The Victorian Planning and Environmental Law Association (VPELA) held an interesting seminar on 28 February regarding “the key ingredients to building sustainable growth area communities”. A panel of speakers led by Jane-Frances Kelly from the Grattan Institute and Brian Haratsis from MacroPlan engaged in lively debate.

The Grattan Institute is certainly establishing itself as a leading urban research organization in Melbourne and readers should keep a look out for its latest release in March regarding cities and social connection.

Brian Haratsis was, as usual, thought provoking. He argued that our growth areas are “over-planned, over-regulated and have under-delivered”. Probably a fairly accurate summary. He called for a more polycentric approach to development and the need to plan more for jobs and activity centres with genuine mixed uses. He noted that current planning for growth areas is caught up in urban design and residential development, whereas true sustainability requires a more enterprise based approach focusing on the ‘primacy of employment’.

Kelvin Walsh from Hume City Council reminded us that it was local government that generally inherited the end results – good and bad. He noted that green fields were not a ‘blank canvas’ and that development needed to respect the natural and historical context so as to create unique places for future communities to live.

Tony Johnson from Villawood Properties provided a developers perspective. He was particularly concerned about the time it took for a precinct structure plan (PSP) to materialize. Is such a process itself sustainable? Do the results justify the time and cost? How flexible will the plan be to change? These are all valid questions and the PSP process needs to be monitored to ensure that it is continually improved.

Steve Dunn from the Growth Areas Authority battled hard to defend his organization, but the role of co-coordinating so many government interests is clearly not an easy one. Without a whole of government approach to urban development the implementation of any plan will be difficult to achieve.

All speakers noted that it was usually the implementation of the plan that was the key ingredient that was missing. Whilst infrastructure such as roads, public transport, schools, community services and so on are often planned for growth areas, the public sector investment required to deliver the infrastructure generally lags well behind.

So the ultimate question then becomes – who pays? Perhaps that’s a topic for another seminar.