Planning professor offers design insights for social diversity at international planning conference on Australian urban renewal projects

ASU professor of planning Emily Talen served as a featured speaker at the Festival of Urbanism, a major international urban planning gathering that took place in Sydney, Australia from October 23 to November 6.

During three weeks of discussions, panels, and screenings, the festival brought together scholars and practitioners from around the globe to share their wide-ranging expertise. .          

The Sydney conference focused on “megaprojects,” or proposals for the redevelopment of large consolidated portions of cities, looking at international best practices in planning and seeking to start a wider conversation about sound planning at a crucial moment.    

Australian officials recently announced a major revitalization of The Bays Precinct – a rundown area of Sydney’s harbor. The Bays Precinct Urban Renewal project will aim to transform underutilized areas of the harbor into economically viable and culturally vital places.

In a city such as Sydney -- Australia’s most populous and the capital of the state of New South Wales—  officials say the Bays Precinct megaproject will have huge public implications.

Peter Phibbs, Chair of Urban Planning and Policy at the University of Sydney, said that the Bays Precinct project could provide fantastic opportunities for the city, but, he noted it also carried significant risks.   

In the planning community, megaprojects have often sparked controversy. Extremely large-scale investment projects, typically costing upwards of $1 billion U.S., megaprojects can heavily impact communities – and not always positively. In past instances, megaprojects have attracted criticism for frequently running over budget and behind schedule as well as for overstating projected social and economic benefits to a community.

With the Bays Precinct Urban Renewal Project set for further planning, festival participants challenged current practice in megaprojects and examined ways to maximize public benefit from megaprojects.  

Drawing on her own research about megaprojects, ASU professor Talen delivered a talk about designing cities for social diversity.

Talen said she and her Australian counterparts found many shared concerns.

“There are surprising similarities,” Talen said. “Like cities in the U.S., Australian cities are struggling to maintain walkable urbanism in a way that maintains affordability. Walkable urban places are becoming out of reach for the middle class, both here and abroad,” added Talen.

According to Talen, festival participants were particularly interested in how problems like affordable housing and congestion are being addressed in U.S. cities.

“There is very little government subsidy for maintaining affordability in quality urban places (in Australia), and they see this as a significant problem,” Talen said. 

Talen said public participation can also be an issue in Australian cities.

“State government controls planning decisions, rather than individual cities, so there is some frustration with tackling these issues with a strong community buy-in and empowerment via local government,” said Talen.

According to co-convener of the Festival and Director of the Urbanism Program at the University of Sydney Rod Simpson, encouraging community involvement was a main goal of the festival.

Simpson said he believes the public is interested in the development process and he hoped to offer new avenues of engagement for public participation in development planning. Festival organizers opened up a web platform for debate about urban issues and public sessions for discussion.  

In addition to Australian and American experts, a Singapore-based professor, Stephen Cairns, headlined the festival. Cairns, a renowned expert in global environmental sustainability, discussed Hamburg’s Hafencity, Europe’s largest inner-city development and a prototype for a European waterfront city. His talk focused on how lessons from Hafencity could be localized to other urban renewal projects, like the Bays Precinct project.  

The festival will be followed by a two-day summit in Sydney, November 19 and 20, that will gather information from global, national, and local urban renewal specialists about the Bays Precinct project.