Of the plan: Commonwealth city planning systems

16 December 2010

Matthew James
Science, Technology, Environment and Resources Section


Major Issues Summary
State of Australian City Planning
Commonwealth City Planning
Major Cities Unit
National Urban Policy
Local Governments, Planning Charters and Principles
Australia’s Mayors and the National Urban Policy
Local Government and Planning Ministers’ Council and the National Planning System Principles
Development Assessment Leading Practice
External Party Positions
Planning Institute of Australia
Australian Council of Built Environment Design Professions
Independent Organisation Submissions
Airport Planning
Capital City and Regional Planning Schemes
Planning Legislation
Australian Planning Practice
RMIT planning initiatives
CSIRO Urban Systems
Planning Application and Issues
International Planning Trends
United Kingdom
United States

Major Issues Summary

Until recently, the Commonwealth had little involvement in urban land use planning and no constitutional responsibility, except for Canberra, but the past year has seen ‘an elephant enter the room’ of our cities with the sudden increase of Federal Government interest into the planning of our major urban metropolitan areas. The Rudd Government established a Major Cities Unit (MCU), within the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government portfolio. The Council of Australian Governments (COAG) agreed last December that by 1 January 2012 all States will have in place plans that meet defined criteria for the future strategic planning of Australia’s capital cities, and that federal government decisions on infrastructure funding will be linked to meeting these criteria. In May 2010, the Federal Government requested the Productivity Commission undertake a benchmarking study into Planning, Zoning and Development Assessments.

Over 600 local planning jurisdictions exist in Australia, with many permutations of policies. There tends to be a ‘planning act’ for each state and territory with a plan existing for all cities. Given Federal intentions, the Council of Capital City Lord Mayors released, in May 2010, a submission to the Government on the development of a national urban policy—Towards a City Strategy aims to secure the productive, sustainable and liveable future of their cities. In December 2009, the Local Government and Planning Ministers’ Council endorsed the purpose, issue and system principles in their document National Planning System Principles. These joined such declarations as the 2003 National Charter of Integrated Land Use and Transport Planning and the May 2007 Planning Institute of Australia statement on Integrated Land Use and Transport Planning. Meanwhile, under review, is the planning of new developments around airports, where a relaxation of Commonwealth control has seen an unregulated rise of commercial buildings.

State of Australian City Planning

This background note examines the many reports that have called for an integrated approach to planning our cities, the legislative platform, and the overseas trends that provide guidance. Progress with planning reforms can be evaluated by events over time, which reflects the increasing federal involvement in city planning activities. Earlier Commonwealth policy in the area dates back to the Better Cities Program which tended to concentrate on specific project funding rather than planning controls.

On 5 March 2010, the Hon Anthony Albanese, Minister for Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government launched the State of Australian Cities 2010report.[1] The report drew together existing data and information across a range of economic, social and environmental parameters to provide a national snapshot of the 17 Australian cities with populations over 100 000 at the 2006 Census. It also highlighted emerging trends and issues so as to promote debate on managing growth and change in our urban centres. The State of Australian Cities 2010report gives a succinct overview of our ever-expanding and car-dependent cities that enable reasonable lifestyles, though with growing problems:

While Australian cities perform relatively well in terms of quality of life and other social issues, they are confronted by significant challenges including population growth and demographic change, transport congestion, living affordability, infrastructure development, productivity growth, climate change and ecological sustainability … The level of car dependency in Australian cities has increased at a faster rate than population growth, creating traffic congestion problems as infrastructure and public transport have failed to keep pace with population growth. Congestion, the bane of urban dwellers, if not addressed will continue to grow as a serious negative not only for lifestyle but also for the negative economic impacts …

The design of urban environments can contribute to the health and wellbeing of communities by supporting active living, active and passive recreation opportunities, public transport and social connectivity. Evidence suggests that well-designed public open space is restorative for the community, reducing the mental fatigue and stress of urban living …

State and territory governments lay down strategic planning frameworks, and local governments implement planning policies that ideally reflect local aspirations. However, while the eight state or territory governments and 155 local governments will significantly influence the future direction of Australia’s major cities, there is an inherent need for a coordinating and oversight role for the Australian Government, given its primary economic, social welfare and infrastructure roles. Fitting the policies—sometimes allied, sometimes conflicting—of state, territory and local government into a national framework can only be achieved by a national collaborative approach.[2]

Commonwealth City Planning

Since Federation the Commonwealth has had little involvement in urban land use planning, except for developing Canberra, which it now shares with the Australian Capital Territory Government for designated areas in the city such as the Parliamentary Triangle. Previous major involvement in city planning dates back to the time of the late 1980’s early 1990’s with the Better Cities Program of the Hawke Labor Government:

There was an emphasis on national efforts to provide a greater degree of efficiency in the delivery of services across the Commonwealth in diverse fields such as transport and communication, the production and transmission of energy and the delivery of human services. As part of this push, the Commonwealth made an effort to promote themes of ecologically sustainable development. However, the major emphasis was on the need for ongoing fiscal restraint and the need to use scarce capital dollars more efficiently.[3]

The Hawke Government increased public housing and amalgamated separate agencies into a Department of Transport and Communications and a Department of Housing and Regional Development and began the Better Cities program. This focused on urban renewal and urban growth management as key components. Phase 2 of Better Cities was put forward as part of a Keating Government initiative. Perhaps the Better Cities program was too broad and ambitious in its goals but some good urban legacies remain from it.

Since Federation, the distribution of constitutional powers and actual involvement in planning between governments was a key issue. Local Governments provided roads and drains, parks, and some services, plus zone planning controls under State Government legislation. State agencies performed planning and construction of major built infrastructure and applied regional planning controls. Existing planning controls largely related to building size, use and types and their location, but, quite often, the process did not involve the community.

In December 2005, the Australian Labor Party (Senator Carr) released Australia’s Future Cities discussion paper on Urban Development, Housing and Local Government, which pushed the need for greater Commonwealth involvement.[4] The paper dwelt on themes of liveability and sustainability, raising issues of climate change, public transport infrastructure, social exclusion, housing affordability and local government roles. The paper said that under a Labor Government, a ‘cities’ policy would be on the national agenda to achieve social justice, economic efficiency, environmental sustainability and design for diversity.

The past year has seen ‘an elephant enter the room’ with the sudden re-emergence of Commonwealth policy and investment into our major urban metropolitan areas. On 27 October 2009, the then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced that the Federal Government would take much greater national responsibility for improving the long-term planning of our major cities, after an absence in the area of some decades. He mentioned the challenges of building efficient transport and communications networks, affordable and liveable city communities, and sustainable cities in partnership with the States and Territories:

Specifically, the new criteria for the strategic planning systems in our major cities should focus on:

  • Providing for planned, sequenced and evidence-based land release that meets the housing needs of a growing population and keeps homes affordable.
  • Balancing in-fill and Greenfield development.
  • Implementing credible plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions - through initiatives such as energy efficiency measures, changes to town planning, practical improvements in public transport infrastructure and reform of building codes and regulations.
  • Adapting to the risks of climate change such as coastal inundation and more extreme weather events.
  • Emphasising world-class design and associated architectural integrity.
  • Providing for building and upgrading nationally significant infrastructure, such as transport corridors, intermodal connections and communications and utilities networks.
  • Providing for governments to take into account independent, expert advice on the objectives and implementation of their planning system.
  • Providing an effective framework for private sector investment and innovation in the urban infrastructure given that with the fiscal constraints on governments, the nation will need to harness private capital. [5]

Major Cities Unit

In 2008, the Rudd Government established Infrastructure Australia (within the Department of Infrastructure and Transport) to provide advice on national infrastructure needs and policy reforms. The Government acknowledged the importance of cities to the future national prosperity and community well-being, and committed to an active involvement in planning and investment in cities with the establishment of the Major Cities Unit (MCU) collocated with Infrastructure Australia. The MCU has a mandate to work across portfolios, and with all spheres of government, the private sector and the community to help transform cities to be more sustainable, liveable and productive. The MCU has been researching established and emerging trends and issues in Australian cities, and working with stakeholders to develop a national urban policy.

Continuing this theme, the 2010–11 Budget provided albeit limited funds for development of a national urban policy. Under the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, $1.4 million was allocated over three years through the Council of Australian Governments’ (COAG) Reform Council for a review of capital city strategic planning systems.[6] This funding met the Australian Government's commitment to provide half the funding for the Reform Council, with the States and Territories to provide the remaining funding.

National Urban Policy

The National Urban Policy, to be released in 2011, is to provide for a new long-term strategic framework for strategic development, future vision, and an urban indicators framework to support policy. There are three research priorities: housing diversity; civic leadership; and governing the metropolis.[7]

The COAG agreement of 7 December 2009 noted that capital city strategic planning systems will be promulgated by 1 January 2012, in order to address population and growth issues. They will feature future-orientated and publicly available long-term strategic plans for each city and reflect integration across land-use, infrastructure and transport, with coordination between all three levels of government. The plans will identify investment priorities, implementation arrangements and funding sources. The Commonwealth will link future infrastructure funding to the plans.[8]

According to the Federal Government, the catalyst behind the establishment of the COAG Cities Planning Taskforce was the lack of alignment within some jurisdictions, between metropolitan land use plans and infrastructure proposals submitted for Infrastructure Australia’s consideration. Future plans will have to meet the national criteria for the future strategic planning of Australia’s cities.

In May 2010, the Australian Government requested the Productivity Commission undertake ‘a benchmarking study into Planning, Zoning and Development Assessments’.[9] It was asked to report on the operations of the planning and zoning systems in the states and territories, particularly how they affect business compliance costs; competition; and the overall efficiency and effectiveness of cities. In doing so, the Commission is to report on best practice approaches that support competition, including measures to prevent 'gaming' of appeals processes; limited land supply processes; and competition protections. The associated issues paper sets out key city legislation and supporting regulations and the roles of commonwealth, state and local level agencies.[10]

On 17 June 2010, the then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced the members of an Expert Panel for review of capital city strategic planning systems to support the COAG Reform Council. Chaired by the Hon Brian Howe, (former Deputy Prime Minister and of Better Cities fame), the Panel combined members with expertise in various levels of government, academia, the private sector, design and planning.[11] The Panel is to study planning systems to make Australia’s cities more productive, sustainable and liveable.

Under a ‘Building Better Regional Cities’ banner, during the 2010 Federal Election, the Gillard Labor Government promised to invest $200 million to help establish up to 15 000 more affordable homes in 46 regional cities, over three years, and so relieve pressure on our major capital cities.[12] The party also committed to constructing a suburban rail link, partly underground, to run from Parramatta to Epping in Sydney. The cost was estimated at $2.1 billion by 2017, although it is not clear when this project will actually be constructed.

Subsequently, in December 2010, the Federal Government released Our Cities–building a productive, sustainable and liveable future discussion paper.[13] In part it examines the governance and planning of cities, and notes that most have a suite of metropolitan plans and infrastructure investment programs underway but face a lack of integration and poor strategic alignment. As well, it suggests that many administrative processes require streamlining. The paper discusses city productivity, liveability and sustainability issues and has asked for public comment by March 2011.

Local Governments, Planning Charters and Principles

Australia’s Mayors and the National Urban Policy

Given the Federal intentions, the Capital City Lord Mayors and Mayors of Australia’s major cities met on 27 May 2010 to deliver a position paper to the Federal Government to outline actions that, in their view, would help to secure the productive, sustainable and liveable future of their cities. They called for a formal agreement between the three tiers of government to collaboratively deliver better prosperity, liveability and sustainability for their cities through establishment of a Major Cities Program under the National Urban Policy. The agreement would outline objectives, criteria, funding, timeframes and reporting arrangements while governments would work with major cities to identify relevant projects for inclusion.[14]

The Strategy suggests means by which the National Urban Policy could promote an increase in density in Australia’s major cities; strengthen interconnection between our major cities; and expresses the need for a report which identifies land and infrastructure implications associated with the policy. The Strategy also urges that any National Urban Policy should promote long-term planning and investment in public transport, i.e. priority road and rail access to airports, ports and intercity and interstate rail lines required to support trade productivity. The Strategy also addresses matters of energy supply and utilisation; housing; crime; health; social inclusion; and equity matters.

Local Government and Planning Ministers’ Council and the National Planning System Principles

In a similar vein, the Local Government and Planning Ministers’ Council (LGPMC) considered these issues in a joint meeting with the Housing Ministers’ Conference held on 12 February 2010. Focusing on housing supply, the meeting noted that:

A key focus of the meeting was on increasing the availability of land for housing.... Consistent with the intent of these COAG reforms, the Joint Meeting agreed to develop active strategies to identify and progress infill and redevelopment opportunities to further boost housing supply, including affordable supply. The Joint Meeting noted the progress that has been made on reform of development assessment and approval processes....The Joint Meeting also agreed to promote greater transparency in decision-making in planning and development assessment, to promote more consistent and predictable decision making.[15]

At its previous October meeting, the LGPMC agreed to participate in the development of a National Urban Policy. This was led by the Australian Government through the Major Cities Unit (MCU). In December 2009, the LGPMC endorsed National Planning System Principles, as prepared by the Queensland Government. These address three types of national planning systems principles: purpose principles—why we plan; system principles—how we should plan; and issues principles—what issues or problems should be addressed through planning.

These National Planning System Principles state that we plan for reasons of forms, patterns and legibility, prosperity and equity, amenity and security, avoidance, amelioration and sustainability, plus community and knowledge. The system principles include integration and coordination, certainty, responsiveness, equity, efficiency, effectiveness and economy, transparency, accessibility and accountability, and community engagement. Planning issues considered include urban form, infrastructure coordination, social equity, environmental protection and restoration, resource management and security, housing choice and affordability, and sustainable transport. The Principles provide further in-depth detail on the various aspects listed above.[16]

Development Assessment Leading Practice

However, there are other aspects to planning arrangements and interests of relevant parties and, by comparison, an earlier attempt at defining appropriate planning practice was made in March 2005. The Development Assessment Forum comprising state and territory government representatives, industry and professional associations, and the Australian Local Government Association, released A Leading Practice Model for Development Assessment in Australia.[17] It described the leading practices for the national harmonisation of development assessment systems across Australia. In August 2005, the LGPMC endorsed the leading practice model as ‘an important reference for individual jurisdictions in advancing reform of development assessment’.

Leading practice number one states:

There are certain general principles which apply to the formulation of planning policy. Essentially, policies must be for a valid planning purpose and be based on sound planning principles. Policy objectives should be clearly stated and be capable of being implemented effectively … To meet the expectations of developers and the community, policy needs to be developed through the use of best practice community consultation and engagement.[18]

Earlier, the 2003 National Charter of Integrated Land Use and Transport Planning initially prescribed planning practices and committed Ministers for Transport and for Planning to work together to achieve better outcomes for land use and transport planning. Its aims were:

1.   Integrated and inclusive processes;

2.   Linked investment decisions;

3.   Increasing accessibility by widening choices in transport modes and reducing vehicle travel demand and impacts

4.   Making better use of existing and future infrastructure and urban land;

5.   Protecting and enhancing transport corridors;

6.   Creating places and living areas where transport and land use management support the achievement of quality of life outcomes

7.   Increase opportunities for access in both the present and longer term
8. A safer and healthier community

9.   Recognising the unique needs of regional and remote Australia …[19]

The Charter provided further detail on these various aims. It noted that implementation of the Charter would depend on the commitments made at all levels of government.

Such position statements are well and good but it is the resulting policy outcomes that matter. For instance, the 2003 National Charter of Integrated Land-Use and Transport Planning was endorsed by the Transport Ministers at a meeting of the Australian Transport Council on 23 May 2003 and, by the Council of Local Government and Planning Ministers Meeting in July 2003, but subsequently, their application to sustainable planning for urban growth in Australia has not been particularly noted. Indeed, such issues became the subject of the 2005 House of Representatives Standing Committee on Environment and Heritage Inquiry into Sustainable Cities.[20] There are innovative practices in urban design and planning to be found around Australia pointing to ways we can become more innovative in urban development.

External Party Positions

More financing for and governing of any new planning arrangements may well be problematic. Capital city planning needs integration across disciplines, for both short and long term horizons, identifying investment priorities and applying world class design. External comments indicate many points of view, possible conflicts, and uncertainties.

Planning Institute of Australia

In its submissions to the 2005 Sustainable Cities Inquiry, the Planning Institute of Australia (PIA) suggested a mechanism to achieve planning goals through a national sustainability charter.[21] As the peak national body representing planning professionals, the PIA proposed an ‘Australian sustainable development charter’ signed off by COAG. PIA suggested that COAG would set time bound triple bottom line targets and objectives around economic, social and environmental outcomes.

In 2006, PIA together with the Property Council of Australia (PCA), the Planning Officials Group and the Royal Australian Institute of Architects (RAIA) agreed to a national program to improve the economic, social and environmental performance of Australia’s major urban areas. Titled Sustainable Communities – a National Plan of Action for Urban Australia, the National Action Plan comprised seven propositions that were interdependent and inter-related at four key levels: governance and direction; policy recommendations; review and funding; and action mechanisms. The seven propositions related to a shared vision; national plan of action; urban action plans; sustainable communities commission; national sustainable communities fund; performance indicators; and sustainable regulation.[22]

The Liveable Communities Policy was adopted earlier by the PIA in February 2004.[23] This national policy statement outlined the case for Commonwealth engagement in national urban policy and described how this could be achieved. A 10 Point Action Plan set out a plan for Federal policy implementation.[24] Following industry and government consultation the model was enhanced resulting in a built-environment policy known as Capitalising Sustainable Communities.[25] This was endorsed by PIA, the PCA, and the RAIA. The model called for $10 billion over 10 years funded by bringing forward productivity gains from settlement patterns, resource management, transport systems and development assessment efficiencies.

Since then, the PIA has produced other policies of relevance to urban development issues such as urban design and the planning workforce.[26] A May 2007 statement on Integrated Land Use and Transport Planning was derived from the Sustainable Communities Policy and the National Charter of Integrated Land Use and Transport Planning of 2003. The PIA indicated that it:

supports integrated land use and transport planning which acknowledges that transport and development are not two separate things but two facets of the same challenge (i.e. transport is land use planning). Fundamentally, PIA supports an integrated planning and decision making framework where land use planning processes fully account for the transport implications and requirements of our towns, cities and regions. PIA supports transport planning and decision making that has due regard to the land use and development implications of these activities. PIA supports an integrated planning and decision making framework that considers cost effective and efficient and sustainable movement of people and freight, and a focus to reduce car dependency and subsequent emissions.[27]

The December PIA 2007 Statement on Urban Growth Management (UGM) urged Federal Government provision of greater leadership and support for UGM and in particular the promotion of successful UGM models.[28] A long series of recommendations followed.

More recently, the PIA Housing Position Statement of 25 February 2010 called for ten actions to provide access to good quality housing to all citizens, with a focus on housing stock, land release and social inclusion:

Planners, in conjunction with allied professionals, are uniquely positioned to shape sustainable functional communities that must include adequate supply of housing in close proximity to employment, public transport, community facilities and services. Planners enable diverse housing options through managing our urban development to adapt satisfactorily to changing lifestyles, an ageing population and shifts in the labour market. Housing policy must address housing choice, design, provision of green space, location and proximity to services, which all collectively contribute to ensure sustainable communities.[29]

Australian Council of Built Environment Design Professions

Another viewpoint can be taken from the Australian Council of Built Environment Design Professions (BEDP), a peak organisation representing over 96 000 architects, engineers, planners, quantity surveyors, lighting designers and landscape architects throughout the nation. These professions form a nucleus of the built environment design consulting industry. The July 2009 report Transforming Australian Cities for a More Financially Viable and Sustainable Future, jointly commissioned by the Victorian Department of Transport and the City of Melbourne, considered issues of transportation and urban design focusing on the controversial issue of urban densification.[30] It proposed that Urban Corridors along with Activity Centres, together accounted for only six per cent of the land area within the Melbourne Urban Growth Boundaries, would need to become known as the most desirable locations for new urban development.

More recently, the BEDP April 2010 National Sustainable Settlement policy said that:

Within Australia, significant leadership has been demonstrated across all levels of government in relation to sustainable settlement, through a wide range and scale of initiatives targeting carbon pollution reduction, energy efficiency, emissions trading, renewable energy, infrastructure and water.

The national Sustainable Settlement policy should build on such existing initiatives and provide support to them—by locating them within an integrated national framework.[31]

The BEDP called for a national Sustainable Settlement Policy to provide an integrated overall framework for governments to work within and link to urban related policies for design, smart cities, sustainability charters and built environment policies. The BEDP strongly urged Australia’s Federal and State Governments to act rapidly through COAG to provide a central, integrated vision for a sustainable future and to implement a national Sustainable Settlement policy that will guide a consistency of approach in all settlement development across the nation.

Independent Organisation Submissions

In May 2010, the Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council released its Cities for the Future report as a call to federal, state and local governments that swift, decisive action was required to deliver better transport systems in Australia's cities.[32] The analysis suggested that, without action to change the way people live, work and play in our cities, our transport challenges would only get worse. The study examined two locations, Greater Melbourne and the fast growing South East Queensland conurbation, and found that urban centres will become more transport-intensive and less transport efficient and that transport outcomes are likely to deteriorate, while the need for mobility and its costs will increase. The report focused as a consequence on urban consolidation.

In June 2010, a review Spotlight on Australia’s Capital Cities: an Independent Assessment of City Planning Systems by KPMG found that more effective urban planning arrangements were needed.[33] The report measured each capital city against the performance criteria for effective city planning adopted by COAG on 7 December 2009 and provided an overall ranking. Criteria included budget performance, population planning, housing affordability and traffic congestion. The report made recommendations for an expanded Federal Government role in urban policy and the establishment of metropolitan authorities in capital cities with powers over planning processes to facilitate land release and infrastructure priorities. The report provided commentary on the planning status of each of the capital cities.

Airport Planning

Responding to local issues concerning inappropriate building around airports, in late 2009, the Government announced its intention to strengthen relevant airport planning arrangements, including coordination between different levels of government, and to require greater transparency on intended land uses and developments at city airports.[34] Planning Coordination Forums will be established for each capital city major airport. Major airports will be required to establish Community Aviation Consultation Groups and there is to be a requirement for developments with significant community concern, to pass through a Major Development Plan assessment.

Capital City and Regional Planning Schemes

This section looks briefly at the metropolitan planning and governance arrangements in place in cities across Australia. The State of Australian Cities 2010 report noted that:

Although there are many models for metropolitan planning and governance, these can be summarised into statutory and cooperative approaches. A statutory approach to governance means that there is a regional government with powers to create regional laws or by-laws. Similarly, a statutory approach to metropolitan planning means that once a regional plan is agreed upon it becomes law. Statutory metropolitan planning can be undertaken by a regional government; or collaboratively by a number of governments and legislated by an overarching government.

A cooperative approach to regional governance means that smaller local authorities work together to achieve mutually beneficial goals and objectives. Any agreements made would be subject to follow through by each participating government. Similarly, the implementation of a cooperative regional plan would be subject to the statutory powers of the cooperating authorities.[35]

Planning Legislation

The Productivity Commission’s Issues Paper for the Performance Benchmarking of Australian Business Regulation: Planning, Zoning and Development Assessments reports on the operations of states’ and territories' planning and zoning systems and lists relevant Acts.[36] The report notes that that each state and territory has its own legislation that covers planning and provides for the zoning of land within broad frameworks. As a result, there are different regulatory systems for land use developments in each Australian state and territory.

Urban and regional planning in Australia involves all three levels of government and regional links, with a distinction between plan making creativity and plan regulatory implementation. Over 600 local planning jurisdictions exist in Australia, with many permutations of policies. There tends to be a planning act for each state and territory with a plan existing for all cities. An SBS television program of 2 March 2010 on ‘Housing 36 Million’ in population is a good summary of city regional planning schemes, as is the State of Australian Cities 2010 study.[37]

Australian Planning Practice

There are a number of innovative practices in urban design and planning to be found around Australia; the following is a small selection.

RMIT planning initiatives

New Ideas for Australia’s Cities was a 2007 document that stemmed from an urban affairs summit of academics from RMIT University and the University of Tasmania, with a central focus on the absence of state-federal policies over the past decade in the area of urban design and planning.[38] The paper focused on cooperation and consensus on urban policy to address issues of affordable housing, urban land management, urban infrastructure, transport, health impacts, ageing, social cohesion, communities, crime and culture.

‘Re-Imagining the Australian Suburb’ is a ten-year research program being developed by the RMIT University Centre for Design in collaboration with industry partners in state and local governments and the housing industry in Victoria.[39] The program currently consists of separate, but mutually supportive research projects that will further develop the capacity of the Australian residential property development industry to plan and manage new developments for improved ecological, economic and social sustainability outcomes.


Another example was the Australian Model Code for Residential Development (AMCORD), as published by the Australian Government in 1995, which now serves as a reference document for planners.[40] It was produced to assist practitioners at the time to advance the planning, design, assessment and implementation of low-rise housing. It comprised two parts:

  • AMCORD: A National Resource Document for Residential Development—a set of guidelines to be adopted by States, Territories and Local Government; and
  • AMCORD: Practice Notes—supplemented the guidelines with detailed case studies and other supporting information.

Since AMCORD was published, most jurisdictions have reviewed and updated their planning systems to reflect current approaches and best practices. Users are advised now not to rely on the information contained in AMCORD but can refer to their local council or State or Territory planning authority for advice on current planning policies and regulations.

In the case of Canberra, the ACT Planning and Land Authority claims to have implemented sustainable planning practices for the new Lawson and Molonglo suburbs. It is said to be committed to achieving excellence in sustainable design and development in the Molonglo Valley, with walkable neighbourhoods and good access to services and facilities, including fast and frequent public transport, community facilities and recreational opportunities.[41] The Authority’s vision for Lawson south is to achieve a liveable, sustainable ‘urban village’ that minimises impacts on the surrounding environment and maximises the positive attributes of the suburb.[42] The plan for Lawson envisages a well connected, integrated and compact neighbourhood, where residential densities are higher than in surrounding established suburbs to achieve more sustainable development and residential choice. Despite these noble sentiments, one is forced to question the likelihood of “excellence in sustainable design” being achieved in isolation from the rest of a city which has extended sprawl and is still poorly served with public transport.

CSIRO Urban Systems

CSIRO's Urban Systems research program brings together multi-disciplinary teams to develop new technologies and approaches to promote more sustainable urban planning and design outcomes. Current research activities include: high performance buildings and infrastructure, integrated urban design and development, sustainable and healthier building integrated models to represent the current urban systems performance.

CSIRO research is working to transform water, energy and waste management within our cities as well as building design and infrastructure planning to more sustainable configurations that will maximise the liveability and long-term health of our urban environment.[43]

The Designer's Atlas of Sustainability from CSIRO explored the basic principles, concepts, and practice of sustainable design.[44] The book tackled not only the ecological aspects of sustainable design but also the economic and cultural elements involved. The atlas was neither a how-to manual nor collection of recipes for sustainable design, but a compendium of approaches to sustainability that designers can incorporate into daily thinking and practice.

Planning Application and Issues

Notwithstanding such practical initiatives, the silo structure of relevant state instrumentalities may have tended to act against any integrated approach to sustainable planning. These traditional silos of professional expertise may have led to limited responsibility being taken for urban management outcomes, and lacked coordination for the integration of planning and transportation. For example, a previous Parliamentary Library paper outlined many of the issues facing urban transport planning in Australian Cities—Commonwealth City Commuting: the Federal Role in Urban Transport Planning noted some, such as urban congestion, public transport subsidisation, urban consolidation versus sprawl, to conclude:

It is possible the Federal Government could become involved in urban transport planning, in a shared responsibility with the States, through pricing, regulatory and funding arrangements. These could include fuel taxes, pollution charges, new car fees and funding of public transport, as well as initiatives to facilitate interest in sustainable planning.....Australia is perhaps the only OECD country without a national policy covering urban issues, despite the need for innovative sustainable urban development programs. If one emerges, then it may be viewed with a large measure of scepticism, unless it is finalised with a minimum of delay and is seen to deliver outcomes acceptable to both urban dwellers and those who are professionally involved in the development and management of our cities. Otherwise it will remain as simply all too hard.[45]

Commonwealth oversight in city and regional planning may be here, but many of the crucial city problems remain. For business and transport infrastructure services, Sydney in particular, is slipping in performance and efficiency levels (The 2008 NSW Parliamentary Library paper Transport Problems Facing Large Cities provides a useful recent summary of these issues.[46])

Generally though, Australian cities usually rank well for quality of life in international surveys, as the State of Australian Cities report points out. The urbanisation of the Australian population and structure and form of urban settlements and housing preferences has implications for the environment and sustainability particularly from urban sprawl and on the urban fringes. With an urban sprawl versus consolidation debate the SOAC 2010 report noted:

The major cities of Australia have relatively low concentrations of population and dwellings. This feature of settlement has given rise to concerns about the unsustainable nature of ‘urban sprawl’. In response, state governments have adopted planning policies to encourage greater urban consolidation, which is seen as a means of achieving a number of environmental objectives, including: reduced competition for land; lower resource use, particularly energy; reduced greenhouse gas emissions from transport; reduction in waste generation; and, improved health outcomes through an increase in active transport (that is, cycling and walking)...However, the debate relating to the sustainability outcomes of urban consolidation is considerably polarised. Low population and dwelling concentrations typical of suburban developments on the outer fringes of cities are argued to be inefficient in terms of resource use and the costs of infrastructure provision, encourage automobile dependency and transportation costs, produce higher greenhouse gas emissions, and gives rise to health costs related to inactivity... Proponents of typical suburban developments point to the lifestyle choices and opportunities offered by this type of development including open space and amenity, and that urban design and technological improvements can reduce resource consumption and greenhouse gas emissions.[47]

In his pro-market critique of planners’ interventions in national housing markets, Alan Moran questions planning restrictions and limits on land supply around our cities that he claims are applied to create an unattainable fancy dream of idealised dense urban areas.[48] He prefers a means for far fewer zoning restraints, a reduction in mandatory charges for land development and reduced rights of those in neighbouring properties to prevent property-owners from selling, subdividing, or redeveloping their land as they see fit. These controversial matters are too broad to be examined in this paper. Moran’s paper does provide a useful potted history of town planning legislation by city both here and overseas, and discusses house price increases.

The June 2010 Cities We Need report from the Grattan Institute noted our planning impasse, by suggesting that planners have not actually greatly determined urban form, possibly due to the levels of metropolitan governance involved:

Local governments were mostly set up during the 19th century, and provide a range of basic services, roads, waste, and community, recreational and cultural services. With the exception of Brisbane, where 20 local council areas were merged in 1925 to form the City of Brisbane, local government is particularly fragmented in Australia, despite some amalgamation in the 1990s (for example, reducing the number of councils in Adelaide from 30to 19). This contrasts with local government in British cities, which is relatively un-fragmented, with major cities covered by one or two major councils plus a few others at the fringes. It shares some features with cities in the US, where a large central-city council is often surrounded by dozens of small suburban councils, each responsible for raising its own revenue and providing a full range of services....Australian cities might end up looking quite different if they met the full range of our needs – but if we are willing to be bold, we could imagine and then bring into being the cities that we need. ‘Boldness’ in this sense does not mean a radical top-down change, or stronger central planning. Indeed there are some senses in which ‘not planning’ is very important.[49]

International Planning Trends

There are, however, moves to implement a more centralised and top-down approach to planning using more Commonwealth involvement and COAG actions. Perhaps more cooperative decision-making is needed, as that occurring in Britain or Europe?

As with Australia’s planning systems, a 2006 Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) report on Competitive Cities in the Global Economy stated that:

Cities are key components in a territorial development strategy. A well-rounded national economic strategy cannot ignore the spatial structure of the economy, or the qualities and characteristics of cities that affect economic performance, social cohesion and environmental conditions. Whether a city is growing slowly or rapidly matters less than whether local and national governments are prepared to develop policies and guide investments appropriate to its needs and potential. But national urban policies in the past have been reactive and remedial, not pro-active and dynamic. Not only must urban issues be given greater visibility and higher priority in national policy but also new policies may be needed at national, regional and local levels. Governments at all levels must re-examine their roles and responsibilities and explore ways to foster synergies in a collaborative framework.[50]

Similar problems can be identified elsewhere and the United Nations Settlements Programme report Planning Sustainable Cities: Global Report on Human Settlements 2009 summarised the international state of urban planning as follows:

There is now a realization that, in many parts of the world, urban planning systems have changed very little and are often contributors to urban problems rather than functioning as tools for human and environmental improvement. Against this background, the Global Report’s central argument is that, in most parts of the world, current approaches to planning must change and that a new role for urban planning in sustainable urban development has to be found. The Global Report argues that future urban planning must take place within an understanding of the factors shaping 21st-century cities...An important conclusion of the Global Report is that, even though urban planning has changed relatively little in most countries since its emergence about 100 years ago, a number of countries have adopted some innovative approaches in recent decades....One important message is that governments should increasingly take on a more central role in cities and towns in order to lead development initiatives and ensure that basic needs are met.[51]

An alternative view is that of the London-based Future Cities Project that rejects the increasingly bureaucratised approach to architecture and urbanity.[52] It opposes centralist intervention and notions of urban sustainability in favour of progress and development. This paper does not attempt to reconcile these points of view, but acknowledges their existence.


United Kingdom

The United Kingdom (UK) Government’s 2007 White Paper ‘Planning for a Sustainable Future’ noted the unwieldy nature of that country’s complex planning system:

1.16 Over the years we have built up, incrementally, a body of national planning policy which is too voluminous, complex and unwieldy for those that use it. National planning policy on economic development is out of date. The result is that local authorities and others can find it difficult to take account of all the relevant policy considerations or may adopt an overly cautious approach rather than one that positively encourages sustainable economic development or the development of renewable energy sources.[53]

The UK House of Commons Library Key Issues for the New Parliament 2010 overview on ‘Planning and Major Infrastructure’ pointed out these problems and suggested some solutions to planning and major infrastructure systems. It noted that, (given the traditional planning system that involved specific legislation, public inquiry and centralised decision making):

The old system was seen as too slow for major infrastructure projects of national importance. There were several major criticisms of this process. Public inquiries became very long, lasting several years in controversial cases, despite attempts to improve the procedures. The Secretary of State could reject the inspector’s recommendation, without necessarily having studied the issues very closely. Furthermore, a Secretary of State’s decision under one piece of legislation for part of a project might not remove the need for planning consent from the local planning authority.

The Planning Act

The Planning Act 2008 changed the position completely: Major infrastructure projects of national importance required just one type of consent, “development consent”, removing the need for consent under several different pieces of legislation.[54]

The legislative changes involved draft consents being granted by a new Infrastructure Planning Commission, after its consideration of written submissions but with no public inquiry, in line with the relevant National Policy Statement. The drafts would be open to public consultation before approval by the Secretary of State. There has been some criticism of the new Planning Act 2008 as being less democratic, and so the issue of new infrastructure consents is likely to be a major one for the new UK Parliament. Business will want decisions taken without delays and objectors would want their views taken into account, while the public will demand modern infrastructure.


The paper Urban Sustainable Development and the Challenge of French Metropolitan Strategies, by Philippe Hamman, notes the inherent difficulties of urban sustainable development in France, in that there is a complex and variable set of linkages involved.[55]

Given such complex situations, the OECD Cities, Climate Change and Multilevel Governance paper of December 2009 sets out the complex consensual tasks ahead. The OECD paper presents a framework for multilevel governance, with both vertical integration and to encourage cross-scale learning between relevant departments or institutions in local and regional governments through a horizontal dimension. Clearly there are many options possible:

Cities represent a challenge and an opportunity for climate change policy. As the hubs of economic activity, cities generate the bulk of GHG emissions and are thus important to mitigation strategies. Urban planning will shape future trends and the concentration of population, socio-economic activity, poverty and infrastructure in urban areas translates into particular vulnerability to increased climate hazards. City governments and urban stakeholders will therefore be essential in the design and delivery of cost-effective adaptation policies. Further, by empowering local governments, national policies could leverage existing local experiments, accelerate policy responses, foster resource mobilization and engage local stakeholders.[56]

United States

The organizational structure of United States metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs), the current state of the practice for regional decision making among MPOs of various sizes, and approaches to integrating a wide array of additional considerations into the MPO planning process are some of the current North American planning issues. These are considered in the US Transportation Research Board’s August 2006 Conference Proceedings 39: The Metropolitan Planning Organization, Present and Future.[57] The conference also examined approaches to institutionalizing an integrated approach to comprehensive planning, and development of relationships with local decision-making bodies within the MPO region.

Expanding on this, the February 2010 Congressional Research Service (CRS) report, Metropolitan Transportation Planning, noted that, in the United States, national requirements applied to city planning policies:

Federal law requires state and local governments to designate a metropolitan planning organization (MPO) in each urbanized area with a population of 50,000 or more to help plan surface transportation infrastructure and services. There are currently 381 MPOs nationwide. Despite some strengthening of their authority over the years, MPOs have generally remained subordinate to state departments of transportation (DOTs) in the planning and selecting (“programming”) of projects using federal surface transportation funds. Moreover, it can be argued that at the metropolitan level MPOs are subordinate to local governments that own and operate many elements of the transportation system, and also control land use planning and zoning.... The two major requirements of every MPO are the preparation of a long-range, multi-modal Metropolitan Transportation Plan (MTP) covering a minimum period of 20 years, and a Transportation Improvement Program (TIP) covering four years. The MTP must be updated at least every five years, or four years in areas with air quality problems, and the TIP must be updated at least every four years …[58]

Accordingly, there have been arguments whether or not to grant MPOs more powers over the planning and programming of projects that use federal surface transportation funding. The MTPs include assessment of transportation supply and demand and infrastructure investment strategies. Some observers argue that MPOs have failed because they are beholden to ‘smart growth’ proponents, such as developers and planners who favour densification of urban areas. The paper provides further in depth policy discussion on such issues, to address city planning issues in America.


Recently in the context of the debate over a sustainable population for Australia and its cities, the effects of urban growth have become a prominent topic. Balancing the impacts of urban development for an expanding population gives rise to issues of energy use, land availability, transport systems and infrastructure planning. These issues have also been canvassed in two separate papers prepared for the Parliamentary Library by Bob Birrell and John Stanley, focusing on population growth, sustainability and transportation issues respectively.[59] [60]

The Australian Greens in November 2009 announced a policy for sustainable planning and transport. This included the establishment of a national report card for development targets and building standards; a Sustainability Fund; and national urban planning standards.[61]

The November 2009 conference paper Paradigm lost or paradigm regained?—current Australian metropolitan strategies’, by Raymond Bunker (City Futures Research Centre, University of NSW), compared the types of planning that had occurred around the nation by examining the major strategies formulated for the mainland state capital cities since the Second World War.[62] He found that an Australian paradigm of metropolitan planning evolved over the years of the ‘long boom’ from the end of the War until the 1980’s. The recent metropolitan strategies formulated for Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and region, Perth and Adelaide needed frequent replacement and association with a changing spectrum of associated policies and programs with which they needed to connect to be effective – in infrastructure, transport, water and energy use and management, and housing. Bunker mentioned population forecasts and the need to fully study housing and labour markets, transport needs, location studies, and planning frameworks.

In a 2010 ‘Letter to the Editor’, of the PIA journal Australian Planner, academic Bunker together with Kristian Ruming derided the real purpose of Commonwealth intervention in urban planning, stating that, what they considered to be:

conspicuous in this new urban agenda (at least compared with previous interventions) is the lack of a clear overarching vision of philosophical foundation, together with related actions and initiatives....The new urban agenda introduced by Kevin Rudd seems to rest on a number of triggers: climate change, global recession and the global financial crisis, housing affordability, failing mass transit systems and population growth. However, the complex conceptual links, drivers and relationships between these and other factors remain undefined....The (COAG) criteria for future strategic planning of capital cities are unexceptional and comprise a list of concerns, issues and kinds of initiatives which it could be largely claimed are already addressed or implicit in current strategies. However there are half a dozen that point to a more cooperative, strategic and multi-layered approach to capital city planning systems.[63]

They go on to list the need for integration across land use and transport planning functions; a consistent hierarchy of future orientated and publicly available plans; clear identification of priorities for investment and policy effort; coordination between all three levels of government; plus appropriate evaluation and review cycles. No doubt such academic critiques of Commonwealth intervention into city planning will continue afresh for some time to come, along with the debate over urban densification versus open development.


Thanks are due to Peter Hicks, Ann Rann and Matthew Thomas for their comments.


[1].      Infrastructure Australia (IA), State of Australian Cities 2010, Major Cities Unit, IA, Canberra, 2010, viewed 7 September 2010, http://dpl/Books/2010/InfrastructureAust_StateAustCities2010.pdf,

[2].      Ibid., p. 1.

[3].      B Howe, ‘Reflecting on better cities: the Plenty Corridor Area Strategy’, Australian Planner, vol. 38, no. 1, 2001, p.  38, viewed 7 September 2010, http://parlinfo.aph.gov.au/parlInfo/download/library/jrnart/IHV36/upload_binary/ihv365.pdf;fileType=application/pdf

[4].      K Carr (Shadow Minister for Housing; Urban Development; Local Government and Territories), Australia’s future cities: Labor’s discussion paper on urban development, housing and local government, December 2005, viewed 7 September  2010, http://www.alga.asn.au/policy/planhouse/FutureCities.pdf

[5].      K Rudd (Prime Minister), ‘Building a big Australia: future planning needs of our major cities’, speech to the Business Council of Australia, 27 October 2009, viewed 7 September 2010, http://parlinfo.aph.gov.au/parlInfo/download/media/pressrel/LC2V6/upload_binary/lc2v60.pdf;fileType=application/pdf

[6].      COAG Reform Council, ‘Capital cities strategic planning systems’, Reform Council website, viewed 9 December 2010, http://www.coagreformcouncil.gov.au/agenda/cities.cfm

[7].      Council of Australian Governments (COAG), Communiqué, Brisbane, 7 December 2009, and Attachment B, http://www.coag.gov.au/coag_meeting_outcomes/2009-12-07/docs/20091207_communique.pdf, viewed 7 September 2010.

[8].      Council of Australian Governments (COAG), Communiqué, Brisbane, 7 December 2009, and Attachment B, p. 20, viewed 7 September 2010, http://www.coag.gov.au/coag_meeting_outcomes/2009-12-07/docs/20091207_communique.pdf, .

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[12].    Australian Labor Party (ALP), ‘Building Better Regional Cities’, ALP website, viewed 15 December 2010, http://www.alp.org.au/agenda/regional-cities/ and ‘Infrastructure investment to move Sydney forward’, 11 August 2010, ALP website, viewed 8 September 2010, http://www.alp.org.au/federal-government/news/infrastructure-investment-to-move-sydney-forward/

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[16].    Local Government and Planning Ministers’ Council (LGPMC), National planning system principles, report prepared by the Queensland Government for the LGPMC, December 2009,  http://www.lgpmcouncil.gov.au/publications/files/National%20Planning%20Systems%20Principles.pdf, viewed 7 September 2010.

[17].    Development Assessment Forum (DAF), A leading practice model for development assessment in Australia, DAF, Canberra, March 2005, viewed 15 December 2010, http://www.daf.gov.au/reports_documents/leading_practice.aspx,

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[19].    Australian Transport Council (ATC), ‘National Charter of Integrated Land Use and Transport Planning’, 2003, ATC website, viewed 7 September 2010 http://www.atcouncil.gov.au/documents/files/National_Charter_ATC_MAY_03.pdf,

[20].    House of Representatives Standing Committee on Environment and Heritage, Inquiry into sustainable cities, the House of Representatives, Canberra, September 2005, viewed 15 December 2020, http://www.aph.gov.au/house/committee/environ/cities/report.htm

[21].    Planning Institute of Australia website, viewed 15 December 2010, http://www.planning.org.au/

[22].    Planning Institute of Australia (PIA), Sustainable communities a National Plan of Action for Urban Australia, PIA, Canberra 2006, viewed 7 September 2010, http://www.planning.org.au/documents/item/252,

[23].    Planning Institute of Australia (PIA), Liveable communities how the Commonwealth can foster sustainable cities and regions: a national policy statement by the Planning Institute of Australia, PIA, Canberra, 2004, viewed 7 September 2010, http://www.planning.org.au/documents/item/257,

[24].    Planning Institute of Australia (PIA), Liveable Communities: PIA’s 10 point plan for Commonwealth engagement in sustainable cities and regions, PIA website, viewed 15 December 2010, http://www.planning.org.au/documents/item/258

[25].    Planning Institute of Australia (PIA), Capitalising Sustainable Communities A Program for Urban, Regional and Rural Australia, December 2004, PIA website, viewed 15 December 2010, http://www.planning.org.au/documents/item/251

[26].    Planning Institute of Australia (PIA), ‘National Position Statements’, PIA website, http://www.planning.org.au/policy/national/national

[27].    Planning Institute of Australia (PIA), Statement on integrated land use and transport planning, May 2007, PIA website, viewed 7 September 2010, http://www.planning.org.au/documents/item/245,

[28].    Planning Institute of Australia (PIA), Urban growth management, 1 December 2007, PIA website, viewed 7 September 2010, http://www.planning.org.au/documents/item/254,

[29].    Planning Institute of Australia (PIA), Housing position statement, 25 February  2010, PIA website, viewed 7 September 2010, http://www.planning.org.au/documents/item/243,

[30].    Transforming Australian cities for a more financially viable and sustainable future: transportation and urban design, City of Melbourne, Melbourne, July 2009.

[31].    Australian Institute of Landscape Architects (AILA), Sustainable Settlement, April 2010, AILA website, viewed 15 December 2010, http://www.aila.org.au/policies/docs/sustainable.pdf  

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[35].    State of Australian Cities, op. cit., p. 126.

[36].    Productivity Commission, Issues Paper, op. cit., p. 9.

[37].    ‘Housing 36 million’, Insight, transcript, Special Broadcasting Service (SBS), 2 March 2010, viewed 15 December 2010, http://news.sbs.com.au/insight/episode/index/id/167#transcript

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[39].    MIT University, ‘Re-imagining the Australian suburb’, RMIT University website, viewed 15 December 2010, http://www.rmit.edu.au/re-imagining

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[47].    State of Australian Cities 2010, op. cit., p. 88.

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[50].    Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Competitive cities in the global economy,, OECD Publishing, Paris, 2006, p. 27, viewed 8 September 2010, http://dpl/Books/2007/OECD_CompetitiveCities.pdf

[51].    United Nations Human Settlements Programme, Planning sustainable cities: global report on human settlements 2009, Earthscan, London, viewed 8 September 2010, http://dpl/Books/2009/PlanningSustainableCitiesAbridged.pdf

[52].    ‘The Future Cities Project’ website, viewed 8 September 2010, http://www.futurecities.org.uk/,

[53].    United Kingdom, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and Secretary of State for Transport, Planning for a sustainable future: white paper, command paper 7120, HMSO, London, May 2007, p. 13, viewed 15 December 2010, http://dpl/Books/2007/GB_PlanningforaSustainableFutureWhitePaper_id1510669.pdf

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[58].    W J Mallet, Metropolitan transportation planning, Congressional Research Service, Washington, D.C., 3 February 2010, summary, viewed 8 September 2010, http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R41068.pdf,

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[61].    Australian Greens, Sustainable Planning and Transport, Australian Greens Policy Statement, viewed 8 September 2010, http://greens.org.au/policies/sustainable-economy/sustainable-planning-and-transport.

[62].    R Bunker, ‘Paradigm lost or paradigm regained? current Australian metropolitan strategies’, State of Australian Cities (SOAC), Proceedings of the 4th National Conference, Perth, W.A., November 2010.

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