagine a 20-level highrise unit block, with four units per floor. That’s 80 units. The 138,000 dwellings infill target, if it was all delivered as 20-storey highrise buildings, would equate to 1,725 such 20-storey unit towers across Brisbane, between now and 2031. That works out to roughly 78 unit towers, each year, for the next 20 years or so.

For southeast Queensland, the 374,000 dwellings infill target equates to 4,675 20-storey apartment towers or 212 per year, every year, for the next 20 years.

Now the SEQ Regional Plan makes precious little comment about how the planners expect this scale of infill to actually be delivered. It’s a bit like envisaging a Dubai-scale apartment boom right here in Brisbane.

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Does this sound like a plan, or are we being asked to think happy thoughts?

So where will they go?

The revised SEQ Regional plan does at least suggest that there are some preferred areas for infill development activity, particularly around transit nodes - which makes sense. Transit oriented development exploits existing public transport infrastructure (however overtaxed it may already be) and mixed use development to create work-live-shop-play environments. It can be tremendously successful, and Brisbane has a couple of notable examples already, with more on the drawing board.

But bring the issue of scale back into focus - the hypothetical 1,725 apartment towers are for accommodation only. They do not include additional requirements for more office space, more retail space, more schools, hospitals, medical centres etc - it’s a long list.

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Firat published on the author's blog, The Pulse, on August 3, 2009.



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About the Author

Ross Elliott is an industry consultant and business advisor, currently working with property economists Macroplan and engineers Calibre, among others.

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