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Unpacking Urban Renewal in Australia: politics, policies…and polarisation?

Posted by on April 5th, 2017 · Government, Housing, Planning, Sydney, urban renewal

By Laura Crommelin, City Futures Research Centre.

A trio of new research papers from the City Futures team are now available online, each of which sheds light on a different aspect of the complex process of urban renewal. Together the papers identify the politics that drive urban renewal, examine the policies used to implement it, and explore the prospects for residents excluded from the high value inner city areas undergoing renewal. It is clear from this research that higher-density urban renewal is reshaping our cities in profound ways – both in neighbourhoods undergoing or destined for redevelopment, and those feeling the flow-on effects of urban renewal’s impact on housing market dynamics.

In Urban Studies, Laurence Troy examines the drivers behind the renewal of the inner-city Sydney suburb of Pyrmont-Ultimo during the 1990s and 2000s. Laurence argues that flexible planning regulations, coupled with a focus on design rather than equity, resulted in a range of outcomes driving new forms of inequality. On one hand, high-end developers produced expensive, high-quality apartments for owner-occupiers, eventually gaining approval for far taller towers than originally planned. On the other, budget developers produced more affordable apartments by sacrificing build quality and selling them to investors to rent out. In both cases, the regulatory approach adopted allowed developers’ profit agendas to shape the outcomes far more than the needs of the area’s 14,000 new residents. This tension between profit and amenity still informs urban renewal outcomes today, despite subsequent interventions like SEPP 65.

Stepping back to the metropolitan scale, the second paper identifies similar tensions underpinning the push to make Sydney and Perth more compact cities, including through higher density urban renewal. Writing for International Planning Studies, the Planning in a Market Economy research team identifies an eclectic mix of policy tools used to achieve higher density development, including metro strategies, transport plans, and development corporations. Despite some notable differences between Sydney and Perth’s governance and policy frameworks, there are also significant similarities in the way these policies are reshaping the two places. In both cases the push for more compact cities has coincided with increasingly contentious development control debates, growing executive power, greater government engagement with industry lobby groups, and increased inequality. The team concludes that if compact city planning is to remain the model for Australia’s cities, governments must find more equitable and efficient ways to implement urban renewal.

The issue of urban inequality is also the focus of a third new paper, which examines the impact of disadvantaged areas on residents’ future prospects. In Urban Policy and Research, Hal Pawson and Shanaka Herath (a former City Futures colleague) draw on their research for AHURI to contemplate whether disadvantaged neighbourhoods act as ‘flypaper’, trapping residents in poor socio-economic circumstances, or as ‘springboards’, with affordable options providing a stepping stone to improved housing outcomes.  Importantly, the paper suggests that these neighbourhoods are “substantially integrated with wider housing markets”, and can therefore act as springboards – although this effect may not extend to the poorest residents (particularly private renters). Furthermore, Hal and Shanaka note how these neighbourhood dynamics are linked to the outcomes of compact city planning, as renewal of inner-city areas contributes to the suburbanisation of disadvantage in Australia’s cities. As the market pushes affordable neighbourhoods further away from transport and jobs, policy responses need to prevent these areas from becoming traps for an increasing number of disadvantaged residents.

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