Neighbourhood plans and urban renewal strategies are major catalysts for change. Usually, such documents include a lot of positive elements that the vast majority of residents and local businesses support, such as more trees and garden beds, better pedestrian connectivity, and sometimes much larger infrastructure projects. The trade-off is that new neighbourhood plans almost always permit higher density development within parts of the plan area.
I don’t have a general objection to development and densification. But it’s crucial that population growth is accompanied by timely infrastructure investment and social services. Unfortunately, Brisbane’s current neighbourhood planning framework doesn’t guarantee the delivery of public infrastructure, so you end up with higher density development, but no other major improvements (Some of the main reasons for insufficient local infrastructure are explained at www.jonathansri.com/infrastructure-shortfalls/).
What’s in Scope?
The practical scope of BCC’s neighbourhood plans is quite narrow. A neighbourhood plan can change built form rules (e.g. height limits, boundary setbacks) and zoning for different uses (residential, industrial, mixed use etc), however other elements that require funding from council, such as ‘completing a riverside footpath’ or ‘building a new pedestrian bridge’ are usually only aspirational or advisory. A new neighbourhood plan is not accompanied by strict deadlines and a specific budget allocation for local infrastructure.
Many crucial urban renewal ingredients are also out of scope of a neighbourhood plan, even though the cost to council is quite low. For example, lowering speed limits can increase pedestrian safety and encourage local commerce. However speed limits are controlled by a different section of council, and even where a neighbourhood plan might state that a particular precinct will become a ‘pedestrian-friendly area’ or an ‘activated street’ there’s no guarantee that lower speeds will actually be introduced.
In partnership with the State Government, BCC could introduce rules specifying that a certain proportion of new commercial floorspace can only be leased out to Brisbane-based small businesses and non-profit organisations. You could also include requirements that a certain percentage of new apartments are social housing or affordable community housing, to be rented out to people on lower incomes.
But all this is out of scope for the BCC’s neighbourhood planning process.
The proof is in the outcomes
The South Brisbane Riverside Neighbourhood Plan (the ‘SBRNP’) shows how the practical outcomes of an urban renewal process don’t always live up to the positive propaganda.
Introduced in 2011 (several months after the January floods), the SBRNP rezoned much of the West End floodplain for higher density development. This applied not only to old industrial sites, but to existing medium-density residential properties. The trade-off was that council would improve public parks and intersections, and install a new CityCat terminal near Victoria St in West End to service the growing population.
Seven years later, West End’s density has increased substantially, with many apartment developments approved that are even taller than the height limits set out in the new SBRNP. But there’s still no new ferry terminal or public transport infrastructure for the Montague Road side of the peninsula, and the neighbourhood has seen no significant improvement to pedestrian safety or public green space. (I’ve written more about the broken promise ferry terminal at www.jonathansri.com/victoriastferry)
Pushing for Up-front Investment
When a new neighbourhood plan is being drafted, residents must insist that infrastructure should be funded and delivered up front before any sites are rezoned for higher density development.
It’s also important to recognise that increasing height limits to encourage private development does not necessarily improve affordability for lower-income families. Affordability is improved by increasing the supply of public housing and affordable community housing, not privately owned apartments.
When council tells a community that a neighbourhood planning process will deliver new infrastructure and a better public realm, residents should point to suburbs like West End and ask where and when the money for new public transport, public parks, pedestrian upgrades and communities will be spent.
The hard truth is that if council isn’t willing to spend the money on public infrastructure, the many potential benefits of densification and ‘urban renewal’ will largely go unrealised.