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Rallies are great, but don't forget to reach beyond the bubble

Last Friday, I spoke at a massive climate justice rally in the city. Somewhere between 6000 and 7000 people took to the streets. There was a crackling energy in the crowd. It felt powerful and rejuvenating to be surrounded by so many humans who were just as passionate as I am. It felt cathartic to shout.

Mass mobilisations are an important ingredient of successful political movements. They’re great at raising public consciousness about challenges and solutions, and they help shake fence-sitting bystanders out of complacency. I think more targeted and disruptive forms of civil disobedience can be even more effective (but of course they also carry a higher risk of fines).

Big demonstrations are also great for renewing and strengthening social connections, and for inspiring participants to take other forms of positive action.

Photo credit: Kalem Horn

I believe that lasting radical change comes from the bottom up, through community organising and capacity-building, where we develop alternative systems that free us from dependence on big business, and create decentralised grassroots democratic structures that counterbalance hierarchical, centralised power structures.

But we also need drastic changes to government policy to prevent big corporations destroying our planet. That’s presumably a key goal of these mass rallies... We don’t just want to raise public awareness or vent our frustrations. We want to tangibly influence how politicians vote on the floor of parliament, and change the decisions that government ministers make behind closed doors.

As an elected city councillor, I can tell you with certainty that one of the best ways to influence politicians’ behaviour is to make them worry about losing votes and losing seats. Conservative and fascist political forces seem to understand this a lot better than we do. They know politicians can afford to ignore mass protest marches that don’t translate into electoral pressure, so they focus on specifically telling people who to vote for.

See, if you’re a political leader in a majoritarian hierarchical system, there are always going to be quite a few people who are angry at you about something or other. For a federal MP with 100 000+ voters in their electorate, a citywide protest march of 10 000 or even 20 000 people only starts to impact your decision-making if you’re worried that the public discontent is actually going to translate into large numbers of people changing their vote.

Photo credit: Kalem Horn

A strong, clear majority of Australians are concerned about climate change, wealth inequality, political corruption etc. But the mass public concern that’s been generated across the country – in part through rallies and protests – doesn’t automatically translate into large numbers of people changing their vote. And if people’s voting behaviour doesn’t change, the same politicians will keep getting elected, and government policy will not shift the way we need it to.

The thousands who rallied last Friday, and the thousands more who march again over the coming weeks, are definitely shifting public consciousness. But are we shifting votes?

In the Queensland Greens, we’ve found that respectful one-on-one conversations are one of the most effective ways to change who a person votes for. Usually it takes a couple conversations depending on where people are at. Big rallies probably do lead to a lot of one-on-one conversations with friends and neighbours. But many of those conversations won’t focus on convincing people to actually vote for a different candidate or party (which is ultimately why politicians sometimes seem to ignore mass protests).

Some people initiate vote-changing conversations at dinner parties, BBQs and events, or in their existing community groups and sports teams. But when everyone in your existing networks has already changed their vote, it’s time to get outside the bubble and talk to other people in the wider community.

If a Greens supporter goes doorknocking neighbours in their suburb, they might have around four or five really meaningful one-on-one conversations per hour, and maybe change 2 or 3 people’s votes per hour.

Shifting 2 votes per hour doesn’t sound like much, until you remember that the winning margin in key seats is sometimes only a few hundred votes. And in terms of time invested, it’s probably a better hit rate than most other forms of activism. Did the 7000 people who spent close to two hours rallying in the city on Friday night change 14 000 votes? I very much doubt it.

To be clear, I do think people should find the time to go to protest rallies, particularly if they’re part of a well-considered broader strategy. But it’s the conversations that happen in other spaces that ultimately change votes and thus shift mainstream political outcomes.

So if you’re the kind of person who goes along to protest rallies because you want to influence politicians’ decision-making, and you accept the premise that politicians do care about losing large numbers of votes, I encourage you to start talking to people about why they might want to change who they vote for. Even if you only do this a couple of hours a week, it’s going to have a much bigger impact on election results and thus government decision-making than pretty much anything else you do with your time.

I won my seat in the 2016 council election by less than 450 votes. We won because lots of people got out of their comfort zone and had one-on-one conversations with other people in their community about social change.

The 2020 Brisbane City Council election is on 28 March, and will be an important moment in Australian politics. Roughly ten weeks from now, I’ll be up for re-election. And a bunch of other amazing Greens candidates, including Trina Massey in the Central Ward, Sally Dillon in Coorparoo Ward and Donna Burns in Paddington Ward, are also running, hoping to win seats off LNP politicians who have repeatedly blocked meaningful action on climate change. In each of these seats, we only need to shift a few hundred more votes to get over the line.

But we need your help to do that.


Short-Term Accommodation in Residential Buildings

For several years now, we've been concerned about the growing proportion of residential homes - both apartments and free-standing houses - being converted into short-term accommodation.

Increasingly in Queensland, we’re seeing more and more buildings that have been assessed and approved by council as normal residential homes, and were not designed as hotels/short-term accommodation, which are now being rented out by investors through platforms like Airbnb, or by hotel booking companies. In many cases, these companies manage a selection of apartments within a building like hotel rooms, but don't actually own the building and don't pay much attention to the needs and views of the long-term residents who also live in the building (or in surrounding properties).

This conversion of residential homes into short-term accommodation is particularly prevalent in areas with lots of tourist attractions, such as the Sunshine and Gold Coasts, but it's also increasingly common in inner-city neighbourhoods such as around South Bank, and in proximity to major transport hubs. This phenomenon can have a range of negative impacts in terms of safety, sense of community, insurance premiums and body corporate fees.

 

In Queensland, there are different rules for how apartments (or houses) should be designed if they are being used as short-term accommodation as opposed to long-term residential. For example, you need more emergency signage and clearer fire exit routes for short-term accommodation uses, because short-term tenants won’t know the building as well. Short-term accommodation land uses should also be closer to public transport services and shops, rather than tucked away on residential streets that aren't easily accessible for people carrying a lot of baggage.

A building that has been designed as standard residential accommodation shouldn’t really be used for short-term rentals. For neighbouring apartment residents, higher-intensity hotel-style usage tends to create more wear and tear on common property like elevators, pools etc, and those maintenance costs are borne by the body corporate (and ultimately the residents). We’re also seeing situations where apartments in places like South Bank and Kangaroo Point are rented out for disruptive parties every single night of the week, without any consultation with neighbours.

 

Conversion impacts Housing affordability

This also creates a broader economic problem, because apartments which were originally approved to house local residents are instead rented out to visitors and tourists, which means local families find it harder to afford a home in the inner-city. So even though the supply of apartments increases, that doesn’t improve affordability for locals, because more of those apartments are Airbnb-style short-term accommodation.

(A flow-on social impact is that we can’t create the well-connected high-density local communities and break down social isolation, because such a large proportion of homes are just short-term visitors.)

The underlying problem here is that in our economic system, homes are being treated as a commodity to make a profit from, rather than protecting housing as a basic human right. Investors who rent out entire homes as hotel rooms don’t always care about the impact on neighbours – they just want to make money.

If some homes in a building or street are being rented out short-term for thousands of dollars per week, this also puts upward pressure on both land values and rents for other homes in the surrounding area.

 

Insurance risks

But when residents complain to council, and say “Hey, this building was approved as residential but now it’s being rented out as short-term accommodation” it seems Brisbane City Council isn’t taking appropriate action. In some cases, council takes no action at all. In other cases, BCC investigates and then says “Well even though this building wasn’t designed as short-term accommodation, it was built on land where you are technically allowed to build short-term accommodation, so we’re going to look the other way.” Basically, council knows that some unit owners, developers and property managers are breaking council regulations, but isn’t doing anything about it.

Crucially, a body corporate's building insurance cover can be voided if the usage of a building hasn’t been complying with council rules.

So for example, if a body corporate hasn’t been keeping an area free of flammable debris, and that leads to fire damage, the insurance company might refuse to pay out. Similarly, if a residential building is being illegally rented out as short-term accommodation, and the guests accidentally leave a tap on that leads to other apartments being flooded, the insurance company could have strong legal grounds for refusing to pay out.

So all this adds up to a pretty big issue, where building insurance cover for hundreds of buildings around the state is under question.

 

Looking ahead

With an Olympics planned for 2032, there's a high risk that more and more inner-city homes will be converted into short-term accommodation. This pattern has been observed in most other cities that have hosted the Olympics, and evidence suggests that once these homes are converted into short-stay, many do not revert to residential homes after the event is open.

The action that council needs to take is two-pronged:

  1. BCC needs to stop issuing development approvals that allow a building to be used for short-term accommodation unless the building has been properly designed to safely accommodate high numbers of short-term visitors.
  2. BCC needs to fully investigate complaints of unapproved short-term uses, and take enforcement action where investors are running hotel operations in buildings that don’t have any approval as short-term accommodation.

For areas that will be most attractive to short-term visitors in the lead-up to the Olympics, localised regulations may be needed to prevent the wholesale conversion of residential homes into short-term accommodation.

We need to have a broader community conversation about how much of our neighbourhoods we are happy to see turn into short-term hotel-style accommodation...

Do we want entire suburbs like Woolloongabba, South Brisbane and Kangaroo Point to be majority short-term visitors where no-one knows one another? Or do we want to strike a better balance where we have enough options for tourists and visitors, but there are still enough longer-term residents to maintain a stronger sense of local community?

Noosa Shire Council has recently decided to introduce very strict regulations on AirBnB properties, and it will be interesting to see how these work in practice. Personally I'd like to see a similar approach here in Brisbane.

I don’t have strong concerns about residents who rent out a spare room via Airbnb to subsidise their rent, or about people who temporarily sublease their home while they go on holiday for a few weeks or months.

But that’s very different to a situation where no-one on a low income can afford to live in inner-city suburbs, because all the new investor-owned apartments have been rented out on Airbnb on an ongoing basis.


Red Dawn for a New Decade

I kicked off 2020 by giving a morning talk at Woodford Folk Festival called ‘A Rough Work-in-Progress Blueprint for Revolution.’ Despite half the festival still being asleep or hungover from NYE celebrations, it was exciting to see how much energy and interest there was in the discussion. People stuck around for a solid hour after my talk to keep unpacking the ideas and sharing their own perspectives (I’ll try to post a recording of the presentation sometime soon). A lot of people are hungry for change, and searching for a way forward.

As we enter this new decade, our news headlines are dominated by environmental disasters. Mega-fires are raging across multiple Australian states and half the continent is drought-stricken. Meanwhile just a couple hours’ flight to the north of us, Indonesia is experiencing catastrophic rainfall, with widespread flooding leading to around 50 confirmed deaths, and an estimated 500 000 people made homeless so far (the death toll from flow-on impacts like disease and malnutrition will be much higher, but won’t be covered by western media).

The Jakarta Metropolitan Area has a population of over 30 million people, living in an area half the size of Brisbane. Much of Jakarta has been inundated, and the city may never fully recover. The Indonesian government is already planning to abandon Jakarta as the nation’s administrative capital and establish a new capital city in Borneo.

Australia is one of Indonesia’s closest neighbours. Jakarta is closer to Darwin than Brisbane is. If not for our racism and selfishness, Australia would probably be the most logical destination to resettle southeast Asian climate refugees. We’re certainly in a better economic position to do so than other nearby countries, but I doubt anyone’s going to be talking about that idea in a hurry.

 

Perpetual Crisis and Denial

I find it hard to get my head around the details in the news reports - millions of hectares of forest incinerated, millions of people suddenly deprived of access to power or clean water. Numbers and statistics don’t really tell the full story, but it’s bleak.

Many of us have started talking about how the long-predicted ‘climate apocalypse’ is finally here.

But in fact, many parts of the world, and many people in our own city, have been experiencing crisis for a long time now. A lot of First Nations communities would argue that the apocalypse actually began over two hundred years ago. The changing climate is definitely a crisis, but it’s also compounding existing ongoing crises that we’ve ignored for too long.

The lens through which we view these events is important. Are the Australian droughts and bushfires a ‘disaster’ that we have to recover and rebuild from? Or are they simply the latest and most significant reminder that almost every aspect of our way of life must change in ways that most of us rarely contemplate?

Australians are vacillating between two different universes this week. People are still swimming at the beach and cheering at the cricket, while elsewhere people are running out of water or fleeing 10-storey flames. My work inbox is still receiving complaints about inadequate street parking and the lack of grass at the local dog off-leash area. In contrast, I don’t get many emails about the fact that Brisbane’s homeless population is hovering around 10 000 and still rising (and unfortunately the politicians who run our government don’t get enough emails about this either).

We’re in the midst of multiple overlapping crises, yet half the continent seems hell-bent on looking the other way and acting as though we can carry on with business as usual. Perhaps denial is an understandable response to feeling disempowered and overwhelmed, but it’s pretty bizarre…

Hypothetical weekend BBQ conversation:

“The Aussie batsmen are doing pretty well aren’t they?”

“Yeah that Marnus bloke just keeps scoring centuries hey?”

“By the way, did you hear the bushfire death toll is up to 16 now?”

“Bloody greenies.”

 

Paths to action?

I’ve heard several people over the last few weeks lament the fact that there isn’t another federal election due for three years, and that PM Smoko is so unpopular right now that the Liberals would struggle to hold on to power. While that might be true, I don’t think Albanese would be much better at responding to any of the crises we’re currently facing. He spent part of December touring regional Queensland promising continued support for coal exports, when what he should have done instead was outline a transition plan to retrain workers and support communities to shift away from dependence on an economically unviable and environmentally destructive industry.

The Queensland Labor government seems to have completely ignored the Greens’ constructive suggestion to make mining companies contribute funding towards rural firefighting services, while supporting new coal mines and strengthening police powers to criminalise peaceful protest about issues like climate change. Simply replacing Scomo with another corporate sector puppet won't fix our broken system.

But even though the next federal election is still at least two summers away, there are several important elections coming up this year that will shape the national political landscape. In just 12 weeks, residents across Queensland will vote in local government elections. Here in Brisbane, the Greens have a strong chance of winning three or even four council seats off the LNP. As I’ve written about here, a swing towards the Greens at the Brisbane City Council election would dramatically shift Queensland politics.

The Australian Capital Territory elections, the Northern Territory elections and the NSW local government elections are also all coming up in 2020, as is the crucial Queensland State Election. If the Greens win state seats off Labor or the Liberals in Queensland, this will have a far bigger direct impact on government policy than a hundred protest marches.

So those of you who are feeling a sense of urgency and a desire to take action might want to start by volunteering for the election campaign.

 

A divided nation?

Lately I’ve been hearing more people complaining about how divided our society and our political system has become. They say things like “If only we could stop attacking each other and focus on solutions!” which certainly resonates with me to a point. I think it’s fair to say that the tone of debate, particularly in some online spaces, is unnecessarily hostile.

But a lot of this so-called ‘division’ isn’t new. What’s actually going on is that marginalised voices and downtrodden groups finally have platforms (particularly on social media) where they can challenge establishment power holders and argue against the status quo. (Some of us are even getting organised enough to win seats in elections)

Australians have been saying and doing racist things for decades. The difference is that now anti-racist activists actually have paths to get their own messages out there without being censored by the conservative mainstream media. The same is true for debates about sexism, extractivism and a whole bunch of other issues.

In some cases, the people complaining that “Everyone is so disrespectful these days! I wish people could stop attacking each other!” are actually just yearning for a past era when more privileged members of society could say and do incredibly unjust and disrespectful things without being criticised publicly, because the rest of us were too scared to speak out.

For those of us who understand the need for major systemic change, I think one of the big challenges for 2020 and the coming decade will be to understand and define the lines between those who are complacent/misinformed/apathetic/disengaged, and those who are actively hostile to change and have strong vested interests in defending the status quo.

The biggest division in our society will be between those who'll fight to keep things more-or-less as they are, and those who are realistic about the need for a rapid transition towards a more equitable and sustainable way of life.

 


Personally, I’m looking forward to the coming year. I’m apprehensive about the council election campaign, because I anticipate a lot of negative attacks from the mainstream media and conservative commentators, but also excited about the opportunities for change. I’m channelling the grief and anger I’ve been feeling into activism and community capacity-building, because it feels nourishing and valuable and empowering.

We mustn’t be naïve about the opponents we’re up against or the nefariously effective tactics they’ll employ.

But we need to hold on to hope, and seize joy wherever we can find it. Sinking into despair won’t stop the world burning.


Happy(?) new year fellow change-makers!


New Historical Panels for Boundary Street

After a lot of consultation and hard work by dedicated volunteers from the West End Making History group, this is the final text and artwork of the six history signs that will soon be installed along Boundary St, West End.

This project was funded over two years with $9481 from my local community grants budget, but all the hard work of research, drafting and consultation with stakeholders was undertaken by local residents who volunteered their time and skills.

It's impossible to squeeze all of the amazing stories of the Kurilpa Peninsula down into half a dozen signs, so I think of these panels as links that point towards deeper histories, rather than as comprehensive standalone summaries.

Finding space along the footpaths without blocking pedestrians was pretty tricky. Three panels will be installed on each side of Boundary St, between the intersections of Russell St and Vulture St, opposite relevant local landmarks.

Consultation for this project involved a long list of stakeholders and local community groups, as well as public sessions in 2018 where people were able to view the draft text and images and suggest changes or ask questions. With close to 20 000 people living in the Kurilpa Peninsula, it was impossible for the West End Making History volunteers to consult with absolutely everyone, but I think they've done a pretty good job of capturing a wide range of stories.

There was a great deal of back-and-forth and long debates about exactly how to word things and what stories to include or leave out. I wish I had more time to be personally involved in drafting the text, but I ultimately left it up to the volunteer local residents. They've crammed a huge amount of detail into fairly limited space. Some people might argue that it would have been better from a design perspective to have less text, but there were already so many important stories getting left out.

The panels will be officially unveiled at 3pm on Saturday, 24 August at the corner of Russell St and Boundary St, followed by a presentation about the project at Avid Reader. More details at this link.


Carl St Park Concept Design

Council has released the final concept design for the expanded park at the corner of Carl St and Tottenham St in Woolloongabba.

After council recently acquired neighbouring properties, we've expanded this park by almost 1000m2. The next step will be to finalise the detailed design and start construction.

I'm reasonably pleased with this design, as it's a pretty close match to the community concept design that we developed through our participatory design process last year.

 


The project includes an all-ages play area for which the details are still being fleshed out. This will be less like a conventional playground, and more reminiscent of spaces like the Fremantle Parkour Park, encouraging adults and children to play, climb and exercise together.

 The park also includes a small community fruit orchard and space for a future community garden (we've included a small storage shed as part of the toilet block design to support the community garden when it eventually gets up and running).

 There's a windy secondary path through the park which will eventually be concreted, which improves disability access and provides a circuit connecting to the main path for younger kids to learn to ride their bikes on.

 A fair chunk of the park is being maintained as a 'natural' green space with native trees and a denser understorey to provide habitat for native wildlife.

 There's also a picnic shelter and BBQ near the toilet block, plus enough open space to kick a ball around or throw a frisbee.

 

The two main differences between this park layout and the design that came out of our community workshop are:

1. We'd also suggested a covered stage area near the toilet block to support community events and festivals. The layout has retained enough open space so that we can add in the stage later if we want to.

 

2. We asked council to include a nature play area immediately to the west of the all-ages active play area. One of the main reasons this wasn't formally included on the design is that council's 'nature play' design standards are quite restrictive due to health and safety concerns.

However there's still plenty of space available, and I'm hopeful that as the local community takes more ownership of the park, we'll be able to create an informal nature play space between the community orchard and the all-ages play area. Kids need to be able to get their hands dirty and climb trees from time to time, and I think there will be plenty of opportunities for that in this park.

 

We still need to decide on a name for the park, so suggestions are welcome.

Council's park design team will be hanging out in the park tomorrow morning (27 July) from 9am to 11am to share the design and answer questions from locals. Stop by if you'd like to ask any questions...


Election Disappointment: First Reactions and Where to Next?


19 May, 2019

So now the storytelling contest begins to interpret, explain, define and redefine this weekend’s unexpected electoral result. Lots of people with an agenda to push will be seeking to frame the outcome in a way that reinforces their own goals and interests. Some will describe Morrison’s election victory as being ‘a vote for new coal mines’ or ‘a vote against closing tax loopholes,’ others will use it as ‘proof’ that voters are uneducated or short-sighted. Obviously we should take all such analyses and narratives (including this one) with a grain of salt, mindful of the standpoint and background of the person pushing them.

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Latest News on Upgrade for Queen Bess Park

In February and March 2019, we held a public meeting followed by a community design workshop to facilitate local residents to decide what improvements they wanted to the unnamed park at the southern end of Queen Bess St.

The meetings were widely advertised via printed letters to the local area, as well as via social media and email newsletters. The meetings were attended primarily by residents of Queen Bess St, Church Avenue, Arrow St and the surrounding neighbourhood. We also incorporated feedback from residents who couldn't attend the meetings in person.

We've produced a rough mud map of where additional features might be located in the park, which we will present to council's parks team to investigate, formalise and implement. Some features, such as improved lighting or installation of rubbish bins - will need further detailed discussion with the relevant teams in council. Down the track, further improvements such as flower gardens or a community garden maintained by residents can be explored once the physical equipment has been installed.

The features we will ask council to install include play/exercise equipment, new trees, a water tap and a large picnic shelter (6x3m), with 2 picnic tables that can comfortably seat 8 people each (see pink area on map) at the south-eastern end of the park - this is at the highest point of the slope. The position of the shelter should maintain a clear view towards the city.

On the eastern side between the path and the fence, the residents (including immediate neighbours) support the installation of play equipment for children, as well as monkey bars that can be used as exercise equipment for adults. This equipment is on the eastern side of the path to avoid impacting the open grassy space, but should still be set back from the property boundary.

On the northwest corner, residents supported planting a larger tree species that will eventually provide more shade, with extra seating underneath. We agreed that the positioning of additional trees should leave a large area in the middle of the park for ball games. We will also ask council to explore planting more trees or climbing vines along the motorway sound barrier, but council arborists have expressed concern that the drainage channel and the barrier foundations might make it difficult to find space for tree roots, and that the sun-exposed aspect of the wall makes it less likely that climbing plants or screening vegetation will survive the hot summers.

Residents have also requested for the metallic benches to be replaced with timber ones as the metal ones get too hot to sit on.

Below are examples of the type of play equipment that could be installed:

 

 

 

We had a good discussion about the merits of some kind of public art installation along the wall to the motorway. After a few years, part of this wall will hopefully be screened by trees, but some of the wall will still be visible, particularly next to the shelter where there won't be room for screening vegetation. Although there were a couple of vocal objections, the vast majority of attendees who participated in the workshop discussions were supportive of some kind of art along the wall.

There are many kinds of public murals, ranging from community projects where local residents get together to paint a single large artwork or a series of smaller pieces, to commissioned projects where one or more professional mural artists is paid to paint the wall. It's also possible to have rotating spaces where a local artist is invited to paint a new mural every six or twelves months. I'm keen to have further discussions among residents about what kind of artwork would best suit this particular park, and will obviously engage in further discussions before any decisions are made.

A few residents also asked about the feasibility of installing an electric BBQ. Unfortunately, public BBQs are very very expensive, not only because they are built to be virtually bomb-proof, but because of the need to dig long trenches to connect high-voltage mains power. After I explained the high costs involved, workshop participants agreed that it would be simpler to just bring their own BBQs or borrow a BBQ from my office when holding community events in the park.

 

The process going forward
We have provided all of the above information (with a bit more detail) to council's parks team, and will ask them to provide quotes for the installation of the equipment. When the quotes come back, I will then sign off on allocating funding towards this project from my local park upgrades budget. Council will then either complete the work in-house, or go out to tender for a private company to do the work. It will be a slow process, so I don't expect to see the work finished in a hurry, but I'll obviously keep you updated as the project progresses.

 

 


Changing the system or is it changing us?

When we look at the dumpster-fire that is mainstream Australian politics, it’s obvious that the system itself is broken, regardless of who happens to be on top of the shit-heap at any given point in time.

As a politician who’s still fairly new to this strange world, I don’t intend to spend the next few decades of my life tweaking it around the edges. Even big, much-needed reforms, such as banning corporations from donating to political parties, are ultimately still just tweaks – new tyres for an old truck that still guzzles diesel and belches poisonous fumes.

Right now, many of us are putting a lot of time and energy into electoral politics. We’re not doing this simply to win power within the current system, but to transform it for the better.

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A Different Trajectory for Brisbane's Future

I originally wrote this article for the Courier Mail's 'Future Brisbane' series in September, 2017, but since they put it behind a paywall, I thought I'd repost it here so everyone can read it.

BRISBANE residents have lost control over how our neighbourhoods evolve and develop. Planning decisions about where to increase density are driven primarily by corporate profit and short-term vote-chasing, rather than long-term social needs and sustainable planning principles.

On current trajectories, future Brisbane may well be a divided city. The wealthy will enjoy medium-density, mixed-use neighbourhoods in close proximity to public transport, job opportunities and good schools, while the poor are banished to sprawling outer-suburban fringes.

Thousands of middle-class residents will be crowded into poorly-designed highrises with very low ratios of green space per person, working 60-hour weeks just to cover the mortgage.

Rising sea levels and heavier rains will flood low-lying neighbourhoods more often, and skyrocketing inner-city land values will mean governments never have enough money to acquire land for new parks, drainage infrastructure and community facilities.

The word “affordability” has been largely absent from Future Brisbane conversations. But neglecting to discuss the issue doesn’t change the fact that right now, tens of thousands of Brisbanites are homeless. Public housing waiting lists are so long that residents are advised not to bother applying unless they qualify as “very high needs”.

Suburbs like West End and New Farm, which once derived their special character in part from the fact that rich and poor residents lived in close proximity, are becoming glossy brochure parodies of their former selves.

Increasing the supply of apartments hasn’t substantially improved affordability for first-homebuyers, because wealthy investors consistently outbid them.

In suburbs like South Brisbane, we’re now seeing some investors choose to leave apartments empty rather than rent them out cheaply. Others are becoming hotel managers via websites like AirBnB, prioritising short-term visitors over longer-term local tenants.

In short, the private market is failing to deliver genuinely affordable housing.

But there are practical alternatives. Many European cities have strengthened renters’ rights and invested heavily in public housing to preserve the vibrant inner-city creative neighbourhoods that attract tourists and improve urban amenity.

Brisbane City Council and the Queensland Government can and should work together to fund and construct high-quality medium-density public housing in close proximity to public transport and job opportunities. And I don’t just mean 140 dwellings per year like the State Government is currently proposing for Brisbane. I mean thousands of dwellings.

Vulnerable residents can be dispersed throughout the city rather than concentrated together, improving social mobility and strengthening relationships between different demographics and sub-cultures. Government-led housing projects can include sustainable design features like greywater recycling and onsite composting that would rarely be delivered by the private sector. Yes, it will be expensive. But it’s still cheaper than leaving people homeless.

Realistically, a drastic increase in the construction of public housing is the only way we’ll be able to address the housing affordability crisis without significantly lowering property values of existing owner-occupiers.

But the journey towards a fairer, more sustainable city need not stop there. With more investment into pollution control and revegetation, many of the creeks feeding into the Brisbane River can be restored so that once again they are clean enough to swim in (a few nets to keep out bullsharks wouldn’t go astray).

A new Aboriginal cultural centre in Musgrave Park would show genuine respect for the rightful owners of this city.

Inner-city golf courses can be repurposed as fruit orchards, sports fields, nature reserves, and even tiny house eco-villages.

Roads will be narrowed, with general traffic lanes reclaimed for bus lanes, separated bike lanes and broader tree-lined footpaths.

Repair cafes, tool libraries and community composting programs will help us shift towards a less wasteful, less consumerist culture.

Sewerage will become a resource – a source of both bioenergy and fertiliser.

Suburbia’s sprawling backyards will be filled with either granny flats or veggie patches, and community gardens will proliferate in under-used parklands and road verges.

Street artists will replace grey concrete with vivid murals that inspire and engage both locals and visitors.

And of course, we will abandon cringeworthy tags like ‘Brisvegas’ and ‘new world city’ in favour of a civic identity that respects and learns from its history, and embraces progress without becoming a soulless, gaudy, cookie-cutter copy of every other big new city around the world.

But perhaps most importantly, a future Brisbane can and should give ordinary residents more input and control over urban planning.

To meet tomorrow’s challenges, everyone will need to be given a say, not just at election time, but through ongoing participatory democratic processes which ensure that the big decisions that shape our city benefit all of us, and not just a privileged minority.


Priorities for the Gabba Cross River Rail Station Redevelopment

December, 2018

The State Government is just beginning its next round of ‘consultation’ regarding the Cross River Rail project, with a particular focus on future options for the new station in Woolloongabba, immediately to the west of the Gabba Stadium. If you haven’t heard much about the Cross River Rail project before, you can find more info at this link.

The new Gabba train station and the redevelopment of the government-owned GoPrint site is a massive opportunity to transform the central part of Woolloongabba for the better. As I’ve outlined in previous statements, there’s a strong local need for more public green space, more community facilities and more public housing. Unfortunately, there’s not much sign of that in the initial documentation and concept designs released by the government.

The government’s initial concept design:


Consultation?

Sadly, the State Government is even less consultative than Brisbane City Council when it comes to planning big new development projects. They tend to survey a small proportion of people to get a rough (often unbalanced) idea of what the public wants, but will generally only pay lip service to public opinion and instead defer to the priorities identified by the public service and the private sector. In the case of the Gabba station, the main question the government is interested in hearing from the public about is what should happen above ground. The more input people provide via the government’s various engagement channels (such as consultation stalls at community events, or by emailing in feedback to [email protected]) the better chance residents will have of influencing the final outcome.

Other stakeholders, such as the Gabba Stadium and major commercial interests, will be advancing their own agendas via detailed submissions and private meetings, so it’s important that residents and local businesses also speak up as loudly and as often as possible, not only by engaging with the proscribed consultation channels, but by directly contacting your State MP, Jackie Trad, at [email protected].


Funding

We don’t know exactly how much money the government is planning to spend redeveloping the land above the Gabba Station and the surrounding public realm. We think it’ll be around 100 million dollars . This will largely depend on how much political pressure residents apply. We do know that generally speaking, the State Government is pretty cash-strapped, in large part because they waste so much of their money on supporting unethical industries (e.g. coal mining, horse racing) and flawed infrastructure projects (e.g. building expensive new prisons). This means the government will be considering options to sell development rights to private developers, and won’t be able to deliver everything the community needs and wants. So residents will basically have two things to push for:

  1. As much public funding as possible, to ensure the whole site isn’t just sold off to private developers
  2. Ensuring that the elements that residents consider priorities are at the top of the list to receive whatever funding IS available


Site Development Options and Constraints

There are some crucial traffic factors influencing how the GoPrint site can be redeveloped. The underground station will make it very difficult to provide much underground carparking. And the busway station along the southern edge of the site will make it almost impossible to have cars exiting directly onto Stanley Street. The land is bounded on all sides by very busy main roads which are heavily congested. This road network simply doesn’t have capacity to handle hundreds of additional car movements that might be associated with a new development. It would be impractical to include much carparking on this site, as this would encourage more people to drive to this location, clogging already-congested roads.

Happily, this location will have some of the public transport coverage in the entire country, with both a train station and busway station. Key destinations like South Bank, Kangaroo Point cliffs, the hospital precinct and even the local primary school are all within easy walking distance, and the Woolloongabba Bikeway project running along Stanley Street will provide great cycling connectivity to major universities and high schools. So this site is the perfect candidate to be redeveloped as a car-free development. With the exception of a small amount of disability accessible parking, carshare parking, loading zones and service vehicle parking, this should be a completely car-free development. People who live or work on the site should be expected to travel by active transport or public transport, rather than driving.

The complicated traffic environment will also tend to increase construction costs and logistical challenges. Even smaller highrise development sites can have dozens of truck movements a day, so to redevelop this whole site in one hit would likely cause huge local traffic disruption, suggesting that construction should instead occur in stages.

A car-free development would suggest that certain kinds of land use options (such as luxury highrise residential) are less likely to be commercially viable for private developers. Mega-rich residents tend to want space for their own cars even when there are good public transport and carshare alternatives available.

On the flipside, building lots of public housing for low-income residents right on top of a train station and busway makes a huge amount of sense. It’s much better to provide affordable housing for low-income residents in the inner-city, close to public transport, than forcing them to the outer suburbs where land is cheaper but they have to spend much more of their income on car ownership and petrol costs.

Structural engineers have also suggested that building extremely tall buildings will be more complicated than normal, as the deep footings needed for skyscrapers might be harder to construct due to the underground station. This doesn’t mean very tall highrises are impossible, but simply that there might be additional challenges and costs.


Public Green Space

Green space is one of the biggest needs in central Woolloongabba. The immediate surrounding neighbourhood is already very under-served by public parks, and is experiencing even more rapid densification with multiple residential and commercial developments under construction. Public green space is especially important for residents in high-density housing who don’t have access to private backyards or large internal entertaining areas. Brisbane City Council’s ‘Desired Standards of Service’ for parks identifies that within an immediate local area, there should ideally be 0.8 hectares of general recreation green space per 1000 residents and 0.6 hectares of more natural vegetated green space. Woolloongabba currently falls a long way short of these targets, so even if no new residential development was included on the Gabba station site, it would still be necessary for the State Government to include a large public park to cater for all the residents in nearby apartments. Adding more residential apartments to the site will necessitate also providing more green space to cater for them.

There’s already almost 8000m2 of green space to the west of the GoPrint site around the Motorway (between Allen St and Leopard St) which would be extremely expensive and difficult to construct buildings on. Spending a bit of money to improve pedestrian access to these green pockets, shield them acoustically from the noisy roads, and vegetate them more heavily as a dense bush reserve with a network of short walking tracks might be one way to provide additional useable natural green space for current and future residents of the precinct. But whether that happens or not, it seems crucial to me that at least one quarter of the GoPrint site (approximately 1 hectare) needs to be redesigned as public parkland for the benefit of residents and workers in the area. (For comparison, the Brisbane City Botanic Gardens, which is quite close to the site of the Albert St Cross River Rail Station, is about 18 hectares) You can’t cram people into highrise apartments and office blocks without also giving them somewhere to stretch their legs or sit under a tree.


Community Facilities

With many more residents living in highrise apartments, there’s a growing need in Woolloongabba for a range of community facilities and services – public libraries, tool libraries, bookable meeting spaces, halls and venues for parties and community concerts, crisis support services for vulnerable people, workshop spaces, and rehearsal rooms and studios for artists and musicians. So it will be important for the land above the Gabba station to include a large, general-purpose community centre which can fill many of these roles, acting as an anchor for the neighbourhood and helping the precinct flourish.

Right now, there are lots of empty shopfronts around Woolloongabba, so simply building more ground-level retail and commercial spaces in the hopes of ‘activating’ the precinct might not be the best strategy. Instead of cramming heaps of restaurants and shops onto the GoPrint site, it might make sense to have only a modest amount of ground-level commercial uses, and focus on improving connections through to the businesses on Stanley St and Logan Rd. This would free up more space for the kinds of community uses mentioned above, creating a more diverse precinct that doesn’t just feel like all the other restaurant and café destinations around Brisbane.


Pedestrian Linkages

In recent media releases, the State Government has floated the concept of a big pedestrian overpass linking the new train station to the Gabba Stadium. I do see the logic of such a proposal. And if the government had a blank cheque for this project and was willing to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on the above-ground embellishments, maybe it would be worthwhile. But before we get all excited about the benefits of a pedestrian overpass at this location, let’s take a step back and consider our priorities.

Councils and governments resort to pedestrian overpasses because they don’t want to slow down cars. It would be cheaper and easier to simply change pedestrian crossing signal times to give greater priority to pedestrians to cross at ground-level, but apparently cars are more important.

A pedestrian overpass of the kind shown in this artist’s impression would likely cost tens of millions of dollars, with added costs associated with the complexities of constructing it over a very busy road corridor. It has to be tall enough to allow large trucks to pass underneath, it has to be strong enough to carry high volumes of pedestrians and to resist extreme weather events, and it will probably require elevators and long ramps in order to meet accessibility standards. It’s also worth noting that the big beautiful trees currently growing next to the stadium in Woolloongabba Place Park would have to be removed to make way for the tiered seating showed in the image.

But apart from major event days, an overpass to the stadium might not get much use. Activating the proposed tiered seating and green space next to the stadium is going to be difficult with the noise and air pollution from Ipswich Rd/Main St. Very few people are going to want to hang out on those steps to watch trucks roar past.

Have a look at the large public space in front of Lang Park stadium at Milton. It too has a pedestrian overpass connecting to the train station, and is much better shielded from passing traffic, but most days of the year, it’s just a big empty lonely patch of concrete, because very few people want to visit the stadium precinct except on game days. The Gabba is a slightly different story to Milton as it has a larger local population and more local businesses, but it’s worth being a bit sceptical of these shiny-looking artist impressions.

The central part of Woolloongabba struggles due to the poor pedestrian connectivity across different sides of the Ipswich Rd-Stanley St intersection. Shops along the southern side of Stanley St struggle to attract customers, and the cul de sac of Logan Rd (the old antiques precinct) also feels a bit dead at times.

When we think about connectivity priorities to the new station on the GoPrint site, on most days of the year, there will be many more people seeking to travel in other directions for work and leisure, but comparatively few heading to/from the stadium.

From the future Gabba station, lots of people will be heading northwest to get to the Kangaroo Point cliffs and apartment blocks, north across Vulture St towards residential and commercial properties, northeast towards residences and businesses, southwest towards the Mater Hospital precinct, south across Stanley St to more high-density apartments and office blocks, and southeast to the Logan Road businesses and apartments. Comparatively few people will be heading east across Main St to and from the stadium on an average work day.

A pedestrian overpass directly to the stadium is not likely to give much of a boost to businesses along Stanley Street or help activate the wider Gabba precinct.

So it’s worth querying whether spending millions of dollars on an overpass to connect to a stadium is the best use of money. An alternative approach would be to create scramble crossings at the Ipswich Rd-Stanley St and Vulture St-Main St intersections to improve pedestrian connectivity to the train station, and on major event days, simply close Main St to through-traffic, diverting vehicles via Wellington Road.

Attendance at major sporting events is dropping consistently, and shows no sign of increasing again in the near future. Even if the Gabba Stadium is used more frequently for other big events like live music concerts, I’m not sure that the very high cost of building an overpass is the best use of money.

I’m open to being convinced otherwise on this, but I think I’d rather see the money spent on more public housing.


Selling off Development Rights to the Private Sector?

My general view is that in inner-city areas, where land values are likely to continue increasing long-term, it is short-sighted to hand government-owned land to the private sector, whether on a 99-year lease, as a permanent sale, or in exchange for a developer paying for other works (e.g. a pedestrian overpass). It’s rare for the State Government to have control over such a large inner-city site (particularly one that’s immediately above a train station), so we should not be too hasty in jumping to conclusions and bringing in private developers to build office towers and residential highrises.

Rather than selling off development rights, the government should retain ownership of all future residential and commercial properties built on the site. Well-located commercial properties on a major train station will likely generate significant rental revenue for the government over the long-term. While some residential homes will be rented out at low rents to the most vulnerable members of society, other apartments could remain under public ownership while being rented out at market rates to key workers. There’s a strong and growing need for more public housing in Brisbane’s inner south side, and it makes sense to co-locate public housing with a commercial hub where those low-income residents will have better access to job opportunities and transport services.

If the government feels it does not have enough money available to completely redevelop the whole site immediately, it would be better to stage the project, leaving some parts of the site undeveloped as open green space for a few years until money is available to build more public housing. Retaining ownership of the land and developing it gradually using public funds is preferable to selling it off to the private sector, particularly if the land can be put to other valuable short-term uses in the interim.


Broadway Hotel and Urban Realm Improvements

The Broadway Hotel site, at the intersection of Logan Rd and Wellington Rd, is the southeast gateway to central Woolloongabba. It’s also a key linkage between the massive South City Square mega-development and the Gabba stadium and future Gabba station.

The fire-damaged State Heritage-listed hotel takes up around 900m2 of the 2300m2 site. As discussed elsewhere on my website, due to the requirement to rebuild and restore the hotel, the local oversupply of commercial spaces and the shaky and uncertain inner-city apartment market, it is extremely unlikely that any profit-driven private developer would consider it commercially viable to redevelop the site anytime soon. The hotel has already been sitting vacant since 2010. If this building remains in private ownership, the most likely outcome is that it will sit empty and abandoned for several years to come. This is a poor outcome for the community and a bad look for the neighbourhood.

However, I believe there’s a strong case that as part of the redevelopment of the GoPrint site, the State Government could take a small proportion of the total budget and spend it on urban realm upgrades along key corridors that link to the station.

The Broadway Hotel site is worth somewhere between $3 to $5 million in its current state, which is a comparatively small figure in the context of the Cross River Rail project’s $5.4 billion total budget. As part of the station development, the State Government should be improving footpaths, planting street trees and making other targeted improvements to the public realm (such as better lighting, seating and public art).

The pedestrian routes that need the greatest attention are Ipswich Rd, Leopard St, Stanley and of course Logan Rd. By acquiring this site on Logan Rd, and combining it with the adjoining 800m2 triangle of council-owned land (currently used as a carpark), BCC and the State Government could create a new community centre next to a small public park, which would serve as a significant landmark and point of interest along this corridor. Developing the Broadway Hotel as a civic space halfway between Gabba Station and South City Square would help activate this whole corridor, supporting this stretch of Logan Rd to transform into a vibrant, cosmopolitan mixed neighbourhood, rather than a series of carparks and underutilised warehouses.

If you would like to see the government allocate resources towards acquiring and restoring the Broadway Hotel, please mention this in any opportunities you have to give feedback on the Cross River Rail project.


A possible short-term use of undeveloped land

If, as mentioned above, the State Government does not have the funds immediately available to develop higher-density residential or commercial buildings on some parts of the site, there are a range of options available to make use of this land in the short-term.

One common challenge of new mega-developments is the fostering of connected communities and organic local character. Too often, mega-developments in Brisbane lack soul, and feel just like all the other big shiny new development projects in cities around the world, without interesting or distinctive features. Ground-level retail tenancies often sit empty for several months, and new businesses struggle to attract tenants until there are enough new residents and workers nearby.

One strategy to create an instant community, bring life to an area, and make productive use of inner-city land until it’s redeveloped would be to temporarily designate a small proportion of the GoPrint site as a caravan park, with the intention of creating a neighbourhood of tiny houses and portable dwellings. Small sites could be leased out to long-term tenants for a fixed period of 5 years, or on a short-term basis to tourists in caravans and campervans who are travelling through the city.

Tiny homes can be designed on trailers as off-grid dwellings, with solar panels, greywater recycling and rainwater harvesting to reduce the need for expensive mains infrastructure. These homes can either have off-grid compost toilets, or share access to a common toilet and laundry block as is common with other caravan parks in Brisbane. This kind of short-term, temporary activation of a site can bring more people into an area, offering the necessary population base to bring life to local community facilities and customers to local small businesses.

Another obvious alternative use of the land would be to leave a significant proportion of the site available as publicly accessible open green space until the State Government has the funds to develop it. In the long-term, both the State Government and BCC are looking at acquiring large industrial sites to provide more green space for residents of the inner-south side, but until that happens, providing a significantly larger temporary public park on the GoPrint site would make a lot of sense.

There are many potential temporary uses for land on the GoPrint site and I think local residents should be given more input into what happens here over the next few years. What’s important though, is that the State Government doesn’t just go for the short-sighted option of selling off development rights to the private sector. It’s better to hold on to land and develop it later for the public benefit, rather than selling it off to the private sector and losing future flexibility.

There’s so much to think about with this project, but what’s crucial is that residents speak up loudly and clearly at every opportunity. The government’s instinct will be to ignore or pay lip service to residents and local businesses, but we mustn’t allow them to do this.

As mentioned above, if you’d like to provide feedback on the redevelopment of the Gabba station and the surrounding neighbourhood, please send an email to [email protected] and [email protected] (and CC in my office at [email protected] because I’d like to know what you think too).