The SEQ Regional Plan is indeed ambitious. In fact it is the most ambitious document of its kind in Australia. Is high ambition a vice or virtue? It all depends on how you harness and manage it. Without being unkind to the planners, most plans in the past have really been tweaking the status quo to varying degrees. The present plan does indeed, as Ross Elliott pointed out in On Line Opinion recently, contain a number of ground breaking and even radical objectives. The most contentious seem to be strategies for more residences of a higher density to be built in established areas and the containment of the spread of low density detached housing.
Is it achievable? It largely depends on whether we as an urban community, really want to achieve it.
With dedicated and determined leadership it could be achieved. It is much like the time when seat belts in cars or restrictions on smoking were first introduced. There was great resistance on all kinds of grounds, including infringement of our personal freedoms. Our leaders persisted with the support of evidence that collectively it would be better for us. There was a steady stream of publicity, public discourse and display of political will, much of which was non-partisan.
It takes very special kind of leadership to exercise political will and conviction to carry the objectives through. We have contemporary evidence of political demise as the price of the pursuit of will and conviction. While politicians measure their actions and policies by popularity polls, the exercise of will is usually the casualty. The present Regional Plan was released only recently but it was not heralded by a conspicuous display of political will and affirmation to make it succeed.
Engaging the community
A vast majority of residents have either no idea of what the new plan proposes or don’t care to know. The idea of selling a contentious or unpopular feature of the plan may sound like persuading me to buy something that I don’t think I need or want. However, there are often worthy products that need the support of credible persuasion. We as a community have not really begun to publicly discuss and debate the form and arrangement of our future cities and towns. In the competition for our attention, the ideas for how we might need to arrange the setting and the urban backgrounds for our lives, lose out to the latest sports sensation or economic statistics.
It is almost as if we refuse to consider that the way we live may have to change, while we strive to assimilate and adjust to various other new phenomena and technologies. If we truly make an effort (and allocate resources) to engage the community in how we are to live in cities and towns, then maybe it could become reality.
The present plan IS different from what the region has had in the past. It will take more than just announcing and releasing it and expecting that everything else will fall into place. Think of changing your aircraft fleet from Tiger Moths to Lear Jets. You not only need to up-skill your pilots, everyone else involved along the line needs to be re-trained as well: from baggage handlers and ground crew to booking and cabin staff. Then you also need to persuade and convince the public that it is much more convenient, safe and better value to fly in the newer aircraft.
To consider the new regional plan in the context of this analogy, we have just placed the order for the planes but done little else. Do we have enough and appropriately educated and skilled planners, urban designers and other specialists to put this bold new plan into action? Building capacity cannot be done overnight but at the moment we are not even drawing up strategies for that to happen.
Building exemplars and knowledge
Brisbane and much of the rest of the region is still a large low density suburb, although we like to think of ourselves as being in the company of other highly urbanised metropolitan areas. While we have tried to intensify some of our urban development, our mindset has nevertheless been one of suburban living. Suburbia has its place but not when you profess to step into a different urban model. Our higher and medium density housing types are limited to a few forms. There are many more typologies well above suburban density that we have not explored or tested. Our local governments have really not put themselves out to demonstrate that a high and desirable level of amenity for family living can be achieved with housing above the detached dwelling level of density.
All levels of government
It is really an aspect of leadership for ALL levels of government to work closely together to achieve a regional plan. Yes, we do still have a culture of backyard cricket. However, international football champions have emerged from high density societies. A suburban backyard culture is not the only one capable of producing excellence. Many well adjusted and capable societies have emerged from other than the suburbs. Cultures do change and they can be changed, but it takes time and society and all the levels of government working together. Is it possible? There are nascent signs that it is.
By default or demand?
It could well be that South East Queensland’s new plan is achieved by default or as a result of demand instead of being introduced from above. Whatever drives the changes to our mobility, it is clear that the way we get around cities and towns will be much different in the future. Our public transport authorities are already worried about meeting the increasing demand. The public is beginning to realise that there is a big difference between the cost of a residence and the cost of living in it. As the cost of owning and keeping multiple private vehicles continues to rise, people appreciate the value of better access between living, work, shopping and recreation. Only higher densities can achieve less urban travel and better rationalised public transport. The present plan may be a little ahead of its time but it may not be too long before the public demand it.
Market or public interest lead planning
The last few generations have grown up in an era of market supremacy leading the way in almost everything, including the planning of our cities and towns. Free market forces have helped us to become one of the most obese and unhealthy nations in the world. Marketed aspirations for a detached house lifestyle “nirvana” may well continue to roll. But like smoking, there comes a realisation that the community costs and consequences of some indulgences and ways of living are just too heavy to bear, especially when other better balanced alternatives are available. In the absence of good alternative options, many people might still vote for the detached house. However, there are signs that the entirely market driven pendulum will swing back to a new position.
Never ending growth
The very reason and rationale of the latest SEQ Regional Plan is predicated on never ending population and economic growth. There are powerful interests which rely merely on growth to sustain their business. To question growth is still a heresy. However, more people are beginning to question the notion of eternal growth. It is not beyond the realms of possibility that we discover the limits to growth, be it imposed by the availability of resources such as water and energy or other factors. Could it be that the unstated premise of the plan is that growth will find its own balance, with the help of nature?
If South East Queensland really wants a different urban future, it can achieve it with appropriate will, leadership, building of resources and serious and deliberate engagement with the community. It is possible. The present regional plan gives it that opportunity. However, if we use the past as an indication of whether we will get there, it is not convincingly likely. It may not be Never Never Land but the target is probably somewhere in the middle. Most importantly, we all have to want it to happen. At the moment, not enough of us seem to care.