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Interview by Ray Edgar, image courtesy Dr Kate Shaw.
Dr Kate Shaw’s current research focuses on urban renewal in the 21st century. It examines the legislative, regulatory, financial, political and cultural barriers to socially equitable urban development and pursues practices that do it best. She has taught planning law, statutory planning and urban design, and run classes on political economy, gentrification and the cultures of cities. Her book, Whose Urban Renaissance? (Routledge, co-edited with Libby Porter), is an international comparison of urban regeneration policies.
After examining urban renewal projects of the past 50 years, how do we fare?
Australian large-scale urban renewal projects almost invariably get it wrong. Governments feel compelled to maximise economic returns from land – either for themselves or, more commonly, the private sector, which raises interesting questions about the role of government. This results in the formulaic ‘mixed-use’ of high-end office/residential/retail, with no socioeconomic mix, little cultural mix, not even much retail mix (no bookshops, shoe repairs, delis, grocers, laundromats, small bars, social centres, music venues, theatre spaces, bowling greens – the places that attract people out).
The residential component is routinely investment property product. The offices accommodate companies that relocate from elsewhere (most often the nearby CBD).
No heavy or even light industrial uses are retained or developed, so we’re not maintaining or creating diverse employment.
Urban renewal areas are usually former industrial sites, especially around waterways, with fascinating histories. We engage in very little Indigenous, immigrant or industrial Heritage protection. Such missed opportunities. After the disappointments of Docklands and Darling Harbour, we’re again making the same mistakes at Fishermans Bend and Barangaroo.
Your latest book is an international comparative study of urban renewal. Which cities provide useful examples for Australia?
KS German and Dutch cities because of their willingness to regulate. They are subject to similar neoliberal imperatives but regulate the market to ensure considerably more use value. Canadian cities have financing mechanisms that enable a greater range of forms and uses. Even the US produces better examples than Australia, largely because of the high level of city control over planning. New York, San Francisco and Portland build in and for difference.
Does a socially equitable city exist and what does it take to achieve it?
Cities with the least disparity between rich and poor are often the most diverse cities and the most culturally productive. Hamburg, Berlin, Rotterdam and Amsterdam come to mind.
Rate our current system of planning? What improvements can be made?
Australian planning systems are state-controlled and generally very weak. Victoria’s system is dire.
1. Get rid of VCAT. Two recent pronouncements on car park-free developments illustrate the ridiculousness of that body: VCAT knocks back one [The Nightingale apartments] in Moreland because a tribunal member doesn’t believe people will get out of their cars, but approves another [451 Lygon Street] in the same municipality three months later. These decisions should be left to the council, which at least is electorally accountable.
2. Introduce inclusionary zoning (aka an affordable housing overlay) requiring all new residential developments to hand over at least 20 percent at cost to housing associations
to manage for community housing.
3. Require provision of community infrastructure – food co-ops, community gardens, schools, libraries, social centres, sportsgrounds, parks, theatres etc – in all new large developments, either directly, by the developer, or via significant developer contributions.
4. Stop building roads, improve public transport.
5. Keep what’s left of our industrial lands
– look at ways of encouraging and supporting new kinds of industries. A whole movement of urban niche manufacturers is remaking the US rustbelt cities.
Gentrification regularly alters – if not ruins – what attracted people to live there in the first place. How do we maintain a balance?
It’s an international phenomenon. Building in affordable housing and services and facilities will do a great deal to mitigate the effects of gentrification. Eliminating the capacity to profit from the sale of land would be even more effective.
Should community consultation be embedded in projects?
If we consulted on every proposal we’d never do anything else. An ideal planning system has a broad masterplan with land uses and development controls stipulated – themselves the product of consultation and negotiation – that once agreed upon allows everyone to just get on with it. The plan should then be adhered to! The only role for an appeals tribunal should be on breaches of law.
Does regulation scare investment out of Australia?
Australia is one of the safest economies in the world. Everyone wants to invest here. The idea people will go and invest elsewhere is patently ludicrous. What drives the scare campaign is neoliberal ideology that the private sector has to be given every opportunity and it’s an illegitimate intervention by government to constrain them on any level. Our bureaucratic and political classes are so ideologically blinkered they can’t see that there are better ways of operating.
Academic planning experts regularly vent their frustration with government policy in media opinion pieces. Why are they ignored?
There’s a deep vein of anti-intellectualism in Australian politics. The exclusion of different voices means the terms of debate ossify, unlike many European cities, which have a long culture of respectful public debate.
Australia has a housing affordability crisis, but a high-rise development boom. Is it desirable to marry the two?
High-density, high-rise, high-security and high-cost apartment towers are not meeting local housing demand. They are not increasing affordability. They are not more environmentally sustainable. They are increasing housing supply, mainly for local and global investors to accumulate capital. A major consequence of the Australian government’s taxation and regulatory regimes regarding housing has been to increase prices by encouraging demand for housing as a commodity, rather than a place to live. The various inquiries into the state of Australian housing markets should ask: what is the effect of Australian regulation and taxation regimes on what is being built and for whom?
What sort of business incentives should be given to provide a range of housing affordability?
Phase out negative gearing and the 50 percent discount on capital gains tax. Develop new systems of financing alternative housing models, such as community land trusts and co-ops. Utilise super funds – trillions of dollars could be released into social (and steadily profitable) goods and services and technologies if the legislation controlling them were changed.
How does uncertainty around home-ownership affect a sense of place?
Housing security is the important point. If we had decent tenancy protection laws and a culture of long-term secure leases, renting would be just as satisfactory as owning. It’s about being able to plant roots.
What should the Minister for Cities and the Built Environment do?
Coordinate a national urban policy drawing together housing, jobs, transport, environment, culture and recreation into coherent directions for all Australian cities. The policy would draw boundaries around those cities and set clear direction for the nation’s food and energy production (identify our best agricultural lands and protect them from urban sprawl and coal seam gas exploration). The Minister could also influence tax reform and expand financing mechanisms.