This post is a continuation of the interview with Adam Bandt MP on cities, architecture and the role of the Federal Government in influencing them. If you missed part one of this two part series you can view it here.
Red +Black Architect –Do you have a view on the Nightingale development model which has been happening in Brunswick?
Adam Bandt – I think it’s great, and there’s a number of other developments like that popping up around the place. I know that in Melbourne City Council, for example, which is roughly half of my electorate, I know that our councillors have been pushing for a while to change the rules that mandate car parking be made available for inner city developments. I think the rules that we’ve got at the moment don’t necessarily suit the developments.
R+BA – Do you think federal policy is needed to make projects like these easier to come about?
AB – Projects like that, and others. When I went to Germany a couple of years ago, the German government took us over there to see what they’ve been doing as part of their energy transition where they’re getting their country running on renewable energy. One of the components of that was energy efficiency and changes to their building codes. We went and visited apartment buildings in Germany, a very cold place, that were effectively insulated with versions of laminated paper and apartment buildings that were built without central heating, which was quite an astounding thing for a country like Germany. You walked in there in the middle of winter and you felt immediately warm. It was good design that had been part mandated, part encouraged by the federal government as part of a plan for energy transition. I think there’s potentially work that we could do on our federal building code. There’s also, I think, especially in the commercial and industrial space, there’s just not the incentives at the federal level to encourage energy efficiency and design and architecture and there can and there should be.
R+BA – We have a couple of very exemplary high end, world class buildings, but they’re not by any means the common practice and I think it’s about lifting the common practice up as well as having one or two projects that are really leading the way.
AB – Yes, so part of that is about regulation, part of it is also about creating the market for all the products that go with that so that you start driving down the price of those. Once you require a certain star rating on new buildings, for example, then you create a whole industry around making that happen. Part of the problem in Australia is that, especially for residential properties, we’ve got this housing stock that was built by people who thought that Australia, including southern Australia was a very warm country and that energy was infinite. We’ve got single glazing everywhere, and some places that were built a long time ago having no insulation for example, as well as problems with the way that buildings are facing. Part of that is a British, European legacy, but part of it is failing to design for the climate that you’re in. I think that that needs a bit of a mind shift, but it needs to change. There’s just simple stuff, like double glazing, for example, makes a massive difference. I’ve had people who visit from Europe who stay in my house and find it’s incredibly cold in the Melbourne winter and they look around the house and can’t, for the life of them, understand why it’s designed the way it is.
R+BA – It amazes me that volume house builders don’t have to sell a plan to match an orientation.
AB – Yes, that’s an example.
R+BA – Do you think we have an issue with the cost of construction in Australia generally? Is it a big problem that we need to address?
AB – I don’t think it’s necessarily out of whack. I don’t get the sense that that’s the significant problem in Australia. I think that also people are increasingly finding creative ways to bring that down. Out in Brooklyn, there are people modular housing, on large assembly lines that can then be put somewhere else. Through to some of the developments that again are the exception rather that the rule, but things like cross laminated timber that, as I understand it, require far less labour to erect. You’re constructing your building IKEA style by just taking a flat pack and assembling it. I think people will continue to find innovative ways of making building cheaper and more sustainable. It certainly hasn’t been a big part of the representations to me. I haven’t had people come and say to me that the problem in Australia is that it’s too expensive to build.
R+BA – As well as being a member of the Federal Parliament, you are also the local member for Melbourne. So I have a couple of questions about Melbourne issues. What do you make of the initial decision and subsequent process of urban renewal at Fishermans Bend?
AB – What a wasted opportunity, and what an indictment of the laws that we have around planning and the processes that we have around planning. As we’re finding out now, there are stories surfacing of people associated with the Minister at the time (Matthew Guy) who stand to get windfall gains as a result of rezoning of property.
I was pretty excited about seeing what might happen at Fishermans Bend and was then a little dismayed to see suggestions for a project that I don’t think really thought enough about what it was going to be like to actually live or work there and did nothing substantial in terms of transport. It seemed to me to be another example of development capture. It’s not as bad as some of the decisions that have been made previously. It wasn’t as blatant as Docklands where every developer got to build their own tower and no one was responsible for the common space in between. I just thought that that was a chance to create a liveable community that could have been zero emissions and world’s best practice and instead we’ve got more of the same.
R+BA – What do you think about the current push for minimum Apartment Design Standards?
AB – Again, I think that’s good, but I don’t think it necessarily solves the problem because part of the problem we’ve got in the CBD in particular is that anything over 25,000 square metres is out of the council’s hands and the Minister then gets to make the decisions. Historically, for the Ministers, Melbourne is a place that they come to work, it’s not a place that they live. Developers tend to be much louder than the residents and people who live around the area. Design standards internally, within the apartments, especially in the CBD is very very important, and I’m glad that action’s being taken on that. The bigger question is: what is the process by which we approve construction of these buildings in the first place.
They redistribute every federal electorate from time to time and adjust the boundaries to make sure that all the electorates are roughly the same size, in terms of the number of people. In my electorate, before the last election we lost the suburb of Clifton Hill and a couple of other places. Part of the reason for that was the projected growth in apartments in the city and the immediate inner north, in places like Carlton and heading up north out of the CBD. I don’t have a problem, per se, with more people coming in and living in this city. In fact, one of the ways I think we’re going to have to deal with affordability is through more people living in apartments rather than in houses, that’s just going to happen, logic is going to require that. But we, as the community, have got no control over the developments that are going on at the moment. Any substantial development, as I said, even council doesn’t have a say over it. The Minister just gets to approve it. The Ministers are approving buildings and then the developers go and build those buildings but they don’t build communities. You look around, and you see an old warehouse in North Melbourne or somewhere like that and you just know that in a very short amount of time it’s going to be knocked down and there’s going to be something 15 or 16 storeys on top of it. None of this is planned at the moment. No one is sitting down and saying how can we keep Melbourne liveable, what would it look like. Instead you just get this series of individual applications that are almost always approved because the laws allow it. It’s notable that neither Liberal nor Labor have changed these planning laws that vest enormous power in VCAT and in the Minister. As a result, I just fear that we’re getting an unplanned city in the worst possible way. There’s good ways to have an unplanned city, but we’re getting the bad ways.
In the neighbouring electorate in Kooyong, if you look back over the last decade, they’ve had about a 20% increase in density there, we’ve had over a 40% increase in density in the electorate of Melbourne. You just look around and you see where it’s happening. I think the bigger question is not what the places look like from the inside, although that’s an important question. The bigger question is what does a properly thought through Melbourne look like and I’m just increasingly worried that people aren’t asking that.
R+BA – Do you have a view on the elevated rail proposal that the State Government is proceeding with to remove the level crossings?
AB – I think the level crossings proposals generally was a clever policy announcement by Labor because it’s effectively a roads and development announcement dressed up as a public transport announcement. Because actually, what it’s about is allowing more cars to flow on the roads and also then allowing the space above or around some of the level crossings to be used by developers to build more shops or offices or potentially apartments. I don’t want to comment about the ‘sky rail’ thing in particular because I’m not aware enough of the details of that, but in terms of whether removing level crossings should be the public transport priority, I’m not 100% convinced that it should be. If you’ve got scarce money, I’d rather put it in to more trams and trains rather than necessarily removing some level crossings. Except that there are some level crossings that are dangerous, and yes you should remove them on the basis of safety. But as a large scale public works program, is it the best way of spending the money? I’m not convinced that it is.
R+BA – Thank you very much for your time.
As the federal election campaign kicks into full swing there has never been a better time for the community to demand substantial improvements to Australia’s built environment policy. As populations in our cities continue to grow rapidly, and climate change hits with greater force, it will be the policy directions that we take now, that will determine how livable our cities will be in the future.
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