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Exiting prison with complex support needs: the role of housing assistance

Posted by on August 23rd, 2021 · Housing

By Dr Chris Martin, Dr Rebecca Reeve, Assoc Prof Ruth McCausland and Prof Eileen Baldry (UNSW), Pat Burton and Prof Rob White (UTas), and Prof Stuart Thomas (RMIT).

One of the classic metaphors for exiting prison is ‘going home’. However, more than half of people exiting Australian prisons either expect to be homeless or don’t know where they will be staying when they are released.

The connection between imprisonment and homelessness presents special risks for people with complex support needs: that is, those leaving prison who have a mental health condition and/or a cognitive disability. People with complex support needs are often excluded from community-based support and services because they are deemed ‘too difficult’, and so end up entangled in the criminal justice system.

Post-release housing assistance is a potentially powerful lever in arresting the imprisonment–homelessness cycle, and breaking down the disabling web of punishment and containment in which people with complex support needs are often caught.

In research published today by AHURI, we investigated the post-release pathways of people with complex support needs, and the difference made by housing assistance – in particular, public housing. We found:

  • Imprisonment in Australia is growing and ex-prisoner housing need is growing; but at the same time, housing assistance capacity is declining.
  • Without real options and resources, prisoner pre-release planning for accommodation is often last-minute. Insecure temporary accommodation is stressful, and diverts ex-prisoners and agencies from addressing other needs, undermining desistance from offending.
  • Ex-prisoners with complex support needs who receive public housing have better criminal justice outcomes than comparable ex-prisoners who receive private rental assistance only: police incidents (down 8.9% per year), time in custody (down 11.2% per year), justice system costs per person (down $4,996 initially, then a further $2,040 per year), and other measures.
  • In dollar terms, housing an ex-prisoner in a public housing tenancy generates, after five years, a net benefit of between $5,200 and $35,000, relative to the cost of providing them with assistance in private rental and/or through homelessness services.

Our findings about the effect of public housing on criminal justice outcomes and costs are the result of our analysis of linked administrative data from NSW government agencies about ex-prisoners with complex support needs. We compared two groups of ex-prisoners: one group of 623 ex-prisoners who received a public housing tenancy some time after their release from prison, and another group of 612 ex-prisoners who were eligible for public housing but received private rental assistance only. The charts below show average predicted police incidents per year for each group. For the ‘private rental assistance only’ group (figure 1), police incidents rose gradually over the period for which we have data. For the public housing group (figure 2), average predicted police incidents also rose until they received public housing (year 0 in the chart). Then police incidents turned down remarkably, and kept going down. Public housing flattens the curve.

The evidence strongly supports the need for much greater provision of social housing to people exiting prison, particularly for those with complex support needs.

Read the full report, the executive summary, and a policy evidence brief here, and the ABC’s report of the research here. This research is part of AHURI’s Inquiry into enhancing the coordination of housing supports for individuals leaving institutional settings.

Does the 5km radius make sense? Analysing the NSW government COVID-19 response

Posted by on August 18th, 2021 · Data, Government, Pandemic, Sydney, Transport

By Nemanja Nikolic, Research Assistant and MPhil Candidate, City Futures Research Centre.

In an attempt to control the spread of the virus, state governments have gradually introduced various spatial measures and limitations in local hot-spot areas across the country. The goal of such restrictions is targeted at reducing people’s mobility and avoiding potential spill-overs to neighbouring areas. So far, these have included ‘stay at home orders’ for certain postcodes, suburbs or LGAs, combined with restrictions on travel of more than 10km – now 5km – beyond a person’s home LGA. But how effective have these measures been? Do they make sense from a scientific and governance perspective?

The use of spatial analysis/planning in epidemiology and medical geography has been well documented throughout history. Techniques such as cluster analysis or spatial autocorrelation are regularly employed to examine the spread of viruses (for instance cholera in the 19th century, by John Snow). One of the first pioneers of Town Planning, Sir Patrick Geddes, used medical analogies in establishing relationships between humans and their environment. Spatial analysis is not only used to understand spatial phenomena, but also to construct optimal planning solutions. For instance, how to place medical centres or fire stations in a way to achieve maximum population coverage, while minimising travel time?

In this context, the article focuses on the following questions:

  1. Do administrative boundaries reflect the way people actually live?
  2. Do the 5/10km limits present optimal travel distances as a COVID-19 prevention measure?

All travel distances have been computed using road network calculations, but are expressed in ‘as the crow flies’ straight lines distances – to make comparison with government guidelines easier.

Along imaginary lines

The initial response of state governments to the local spread of COVID-19 was to introduce hard borders and limit people’s mobility within specific jurisdictions. Even though these areas represent legal entities and make things easier from a governance perspective, in too many instances, they do not correspond to the way people live and work, nor do they reflect settlements and communities.

Figure 1: Strathfield Town Centre and train station – Split between three LGAs

This issue doesn’t stop with state boundaries (which are often, just arbitrary straight lines) but goes all the way down to city blocks, where streets separate suburbs in most impractical ways.

Figure 2: Suburb boundary between Mosman and Cremorne, along Spofforth Street

The example in Figure 2, shows how residents on the left-hand side of the street – officially part of the suburb of Mosman, in a hypothetical scenario of ‘hard borders’ wouldn’t be able to access the local supermarket, post office or medical centre just across the road – officially part of the suburb of Cremorne. The next closest substitute facilities are approximately 1.3km away. Over a period of six weeks, this represents a total of 110km of additional travel (if residents were to commute daily). Similar scenarios, although at a much larger magnitude, are seen at the QLD-NSW-VIC borders where workers require exemptions to access their usual place of work.

Functional Regions – a long term solution

So how can these issues be resolved? From a long-term perspective, the concept of Functional Regions (used by the OECD and EU amongst others – see OECD, 2013) provides a viable and practical solution. In essence, Functional Regions are self-contained areas that reflect the actual connections, interactions and flows that exist in space, based on specific human activities such as labour (Travel-to-work Area; see Mitchell and Stimson, 2010 for example in Australian context) or population movements (Daily Urban Systems). In most cases, there is a node/centre to which people gravitate toward and that provides certain services. This can be an employment centre or health and education cluster for instance (Brown and Holmes, 1971; Klapka et al., 2013). In the example above, the fact that residents’ shop and complete other daily activities in the local shopping centre (node) across the street, would be recognised and reflected in the boundaries.

Do LGAs in NSW reflect functional ties and movement? Well, only to a degree. As part of the colonial legacy – reflected in arbitrary straight-line boundaries, but also political factors – unwillingness of decision makers to follow through on change (when faced with potential voters’ backlash), LGAs remain limited in many ways. The most recent attempt at ‘optimisation’ was seen in 2015-16, when the NSW governments tried to reduce the number of LGAs from 152 to 112 via amalgamation. The process faced considerable controversy and local resistance (see ABC, 2015; 2016a; 2016b).

In a hypothetical scenario, the degree of optimal resident allocation (based on functional ties) was tested using a network analysis and compared to the actual allocation (established by the existing LGA boundaries). This was achieved, by calculating the shortest travel-time between each SA1 (smallest statistical unit) and its nearest major shopping centre, under free-flow traffic conditions. The number of potential destinations/shopping centres, was limited to 33 – matching the current number of LGAs in Metropolitan Sydney.

Figure 3: Optimal SA1 allocation, based on nearest major shopping centre

As seen on the map (in red), there is a significant number of areas that have sub-optimal allocation – i.e. the closest major shopping centre is outside of their designated LGA. This is especially pronounced along the edges of LGAs (see Cumberland and Canterbury-Bankstown, but also Inner-City areas such as Inner West and Canada Bay). In total, approximately 1,187,000 residents (or 25% of Metropolitan Sydney’s population) would need to travel more than usual, if LGA hard borders were implemented, to reach their largest shopping centre. An interesting example is also seen in Bayside, which is effectively ‘split in two’ by the Sydney Airport – acting as a barrier between the former Rockdale (West) and Botany Bay (East) LGAs. This is not to say that amalgamations are necessarily bad, but rather that border corrections need to be an outcome of careful analysis and support internal cohesion/accessibility.

10km and 5km zones – a short term solution?

To temporarily overcome the shortcomings imposed by existing administrative boundaries, state governments have introduced additional travel guidelines. These include buffer zones along state borders or more flexible arrangements currently seen in NSW, which allow local residents to travel up to 5km (previously 10km) outside of their LGA for a reasonable excuse (including shopping). Although these measures make life easier, at the same time they provide a ‘bridge’ for the virus to effectively spread across the metropolitan area, if the conditions are right.

Figure 4: 10km buffer zones across Metropolitan Sydney

As seen in Figure 4, it would only take four people to spread COVID-19 from Camden to Northern Beaches (or the other way around). The darker shaded blue areas, between the buffers, represent overlap locations where transmission could potentially occur. Although this represents a highly unlikely scenario, the possibility of transmission increases substantially at micro-local scales and along borders, where the level of interaction is higher. In this context, each additional kilometre added, can dramatically change the chances for such an occurrence.

To better understand if the 5/10km radius is optimal in providing the necessary means for people to satisfy their basic needs, while minimising the chance of spread, an additional local network analysis was completed. Similarly, to the previous example, this was achieved by calculating the shortest travel-distance between each SA1 (smallest statistical unit) and its nearest local supermarket (compared to major shopping centre in previous example). The number of potential destinations/supermarkets (limited to Coles or Woolworths, because of data availability) was 263, with no limitations to number of destinations per LGA. The modelling was also used to locate residents that were likely to step-over LGA boundaries to reach their nearest supermarket (within the 5km radius) and hence identify potential areas of concern.

Figure 5: SA1 allocation to closest supermarket – Canterbury-Bankstown LGA

As seen in the example of Canterbury-Bankstown above and Figure 6, the Median Travel Distance (under the assumption that each resident used their closest supermarket and optimal travel route) was 1.2km, with 95% of residents reaching their destination within 3km. This represents a noticeably smaller distance to the current 5km limit enforced in hot-spot locations. Areas in the far South-East and East section of the LGA, along the border with Bayside, Georges River and Inner West represent potential areas of spread, as a significant proportion of Canterbury-Bankstown residents have their closest supermarket outside of the LGA boundary.

Figure 6 also points to two other important findings. Firstly, that most modelled trips (to the nearest supermarket) are well under the current 5km restrictions, providing room for further adjustments if the epidemiological situation were to worsen. Secondly, depending on the LGA location and urban form, the modelled travel distance varied substantially, requiring different approaches depending on the context – i.e. densely populated (Inner-City) LGAs have much smaller distances compared to outer metropolitan LGAs. Allowing for additional leeway in these dense areas, could lead to easier spread.

Figure 6: Summary statistics of modelled travel distances to nearest supermarket by LGA

Note: The cells in orange have larger modelled travel distances to current restrictions

Conclusions

Functional Regions and an informed approach to travel restrictions, provide a platform to achieve better community outcomes while minimising the chances of COVID-19 spill-overs. This requires a combination of long and short-term planning, that accounts for the whole spectrum of interactions and flows between people and the environment (including local idiosyncrasies) and is ideally reflected in LGA/administrative boundaries. Further research is also needed into the hierarchy of human needs – i.e. establishing an objective ranking to which activities take priority, and the travel distances needed to achieve them. This would allow for a set of measures, that could be applied depending on the spatial context and virus circulation – i.e. 2.5km for essential activities (high virus circulation), 5km for discretionary shopping (medium virus circulation) in inner-urban LGAs etc. Governments could also ‘designate’ each household a unique local supermarket (informed by network modelling) and notify them by mail, effectively reducing the number of potential exposure sites and making contact tracing easier. Lastly a better understanding of which category of places lead to the virus spread – the findings of Praharaj and Han (2020), suggest this is grocery and retail – could further complement the findings and inform the adequate response.

Note: The NSW Health Department and the Office of Brad Hazzard were asked to provide insight on the 4th of August 2020, to the process that informed the current 5km radius measures. No response was received, till date. It is the belief of the author that greater transparency is needed.

References

ABC. (2015). NSW councils to merge under State Government plan for forced amalgamations; 2016 elections delayed. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-12-18/sydney-councils-to-be-forced-to-merge-by-nsw-government/7039326

ABC. (2016a). Local council amalgamations: Decision imminent as NSW Cabinet considers issue. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-05-12/nsw-local-council-merger-announcement-imminent/7406790

ABC. (2016b). NSW council amalgamations: 19 new local bodies created under forced mergers. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-05-12/new-councils-created-under-forced-mergers-across-nsw/7408152

Brown, L. A. and Holmes, J. (1971). The Delimitation of Functional Regions, Nodal Regions, and Hierarchies by Functional Distance Approaches. Ekistics, pp. 387-391.

Klapka, P., Halas, M., Tonev, P. and Bednar, M. (2013). Functional Regions of the Czech Republic: Comparison of Simpler and More Advanced Methods of Regional Taxonomy. Acta Universitatis Palackianae Olomucensis–Geographica, 44 (1), 45-57.

Mitchell, W. F. and Stimson, R. (2010). Creating a new geography of functional economic regions to analyse aspects of labour market performance in Australia. Callagan, Australia: Centre of Full Employment and Equity, University of Newcastle.

OECD. (2013). Definition of Functional Urban Areas (FUA) for the OECD Metropolitan Database. Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development website.

Praharaj, S., & Han, H. (2020). A longitudinal study of the impact of human mobility on the incidence of COVID-19 in India. medRxiv.

Boasting about budget expenditure numbers does not make for a housing policy

Posted by on August 16th, 2021 · Government, Housing

By Vivienne Milligan, Honorary Professor, City Futures Research Centre. Originally published at Pearls and Irritations, John Menadue’s Public Policy Journal.

The Federal Minister for Housing and Homelessness, Michael Sukkar, is fond of quoting large numbers when quizzed on what his government is doing to address Australia’s enduring housing crisis.  So, we hear for instance that annual Federal spending on housing and homelessness programs has reached over $8b and that his government is exceeding Labor’s spend on social housing and homelessness support.

Such numbers and claims deserve closer scrutiny. What comprises the $8b and how far does it go in addressing the need? What have been the differences between recent Coalition and Labor Government policies in this area?

The two largest and long-standing components of Federal housing expenditures are:

  • Rent Assistance paid to private renters receiving social security when their rent exceeds a specified level. This reached $5.5b in 2020-21.
  • Payments to state/territory governments for social housing and homelessness services under the National Housing and Homelessness Agreement. These currently total $1.6b. per annum.

Last year and this, the HomeBuilder program has been bloating Federal expenditure. Expected to total over $2b in payments, this program is effectively a government gift to middle income home buyers/owners.

Rent Assistance expenditure has been increasing steadily over a long period and more so during the pandemic as 400,000 additional renters received this support. This payment provides much needed immediate relief from rental stress for those eligible.  But what of its longer-term costs and benefits?

From the early 1990s successive Australian Governments have placed increasing reliance on Rent Assistance (RA) as the primary form of help for lower income renters to be housed more affordably. Paradoxically, though, rental stress has remained stubbornly high with over 40% of recipients from  2016 to 2019 still paying more than 30% of their income in rent after receiving RA . Subsequent COVID-19-related income support measures and rent moratoriums have temporarily alleviated this situation somewhat.

Rental stress is entrenched largely because, without other actions, RA does not redress the underlying shortage of affordable private rental housing, which was estimated to have reached over 300,000 dwellings in 2016, up from 138,000 in 2006. Instead, it props up rising rents at the same time as becoming an increasing drag on the national budget.

And what of the effectiveness of the other main component of the Government’s housing assistance package – provision of social housing and supporting the homeless?  To their credit, post-2013 Coalition Governments have maintained funding for homelessness services at the enhanced levels established under the outgoing Rudd Government. These services provide temporary housing and personal support to the homeless, but they do not address their likely ongoing need for secure affordable housing in either the private or social rental sectors.

Given the demonstrable failure of the private rental market to supply affordable housing, access to social housing is critical to government ambitions to reduce homelessness and housing stress. The Howard Government severely cut payments to the states for social housing and pre-1996 base funding levels have never been restored. And while the Rudd and Gillard Governments significantly increased funding for social and affordable housing, including a big component for remote Indigenous housing, their fixed-term initiatives have either expired or have been dropped by the Coalition since 2013.

A key indicator of the adequacy of the current level of funding for social housing is revealed by measuring its share of the whole market. Tellingly, this share fell from 6.3% to 4.2% of all dwellings between the 1991 and 2016 census periods.  So, if the objective is to maintain access to social housing for homeless people and other vulnerable renters (and perhaps also to reduce the cost of RA) plainly we need to be spending more to keep up the supply of social housing.

In this regard the Turnbull Government’s 2018 creation of the National Housing Finance and investment Corporation (NHFIC) has been widely embraced as a worthy supply-side initiative.  NHFIC’s role here is to deliver low-cost loans (by using long term bond finance raised under a government mandate) to not-for-profit (NFP) developers of affordable housing. NHFIC’s potential, however, has been severely curtailed from the start by a lack of complementary policies to enable these NFPs to initiate more development, such as by allocating them public land or enabling them (through planning policies and a funding boost) to acquire privately owned sites. The necessity for such support is laid out in black and white in the Federal Government’s own advisory report by Treasury officials.

As acknowledged last month in the report of a Government-initiated Inquiry into Homelessness in Australia, a key missing element that could inform judgements about the adequacy of housing expenditures is an official measure of housing need.  Adopting a needs-based approach to funding housing and homelessness, as recommended in the report, would help governments better design and cost the mix of policy actions to be used. And, unlike throwaway references to expenditure levels, it would tell us just how far the Government’s housing endeavours go towards addressing established need.

Impact of pedestrian network barriers on walkability: a Cooks River case study

Posted by on August 6th, 2021 · Bikes, Data, Planning, Sydney, Transport, Uncategorized

By Josephine Roper, PhD student, City Futures Research Centre.

Urban rivers can provide welcome open space, a cooling effect, scenic beauty and recreation opportunities, but can also be barriers to movement. Bridges are relatively expensive pieces of road infrastructure so are generally spaced out, rather than crossing a river at every possible point. But in areas where a road network was developed based on car traffic, the bridge spacing may be awkwardly far for people on foot.

As these areas densify, there are more opportunities to walk to a variety of local destinations, and more people looking to walk to them – but the natural barriers remain. Pedestrian (and bicycle) only bridges are more cost effective to build than car bridges, so extra pedestrian bridges have been introduced in some areas, but not all. I’ve written before about the spacing of bridges on the Cook’s River in Sydney. (https://walksydney.org/2020/04/08/wolli-creek-the-cooks-river-and-the-case-of-the-missing-bridges/ ) In this post, I will show in detail how adding 3 new bridges to the underserved region around Wolli Creek and Earlwood would provide people with improved walkable access to many more destinations, with potential benefits for property value and quality of life.

Walkability to local destinations

The map below shows properties coloured by a ‘walkable living’ score, a measure first designed by Mavoa et al (2018). Properties get one point out of 12 for every type of destination that can be accessed in a 1,600m walking distance from the property. The destination types are places that people commonly walk to if given the option, such as supermarkets, post offices, convenience stores and schools.

In the hypothetical scenario shown below, active transport connections were added in 3 key locations: 1) between Chisholm St, Wolli Creek and Waterworth Park, 2) between Lusty St, Wolli Creek and Tempe St/Waterworth Park, 3) between Pine Avenue, Earlwood and Warren Park, Marrickville. The total connections are up to 200 metres long as they extend to the nearest road or shared path, but the actual length of bridge required in each location would be less than 50 metres.

Comparing the two maps shows the benefits, primarily for properties in Earlwood, which show an increase of up to 5 types of destinations that are now walkable. A total of 1027 properties are positively affected.

Increase in types of destinations accessibleNumber of properties
1506
2112
369
481
531
1 (within cycling distance)227
Total1026

(Results for cycling are not shown on the map and are generally less as cyclists can already take longer detours to use the existing bridges, but some properties still benefited from an increased variety of destinations at a cycling distance of 5km).

Preliminary research into walkability and property value suggests that a gain of 1 point in this walkable living index increases property value ~1% for an average property in this area – around $10,000 a point. Combined, a possible $14 million value uplift for these properties.

An example of the change in accessible destinations for one property in Earlwood:

DestinationDistance before bridgesDistance after bridges
Bank>1600m>1600m
Convenience store1355m1070m
Dentist>1600m802m
Library>1600m1561m
Post office>1600m1449m
Community centre>1600m>1600m
Doctor>1600m>1600m
Public transport stop940m940m
Childcare>1600m>1600m
Pharmacy>1600m1215m
Supermarket>1600m1164m
Specialist food store>1600m>1600m

Park Access

I also analysed the change in hectares of parks accessible from each property. Approximately 15,000 people live within the map area shown and many benefit to some degree, but the largest change is for residents of the dense suburbs of Wolli Creek and Marrickville. The relative lack of open space for these residents has become apparent through the COVID-19 as more people have headed to the same set of parks to take exercise.

Conclusion

This analysis shows how network discontinuities that seem minor for car travel actually make a major difference to pedestrian accessibility. Results from ongoing work by the City Futures Research Centre suggest that pedestrian accessibility improvements translate to increases in property value, as well as quality of life, health and wellbeing.

Reference

Mavoa, Suzanne, Serryn Eagleson, Hannah M Badland, Lucy Gunn, Claire Boulange, Joshua Stewart, and Billie Giles-Corti. “Identifying Appropriate Land-Use Mix Measures for Use in a National Walkability Index.” Journal of Transport and Land Use 11, no. 1 (October 10, 2018). https://doi.org/10.5198/jtlu.2018.1132 .

Here comes PlanTech to help transform our cities – but how?

Posted by on August 2nd, 2021 · Data, Planning, Uncategorized
City scape and network connection concept, Blue tone.

By Claire Daniel, Jago Dodson, Chris Pettit and Audrey Marsh. Originally published by The Fifth Estate.

Big data, machine learning, artificial intelligence, and platform technologies are now common terms in our vernacular. But what do they all mean for the complex task of planning sustainable cities? 

We have seen the recent emergence of FinTech, LegalTech and PropTech, in the financial, legal and property sectors. Now PlanTech is emerging as a framework and platform for urban planning. But the planning profession, practice, and policy are starting from far behind these earlier adopter sectors.

While most planning systems now include digital elements, such as online submission of planning applications and documents they have not yet undergone the kinds of transformation that have occurred in financial or even property sectors. What might a transformation of Australian urban planning systems look like?

There are five principal ways that planning is likely to experience digital transformation: systems, decisions, analytics, professional practice, and governance.

Planning systems include the legislative frameworks for strategic planning and their translation into statutory regulatory processes. Most Australian jurisdictions have moved to online submission of planning applications, but this is largely for information management, such as substituting large bundles of traditional hard copy documents for a zip file of PDFs.

So far Australian planning systems are not embracing approaches in which applications are wholly prepared, submitted, organised and processed entirely on networked online platforms. Who designs, owns and governs future digital platforms, in whose interest, will be a major policy question.

Planning decisions remain the preserve of policy officers and elected representatives, plus legal appeal bodies, who apply planning policies and codes in making their assessment.  Yet the rise of algorithmic decision making offers the potential for routine decisions to be made via code.

This shift has compelling economic justification – why waste highly skilled planners time undertaking routine uncontroversial assessments that can be instantly made by an AI?

But PlanTech application beyond the routine also raises important questions about authority, democracy and professional judgement as well as bias and error. How can we avoid a planning equivalent of the robodebt income support payments disaster for example? Or the inscription of racialised discrimination into automated decisions as found in some police AI systems.

Urban analytics is set to boom as planning becomes comprehensively digitised with the vast accessible information flows generated offering a new universe of information and insight. This includes the creation of digital twins so that visualisation and impact assessment of new proposals can be plugged into virtual city models.

Digital platforms also potentially offer real-time comprehensive tracking of built environment development activity, enabling deeper timelier knowledge of urban processes to guide agile decisions. This is a major potential gain from PlanTech.

Fourth, professional practice is likely to be transformed by digitisation. While future planners will be expected to be “digital first” they may see loss of routine tasks like code-based planning assessment. Yet the rapidity and complexity of digital platforms and information flows will necessitate new skills and training around analytics as well as the ethics and governance of decision making. 

Recent research shows that planners themselves are expecting digital transformation of their sector and profession, although many feel unprepared.

Like similar professions outside of the ICT industry, the development of digital technology has traditionally been outsourced. Skills gaps have impeded the profession’s response to increasing expectations around digital service delivery. And planning is public purpose work.  As technology starts to underpin decision making planners must be able explain how the systems work to ensure transparency and legitimacy.

Finally, PlanTech poses key governance questions. PlanTech risks capture by particular interests such as platform monopolists.

Instead it must be managed according to best practice models of transparency, accountability and human oversight. The need to avoid the creation of monopoly private ownership of planning system platforms is particularly important, lest such interests improperly capture digital rents from such market power.

Recognising this need, the Planning Institute of Australia (PIA), the overarching professional body for urban planners, has taken leadership role in shaping the digital future of the industry.

Together with planning academics the institute has drafted a jset of principles to guide professional advocacy in the transition to digitised planning systems. These principles aim to ensure appropriate professional development of planners and inform public knowledge of digital planning.

The 10 PIA principles address four key themes

Theme 1 is ensuring that planners have the skills and opportunities to design and adopt new technology, informed by sound ethics oriented to the public good.

Theme 2 is to ensure that digital planning systems are built and governed as public infrastructure that serve the public good and are not captured by monopoly platform providers.

Theme 3 is to encourage digitisation projects to reimagine how planning is communicated and processes made accessible, transparent, accountable and participatory for the community at large.

Theme 4 encourages planning organisations to work together and the establishment of a culture of innovation and sharing across the profession in collaboration with government, the private sector, non-governments and communities.

While we are still at the early stages of imagining a PlanTech transformation, the establishment of these principles represent the start of a coherent response by a traditionally non-technical professional body to the disruptive impacts of digital technology.

These principles will also be of use more broadly as an example for parallel efforts in other professions, or as a high-level checklist to ensure that digitisation efforts in areas of public policy and regulation are developed in the public interest.

They offer a major advance for researchers in disciplines across engineering, architecture, landscape design, urban planning, transport, and wider social and policy sciences, who will potentially have access to a vast trove of real-time information about how our cities are changing and the decisions we’re making about those changes.

Future knowledge of PlanTech might take two paths

The first would be an applied stream, investigating how PlanTech is being adopted and the hurdles and complexities of that shift.

Second, we need critical perspectives on PlanTech transformation to check malign trajectories. As a new domain of practice planning scholars and commentators need to be closely observing transformations and reporting their effects and consequences.

Planning is still haunted by past instances of embracing technocratic positivist black box systems-thinking that imposed harms on communities and the environment.  Planners need to seize the potential of PlanTech to support the public good, while avoiding its risks.

The shifting tides of Australian tourism in the face of COVID-19: A visual analysis through Airbnb

Posted by on July 7th, 2021 · Airbnb, Cities, Housing supply

By William Thackway & Christopher Pettit, City Futures Research Centre

There are many new challenges facing our cities and regions brought upon by the COVID-19 pandemic. These include the impact of global mobility and multiple prolonged lockdowns restricting interstate travel since the pandemic reached Australia in March 2020. Consequently, for the year ending December 2020, the number of international visitors to Australia dropped by 80% from 8.7 million tourists in 2019 to 1.7 million in 2020. Concurrently, domestic overnight visitors have fallen by 38% from 117 to 73 million trips. However, while the foreseeable outlook for international travel is bleak, domestic tourism has experienced a comeback, with domestic travel figures for the end of 2020 nearing 2019 rates. So, who have been the winners and losers of this changing travel landscape?

To investigate how travel patterns have shifted within Australia, we looked at changes in Airbnb activity in major tourist areas. Using data acquired from the web scraping company AirDNA, we compared changes in the total number of Airbnb listings at an SA2 level between 2019 and 2020 in Australia’s capital cities and major regional tourist hotspots. These patterns elucidated a shift away from urban tourism and towards regional travel.

Figure 1: Changes to Airbnb count in Australia’s capital cities between 2019 and 2020

Figure 1 illustrates changes to Airbnb activity pre- and post-COVID in Australia’s six capital cities. Table 1, meanwhile, documents the hot-spot and cold-spot SA2 areas in terms of changes in Airbnb listings. Starting with Sydney in Figure 1(a), there has been a substantial decline in Airbnb listings throughout the entire city, with all active Airbnb areas experiencing a reduction in tourist numbers. The most substantial impacts were felt in Sydney’s tourist hotspots towards the CBD and eastern suburbs, with close to 1000 listings lost in Bondi. Similarly in Melbourne (Figure 1(b)), both a reduction in the range and intensity of Airbnb activity is evident throughout the city. Whilst the loss of Airbnb’s is less widespread than in Sydney, the most intense reduction of 931 listings in the Melbourne CBD is roughly equivalent. 

There is a similar story for Perth and Hobart, both experiencing declines in Airbnb listings for all SA2 areas. Once again, the most concentrated effects of the pandemic on tourism are felt in the central tourist hotspots, with the magnitudes varying from up to 200 in Perth to 60 in Hobart. In Brisbane and Adelaide, while tourist numbers have still overwhelmingly reduced, there is some bucking of the trend of a unilateral decline in Airbnb activity. In Brisbane, the popular coastal retreat of the Redland Islands have marginally increased their Airbnb activity, and in Adelaide there has been a bump in listings in several periphery suburbs towards the south- and north-east.

Table 1: Table of hot-spot and cold-spot SA2 areas within capital cities

Across the capital cities there are several consistent trends that can be explained by the changing travel patterns brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. Firstly, the intensity of reductions in Airbnb listings are roughly proportional to the intake of international travellers for each city. Intuitively this makes sense: the more international tourists a city has, the more it must lose when international travel is shut down. Sydney and Melbourne are Australia’s two largest tourist destinations, intaking 4.1 and 2.9 million international tourists respectively in 2019. Correspondingly, both exhibited the most concentrated reductions in Airbnb listings, with Sydney particularly experiencing significant declines in several different tourist hotspots. The magnitudes of reductions in Airbnb listings for the other capital cities then nearly mirror international tourist numbers, with Perth (0.9 million international tourists annually) leading Brisbane (1.4 million), Adelaide (0.4 million) and Hobart (0.3 million). Interestingly, Perth seems to have ‘outperformed’ its relative international tourist market in terms of Airbnb listings lost, which might be explained by the prolonged state border closure, lasting March – November, that restricted interstate travel to WA.

Another trend across all capital cities is the concentration of reduced Airbnb activity towards central areas. This aligns with urban tourism literature, that documents the clustering of urban tourism in central localities, due to proximity to tourist attractions, restaurants and entertainment, and better access to transport (Ashworth & Page, 2011; Garcia-Hernandez et al., 2017). Therefore, it is expected that an overall decrease in tourist numbers will affect central areas most prominently. However, the idiosyncratic cases of Airbnb listing increases towards the outskirts of Brisbane and Adelaide raise the question of whether there is another factor at play reducing central tourism. In the wake of several prolonged city lockdowns, is there an increased desire for domestic travellers to escape the city and head to regional areas?

Figure 2: Changes to Airbnb count in selected regional hotspots between 2019 and 2020

Figure 2 examines changes to Airbnb listings in prominent regional hotspots in several states, while Table 2 gives specific hot-spot and cold-spot SA2 areas. In the northern NSW coastal area of Byron Bay (Figure 2(a)), the visual distribution of Airbnb listings has remained stable, while tourist numbers are predominantly up. The most popular tourist destination in the area, Byron Bay itself, expanded its tourist presence with over 70 new Airbnb listings. Similarly in Wollongong and its surroundings, a popular tourist area 2 hours south of Sydney, Airbnb listings have increased overall. Once again, the greatest increase of close to 50 new Airbnb listings is evident in the area’s most popular tourist getaway of Kiama.

Margaret River (WA) and the Sunshine Coast (Qld) both exhibit a mixture of increases and decreases in Airbnb listings. However, in both cases, the number of increased listings outweigh the reductions, translating to an overall growth in tourist numbers in these areas. Consistent with other regional tourist hotspots, Airbnb listings grew most in the most popular tourist areas.

Table 2: Table of hot-spot and cold-spot SA2 areas within regional tourist areas

Hence, in contrast to the major cities, regional tourist hotspots have enjoyed an increase in tourist numbers in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. While urban centres have experienced the worst declines of Airbnb presence, listings in regional centres have soared. The implications of these changing travel patterns for future Australian tourism are two-fold.

Firstly, international tourists have a higher propensity to visit capital cities than regional areas, therefore the disruption of global travel has affected urban tourism far more significantly than regional tourism. International tourists will eventually return, meaning we might expect this pattern to reverse. However, in the wake of extended lockdowns and stifled international travel, domestic travellers have shown an increasing preference towards regional and coastal tourism over travel to other major cities. Brian Chesky, CEO of Airbnb, earlier this year predicted a long-term shift towards domestic and regional travel, as people seek less sightseeing and more meaningful travel. Certainly, on the basis of our analysis, this holds true for the past year and a half in Australia. However, whether this response to the COVID-19 pandemic truly represents a shifting tide in Australian tourism, or merely an adaptive short-term solution, remains to be seen.

References:

  1. Abril D (2021), Airbnb’s CEO on how COVID has changed travel forever. Available at: https://fortune.com/2021/01/14/airbnb-brian-cheskys-future-of-travel-predictions-coronavirus-pandemic/.
  2. Ashworth G and Page SJ (2011), Urban tourism research: Recent progress and current paradoxes. Tourism Management, 32 (2011), pp. 1-15.
  3. Australian Government Austrade (2021), International Visitor Survey Results December 2020. Available at: https://www.tra.gov.au/data-and-research/reports/international-visitor-survey-results-december-2020/international-visitor-survey-results-december-2020.
  4. Australian Government Austrade (2021), National Visitor Survey Results December 2020. Available at: https://www.tra.gov.au/data-and-research/reports/national-visitor-survey-results-december-2020/national-visitor-survey-results-december-2020.
  5. Garcia-Hernandez M, de la Calle-Vaquero M and Yubera C (2017), Cultural Heritage and Urban Tourism: Historic City Centres under Pressure. Sustainability, 9 (2017), pp. 1346-1365.

Australia’s high house prices damage economic productivity, financial stability and equity

Posted by on June 25th, 2021 · Economy, Housing

By Duncan Maclennan, Hal Pawson and Bill Randolph. Originally published at Pearls and Irritations – John Menadue’s Public Policy Journal.

Recent discussion has highlighted how rising house prices are rationing growing numbers of younger Australians into rental housing and lifestyle choices falling short of aspirations. Now there are warnings that future falling homeownership rates across most age cohorts could hit the NSW Government’s budget balance.

According to the newly published NSW Intergenerational Report, a continuation of recent trends to 2060 could cost the States’s taxpayers over $12 billion due to resulting needs for additional affordable housing alone.

This only compounds earlier analysis projecting a rising future cost burden to be shouldered by the Commonwealth Government if ongoing homeownership decline sees more Australians reaching retirement age as renters – or otherwise with outstanding mortgage debt.

But there are wider reasons that the recurrent under-performance of Australia’s housing system, especially sustained real price increases, must be taken more seriously as a major, nationwide economic concern. Our newly published research shows how over-expensive housing is likely to weaken financial stability and impair economic productivity.

The research also suggests a strong consensus among informed experts that governments at both national and state/territory levels need to get up to speed on their understanding of housing system effects on the economy. Our online survey of 87 leading Australian economists and housing market experts, showed almost two-thirds of participant economists (64%), and 94% of non-economists believe that governments are failing to sufficiently regard housing system impacts on national economic performance.

Productivity impacts

Concerns underpinning this view, as expressed by research participants, included recognition of impaired productivity, as high core city prices displaced low and middle-income workers away from areas of high employment density to more distant homes. Crucially, this damages the effectiveness of labour market matching, thus reducing lifetime earnings and productivity as well as increasing commuting and infrastructure costs.

In addition to this so-called ‘spatial mismatch’ problem, there was an appreciation of the opportunity cost resulting from the channelling of debt-fuelled investment into the existing housing stock – an asset essentially unproductive in terms of employment generation. For others, the main worry was that, especially among lower-income renters, high housing costs preclude expenditure on other consumption items, thus reducing overall demand in the economy.

Booming housing, booming inequality

Our interviews with research participants, which explored their thinking in relation to a set of propositions on housing system: economy linkages, were undertaken in December 2020. Yet six months later, many expert observations summarised in our report were remarkably prescient.

For example, while the 2021 housing boom has defied many media expectations, our experts anticipated that both Quantitative Easing and exceptionally low-interest rates would drive asset prices rather than boost productive enterprise. This is certainly what appears to be the case. In the process, this stimulus has been seen to widen inequality as those with the largest housing assets, and hence the greatest capacity to borrow at record low rates, have benefited the most.

Indeed, by a margin of five to one, our survey respondents saw ‘status quo’ economic policies as intensifying income and wealth inequality; yet by a margin of two to one, they doubted that countering inequality is genuinely a current official policy priority. Notably, official tolerance of rising inequality, as perceived, defies a growing international agency consensus on resulting economic harm – such as in the stances of the OECD and IMF.

This evidence suggests a growing gap between current official attitudes, on the one hand, and the perspectives of Australian economists and other experts, as exemplified in our report, on the other.

Indeed, among our experts, Government complacency and inaction on inequality was widely attributed to ideologically entrenched beliefs about rights associated with private property ownership, as well as continuing adherence to ‘trickle down’ economics.

Economic productivity and land-use planning

While the economic productivity losses due to over-expensive housing are increasingly recognised, expert views on the causes of this problem remain divided. Rising prices are a sign of excess demand within a market. When it comes to housing, a wide array of policies may impact demand, ranging from regional and immigration settings, first-home buyer incentives, taxation and monetary policy.

Equally, rising prices may reflect a slow supply-side response in relation to even steady demand growth. Thus, excess demand or inadequate supply may arise from demand and supply-side policies and, in consequence, from the actions of multiple policy sectors across all orders of government.

Despite this complex reality, there is a common contention that high house prices are overwhelmingly the fault of excessive land-use planning restrictions. This assertion is often backed by simple claims about the standard operation of supply and demand. Notably, economists in our survey were largely split on this, albeit with a small majority seeing ‘planning restrictions’ as the main concern. There is no consensus on the weight of different causes of ‘shortage’, as theoretically derived views tend to displace systematic empirical evidence.

The diversity of these perspectives may partly reflect the extreme fragmentation of housing policy responsibilities across government. The lack of any formal responsibility for spatial planning at the Federal level means the central economic agencies, and the policymakers who support them, have little direct experience of the planning system, nor indeed an understanding of the residential development process itself. This is a real gap in our capacity to make good policy in this area.

Across the economics profession, more broadly, there remains only patchy recognition that the unique qualities of housing and land mean that these markets function quite differently from those for standard commodities.

An agenda for change

In our own view, planning regulation is simply one of many factors – and only occasionally the most important – that shape the housing market and its impacts on broader economic performance. As we see it, fundamental changes to Australia’s institutional architecture are needed to address the widely-shared expert concerns about housing system under-performance.

The most important include the re-establishment of a housing minister with cabinet rank in the Commonwealth Government, and the creation of a national housing agency – most logically by expanding the remit of the existing National Housing Finance and Investment Corporation (NHFIC).

Beyond this, as argued in our recently released overview report from this research, there is a strong case for broadening the formal accountabilities of the Reserve Bank to include maintaining a more price stable and well-functioning housing market. More broadly, a root and branch inquiry into the operation of Australia’s housing system is needed as the basis for the national housing strategy that is essential to set a long-term course.

Given the complexity of the task and the necessity of lifting it above the party-political realm, a Royal Commission on Housing Future Australia should be considered for this purpose.

The Australian public purse is already pumping big money into housing – just not where it’s needed

Posted by on May 24th, 2021 · Housing

By Hal Pawson, City Futures Research Centre. Originally published in The Guardian.

Housing once again looks set to form a major bone of contention in the coming general election. That much was clear from the ALP’s recent budget response. Labor had already backed the Coalition’s first homeowner initiatives. But opposition leader Anthony Albanese’s budget reply pledge to ramp up social and affordable housebuilding marked a clear point of difference from the government.

This was not difficult to achieve. Despite ongoing increases in housing affordability stress over the past decade in many cities and regions, successive Liberal National governments have presided over a continuing dearth of non-market housebuilding. In his stock response to calls for post-Covid social housing stimulus, housing minister Michael Sukkar has time and again washed his hands of the issue by declaring it purely a state and territory responsibility.

So what exactly does federal Labor have in mind? At an estimated cost of $10bn, its proposed social and affordable construction program would generate 30,000 homes over five years. This would equate to somewhere around a fourfold increase on recent build rates – certainly a welcome prospect for a sector that has effectively contracted by a third since the 1990s (from 6% to 4% of all housing).

Albanese’s housing supply pledge follows the Victorian government’s groundbreaking 2020 announcement of its $5.4bn Big Housing Build initiative, as a key part of the state’s post-pandemic recovery plan. Under the BHB, Victoria will see more than 10,000 new social and affordable homes added to its housing stock over four years. An important difference of course is that this is a plan and not – as in the Albanese statement – only a proposal.

Following a decade of social housing inactivity, both plan and proposal deserve applause. But neither represents a commitment of gamechanging scale. Victoria’s scheme would see social and affordable construction boosted from 0.5% of all housebuilding in the state to about 5% – dramatic, but far short of the 16% seen across Australia 1945-70.

As for the ALP’s proposed scheme, this would expand current annual lettings of public and community housing by a worthwhile but modest 18%. In its contribution to national social housing stock, the scheme’s annual output of 6,000 homes would fall far short of the 15,000 needed to just to keep pace with rising population (and need).

While most Australians are well-housed and many have reaped huge financial windfalls from the housing market, substantial and growing numbers are badly served by our current system. About 200,000 households are registered on social housing waiting lists and census-informed evidence suggests that well over double that number are either homeless or living in unaffordable or otherwise unsuitable housing.

So do Australian governments simply need to face up to a need to spend more on housing? Many of us would say no. The public finances are, in fact, already supporting huge but ill-targeted housing expenditures. The most notorious of these are the negative gearing and capital gains tax discount concessions that advantage private landlords. The highly regressive nature of these can be gauged from the Grattan Institute estimate that 80% of CGT discounts flow to the top 10% of income earners.

Also counting in the generous tax concessions allowed to homeowners as well as direct assistance such as direct lending, we have calculated that the public purse is already effectively pumping more than $100bn into our housing system each and every year. Yet only about $8bn of this is specifically targeted to lower income earners through social housing subsidies, homelessness support and rent assistance.

This imbalance is not only socially unjust, but it also hugely distorts our whole housing system. It provides far too strong an incentive to over-invest in a market inherently restricted in its ability to quickly respond. The result is all too familiar: high and rising house prices.

Expanded social housing programs are, without doubt, an essential part of Australia’s better housing future. Reversing social rental sector decline would be beneficial in any circumstances. A defensible long-term target would be expanding provision to the OECD average – 7.1% of all housing.

But only through more fundamental reform can Australia really get to grips with wider housing unaffordability. We have to re-balance a system that overly benefits existing homeowners and landlords at the expense of tenants, especially lower income renters. We have to break away from a pathway that is increasingly restricting young adults’ opportunity for homeownership to those with access to family wealth.

Are the kinds of measures that would be needed to move in that direction just pie in the sky? Maybe, but progressive housing tax and legislative reform is not impossible. The New South Wales government recently pledged to emulate ACT’s phased replacement of stamp duty by land tax. And only a matter of weeks ago, the Victorian Government significantly strengthened renters’ rights.

Further afield, and on a much larger scale, the UK saw the elimination of owner-occupier mortgage interest tax relief in the 1990s, and sharply reduced tax concessions for investor landlords in the 2010s. Both of these initiatives were enacted under Conservative governments. Perhaps more remarkably, in what has been described as “a step toward a more-equitable tax system”, the US government in 2017 significantly scaled back two of the main homeowner subsidies available to affluent Americans.

What is needed above all in Australia is unequivocal ownership of the housing affordability challenge by our national government as well as by states and territories. Only then could the country set a course towards a more balanced and equitable housing system to the benefit of all.

Albanese’s $10bn pledge pushes housing needs back into the limelight

Posted by on May 14th, 2021 · Housing

Hal Pawson, Professor of Housing Research and Policy, and Associate Director, City Futures Research Centre, UNSW. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese’s budget reply speech last night highlighted Australia’s huge unnmet need for social and affordable housing. It’s once again shaping up as a major election issue. Labor is proposing a A$10 billion program to build 30,000 social and affordable homes over five years.

The immediate backdrop for the pledge is a post-COVID house price boom, and a continuing dearth of Commonwealth investment in new non-market housing. That is, rentals affordable to low-income Australians and provided by government agencies or non-profit community housing organisations.

Amid the many new spending plans revealed in Tuesday’s budget, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg maintained the government’s resistance to an ever-wider coalition of voices calling for social housing stimulus.

Conversation Economic Society of Australia survey, September 2020

Just how big is the problem?

With borders largely closed since March last year, it’s true that sharply reduced migration has temporarily dampened rental housing demand over the past 15 months. That in turn has generally subdued increases in rents. However, that national norm masks the rapidly rising rents seen in many regional markets during 2020-21.

And despite some local price reductions, Anglicare’s recent survey of 74,000 “lease ready” property listings identified only three (0.004%) affordable to a single person on the JobSeeker payment. More strikingly, for every household income type included in the survey, Anglicare found the availability of affordable lets even lower in early 2021 than a year earlier.

The broader and longer-term picture in the private rental market has been one of shrinking numbers of tenancies that low-income Australians can afford to rent. Specifically, we saw a 50% increase in the national deficit in private lets affordable to low-income renters (in the bottom 20% of incomes) in the decade to 2016.

A decade of negligible investment in social housing construction has only made this situation worse. The result has been a continued decline in availability as public and community housing has dwindled from 6% to only 4% of all housing since the 1990s. In fact, proportionate to population, social rental lettings have halved over this period.

A clear point of difference, but not a game-changer

Tuesday’s budget marked a continuation of the Morrison government’s near-exclusive housing focus on efforts to assist aspirational first-home buyers. Most significantly, this policy stance inspired the $2.1 billion HomeBuilder program as an economic recovery measure during 2020-21.

The ALP has pointedly backed both HomeBuilder and the smaller measures to assist first-home buyers announced on Tuesday. But Albanese’s new announcement seemingly extends Labor’s housing pitch beyond the Coalition’s comfort zone. https://www.youtube.com/embed/fyIWxgKQzBs?wmode=transparent&start=0 Anthony Albanese pledges $10 billion to build social housing in budget reply speech.

So is this the “major initiative” hailed by some headline writers? A “fix for house prices” it certainly is not. If unwisely attempted purely through public spending, the funding required to get into that territory would need to be many times as great.

Opposition housing spokesperson Jason Clare more defensibly describes the ALP pitch as “a significant start” in tackling Australia’s “housing crisis”.

The current national stock of social and affordable rental housing totals just over 400,000. In recent years annual additions have amounted to only 2,000-3,000. That’s barely enough even to offset continuing sales and demolitions. In these terms, Albanese’s pledge to expand the supply by 6,000 a year would indeed be significant.

At the same time, as our previous research has shown, a net increase of 15,000 units a year is needed just to keep pace with “normal” population growth – that is, to halt the decline in social rental as a share of all housing. Even under a post-pandemic scenario where migration rules are tightened as far as imaginable, that figure would not be substantially smaller.

So, like the Victorian government’s recently launched social housing stimulus, the ALP’s proposed national program would mark a promising break with the recent past, and a platform for further measures. But it would be hard to describe it as a game-changer.

While greatly expanded social housing provision would be an essential part of any credible package to seriously address Australia’s housing affordability challenge, a far wider program of action is needed. Most importantly, such a program must also tackle our grossly unbalanced housing tax settings, boost renters’ rights and diversify the available choice of housing.

What the country needs above all is a Commonwealth commitment to assembling the national housing strategy that is so long overdue.

Digital disruption in planning – survey results of planners’​ perspectives

Posted by on May 12th, 2021 · Guest appearance, Planning

By Claire Daniel, Scientia PhD Scholar, UNSW.

In 2019 we conducted a survey of practicing Australian planners to collect their perspectives on technology use in the profession and anticipated change. The results have now been published in a peer-reviewed article in Australian Planner co-authored with Professor Chris Pettit. I would like to share the highlights with you below.

Past years have seen a new wave of digital innovation initiatives in city management and the delivery of government services at large. Urban planning however is frequently viewed as “behind the times” with many of our sister professions in the built environment now boasting relatively established approaches with PropTech in the real-estate and property development industry, computational design in architecture and digital twins in the spatial and surveying industry – to name just a few.

In 2019 we conducted a survey of and workshop with practicing Australian planners to find out:

  1. How they currently use tech in their day-to-day work,
  2. What changes they anticipate,
  3. Any barriers to this change, and;
  4. How prepared they feel.

The full paper was published last week in the Australian Planner and should freely accessible to all members of the Planning Institute of Australia. A pre-print version of the article is available for download on my personal website. We have also created a dashboard to allow for exploration of the survey data. The following provides a summary of ten of the key findings

  1. Planners rely on ‘traditional’ data and software

The Australian Bureau of Statistics was still the number one source of information for practicing planners, followed by government open data platforms with both used by most respondents. On the other hand, only moderate use of social media data was reported whilst IoT data (“internet of things” – an innovation considered key to smart cities initiatives) was used by less than ten percent of respondents. Similarly, the reported use of more novel applications was low including scenario planning, 3D modelling and AR/VR applications, indicating that yet more work may need to be done if planners are to be convinced of their utility in practice.

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Data sources and software used by survey respondents in their day to day work

2. Local government planners report using the widest variety of tech

Local government planners reported to be far more likely to use online mapping, GIS, 3D modelling, administrative systems, and 3D modelling software than their state government counterparts.

3. There was little difference in tech use between junior and senior planners

Surprisingly, comparison between respondents with less than 10 years’ experience and more than 10 years’ experience revealed little difference in tech use – perhaps indicating that even if* younger professionals are more familiar with various technologies, that they may not currently be afforded opportunities to apply these skills in their work.

4. Planners anticipate widespread change

Despite reporting limited use of new and novel technologies, most respondents predict significant change to occur to day-to-day planning work arising from digital technology. When asked to describe these changes three dominant themes emerged – a data-driven future where new insights are gleaned from new data sources and computation capabilities; a communicative future where the internet offers instantaneous transfer of information and communication at a distance; and finally, an administratively efficient future where many bureaucratic and administrative functions are automated, such as for simple development approvals.

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Summary of free-form text responses

5. There are a wide range of barriers to tech adoption in planning

Responses describing barriers to the adoption of new tech in the workplace paint a complex picture which we summarised under four themes – uncertainty in the adoption of new technology and whether the benefits of implementing a new technology will outweigh the costs before it becomes redundant; poor quality technology including software that is difficult to use or note fit for purpose; costs and resources not just in licencing fees and hardware upgrades but also in the time taken to train staff; and finally change resistance describing problems of general cultural inertia stemming from institutional arrangements, individual reluctance and crucially lack of senior management support.

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Summary of free-form text responses

6. Planners have lots of innovative ideas

Planners participating in a workshop were asked to devise technological solutions to common frustrations encountered in their work. They responded with enthusiasm and had little difficulty in devising a range of solutions, from improved data portals to simplified assessment systems, which are detailed at more length in the paper.

7. A lack of basic digital infrastructure may be hindering further innovation

The solutions developed by workshop participants may suggest further reasons for the relatively low adoption of new data-heavy and computationally intensive technology with most frustrations centered around difficulties in simple information retrieval and communication tasks

8. Set-process mindsets may hinder deeper innovation

When asked to outline their day-to-day work it was striking how quickly workshop participants were able to reach a consensus when mapping out how to undertake common planning tasks such as preparing a masterplan, despite working across different organisations. It would be interesting to investigate whether this high subscription to set processes could be a barrier to more widespread and systematic innovation. We know from other digital innovation efforts in government that it is important to take the opportunity to re-evaluate why things are done in certain ways and avoid simply hard-coding existing processes in new automated systems.

9. The workplace is still important to continued professional development

Although if you are reading this article you have probably found it through Twitter or LinkedIn, our results show that for most planners that these are among the least important sources of new information about the latest developments in the industry, with more traditional sources including the workplace, seminars and conferences, alongside web searches, ranked as more commonly used.

10. The results of this survey provide a limited perspective

Not so much a finding as a caution (it also felt unsatisfactory to leave this summary at nine) that this survey presents only the views of practicing planners, around 100 people and mostly located in the State of New South Wales in Australia. It could be complemented by further research to gather views from other stakeholders in the process, in particularly the community at large who are often underrepresented in these types of studies.

So, in conclusion it is hoped that the findings of this research provide a practical framework of considerations when it comes to implementing technology in urban planning. These findings demonstrate that, counter to some popular opinion, planners at large are far from oblivious when it comes to the possibilities and expected changes arising from continued improvements to digital technology. Including their perspectives will be necessary if we are to get the best outcomes from this new wave of digital transformation efforts.

Again, for more information, please read the full article here, the pre-print of which is also available for free on my personal website. We hope it is useful to you, and if so that you will cite the article:

C. Daniel & C. Pettit (2021): Digital disruption and planning – use of data and digital technology by professional planners, and perceptions of change to planning work, Australian Planner, DOI: 10.1080/07293682.2021.1920995

We hope to follow up soon with an international survey to update these findings and gather broader perspectives. Before doing so we would be interested to hear from planning organisations what more they might like to know so please get in touch if you would like to be involved in the design of the next stage! Please get in youch on Twitter @ClaireCities or LinkedIn!

Finally I would like to acknowledge the contributions of fellow PlanTech NSW working group members – @Jocelyn McDowall, Richard Barry, D’Arcy Roche, Tina Wang and Shaun Beckley – and Planning Institute of Australia staff Audrey Marsh , John Brockhoff and Karen Goldsmith- for their contribution to the design and promotion of this survey.