24 Aug 2018

We talk about the need to build more homes, increase the density of our cities and create better infrastructure in the suburbs. But too often one critical factor is completely overlooked – the wellbeing of the people who are going to live there.

Speaking with Sue Williams at Domain News, Urbis National Director Linda Kurti and Director Dianne Knott, explain the importance of community engagement in shaping our cities and communities for a better future.  

With the populations of both Sydney and Melbourne set to double by 2050, experts say the focus of all this development needs to be the people who will live there and their wellbeing.

“It’s vital that the community is engaged at all levels when we talk about large-scale development so we can ensure the social impact on them is being considered,” says Linda Kurti, national director at research and economic advisory firm Urbis.

“You look at the pace of development in Australia at the moment and you can see there are great opportunities for doing it well. But we’re at a critical point if we continue to build and build and don’t consider all the elements.” 

 For instance, developers need to talk, in a meaningful way, to the community early on in their planning of new developments, rather than simply impose them later upon those people.

Then they need to make sure they incorporate elements like affordable housing, public services, health centres and childcare facilities into large projects, to cater for the growing diversity of the population. Otherwise, the only people who will be able to afford to live in cities will be the wealthy and those in the well-paid legal and finance sectors.

Cities are about people and they are greater than the sum of their parts. We need to create great cities that work for people.

Urbis director Dianne Knott, a stakeholder engagement, communications and change management strategist, agrees that we have yet to get the balance right. “My passion is public participation in city change and development and we need that to ensure we end up with great places for people to live,” she says.

“We need to be a lot more people-centred when we are creating environments, and involving communities gives people a say in the outcome to make sure their needs are met, and a sense of ownership at the end. I think with the shared economy and social media now, there’s much more expectation this will take place, too.”

The NSW government’s planning department is now also considering ways to bolster the amount of community consultation going on in development.

Some property developers are, however, already taking the initiative to talk to local residents in advance of drawing up plans for new housing complexes, and then continuing the conversation after construction has completed. At Frasers Property Australia, for instance, development director Cameron Jackson says people are at the heart of everything they do.

“We always take a long-term view of community consultation and engagement to make sure we’re creating developments that are going to be welcomed as part of the community,” he says.

“If you don’t do that, you risk people becoming resentful of a development as they feel they haven’t been treated with respect. And you can’t create a healthy, functioning community in those circumstances.”

We need to make sure that cities offer everything a community needs, from employment and education options to transport and health services and suitable housing and social cohesion.

After the initial consultation processes are over, he says the company still likes to keep talking and, at the end of the process, likes to organise events and get-togethers for the new developments to create a feeling of community.

At the new 850-home Fairwater estate in Blacktown there were functions during the recent Olympics to celebrate different cultural backgrounds, at Central Park in Chippendale there’s an ongoing calendar of events and Shell Cove at Shell Harbour has its own community worker.

World-renowned advocate for cities Professor Greg Clark, who works with the World Bank, the OECD, the Brookings Institution and Urban Land Institute on the evolution of urbanisation or what he calls the “metropolitan century”, believes public participation in the process is critical.

His work has examined cities around the world, to weigh up their strengths and weaknesses. He believes that Australia has created some excellent cities but they’re not well-equipped to face a future of continued expansion. He advocates more consultation to help build trust between city leaders, governments, planners, developers and the people to ensure a better future. 

Ms Kurti says those conversations are the only way to ensure our cities offer residents the lives they hope for, and the community resilience they need.

“Without those, we risk the social fabric not being as strong as it might be,” she says. “We need to make sure that cities offer everything a community needs, from employment and education options to transport and health services and suitable housing and social cohesion.

“Cities are about people and they are greater than the sum of their parts. We need to create great cities that work for people.”

Linda Kurti View Profile
Dianne Knott View Profile