A guide to achieving good precinct planning outcomes

21 May 2015 | Posted In: #125 Winter 2015, Planning and Built Environment Issues, Planning in Inner Sydney, | Author: Roderick Simpson | Author: Peter Phibbs | Author: Julie Walton | Author: Mike Harris

Areas are being hived off for planning outside the regular planning pr ocess . University of Sydney academics Roderick Simpson, Peter Phibbs , Julie Walton and Mike Harris provide some key principles to guide such precinct development with a special emphasis on the Bays Precinct.


The very notion of “world’s best practice” in planning and urban renewal is oxymoronic if it is expected that international practice will pro­vide a readymade template, because best practice will always be respon­sive to local conditions; social, eco­nomic, political and environmental. These conditions change, and so best practice would also allow adaptation to changed circumstances. This is why it is worth attempting to distil the prin­ciples, rather than components from successful international precedents.

Why planning principles are important

There is a crisis of trust in NSW in relation to planning. In response, the community often calls for certainty, as does the development industry. However in the recent past neither detailed master plans nor have water­tight agreements and commercial deals proven satisfactory. How then do we deal with changes that may be desirable during the protracted period that urban renewal requires? A clear statement of principles provides the flexibility to deal with unforeseen changes while providing assurance that the whole process is on track and in accordance with the agreed values. If changes and decisions are explained, transparent, and the result of participatory processes, then trust may be restored.

Firstly we need some overarching principles that set out what we are trying to achieve. Some may be high-level – the public interest for example; some may be detailed – for example maximise public access.

Secondly, we need to have principles about governance: how, about what and by whom decisions are made.From a review of domestic and inter­national projects it is clear that the most well regarded projects have carefully considered governance. In particular, it is clear how the public is included in all stages of the planning, delivery and ongoing operation of these major urban renewal projects. These projects are successful because greater participa­tion has led to a sense of ownership and fostered varied, engaging and attractive precincts. These are projects that have become highly desirable places to live, work and visit.

Thirdly, we need principles about good planning. Lastly, we need prin­ciples about ongoing operation and management. The clear definition of principles should aim to overcome the principal criticisms of major urban renewal projects identified in the paper by Mike Harris, A Global Review and the Australian Context, University of Sydney Festival of Urbanism 2014.

Overarching principles


1. Precedence must be given to the public interest as the overarching principle governing renewal of the Bays Precinct

Defining what is in the public interest is not straight-forward. The question of “which public?” arises immediately – the local community or the broader public that is made up of the citizens of the city or the state? What was clear from the summit was that a narrow focus on short-term financial return, in similar urban renewal projects is not in the public interest.

The definition of the public interest in relation to the Bays Precinct overall, and in relation to individual compo­nents will be the subject of ongoing debate and discussion. The public is capable of understanding the compet­ing priorities of government if there is an open process where the trade-offs and priorities are made clear. Such a process will rebuild trust.

2. Public engagement and participation

The public must be able to fully engage in all stages of the planning process, including discussion of, and decisions about, proposed major developments. Consultation is not enough. It is impor­tant to recognise that this principle is not a call for greater democracy for its own sake, but is based on the evidence that projects that have had more transparency and public participa­tion have also had greater legitimacy, less community resistance, and have proven to be more successful with richer more diverse places than those that have not. Extensive engagement with the public needs to extend from the vision and the plan through to implementation and operation.

3. Define the non-negotiables and clearly state the process for any revision

For every project, there will be some non-negotiables that will be specific to the context. It is important that these are defined, or negotiated at the outset, so that from that point on they are understood and respected. The identification and definition of these non-negotiables is important because it means they are not subject to the same evaluation methods as other aspects of any proposals; they are givens.

Examples of non-negotiables that might apply to the Bays Precinct: Maxi­mizing public access to the foreshore, or the retention of lands in public owner­ship are examples of the non-negotia­bles that might be defined as givens at the beginning of the process. Over time conditions may change and even these non-negotiables may need to revisited, but if they are, it should be done in an open and participatory way, never behind closed doors.

4. Arms-length governance and accountability

The establishment of a semi-au­tonomous implementation body, with representatives of all levels of government, the local and broader community and technical experts has particular merit, and has proved effective both in Australia and inter­nationally, as evidenced by many of the presentations during the Summit. This is not a call for additional levels of government, quite the opposite. It is a means of achieving three objectives.

  • By setting out the desired outcomes (such as affordable housing and environmental performance) though the participatory and transparent processes, and having these expressed as the objects of the organisation, the organisation is then not subject to the narrowlyfocused, recurrent project evaluation methods of government. These objects would also form the basis for the corporate reporting of the effectiveness of the organisation’s activities – is it doing what it has been asked to do. A degree of auton­omy is also needed to insulate the organisation from the political cycle, which would be the case if the wider community can see the worth and effectiveness of the organisation.
  • By being place specific it can require the integration and coordination of activities by various agencies, as well as being having the depth of knowledge and expertise required to management a complex and rich place: corporate knowledge and an interdisciplinary approach is essential for place management.
  • By having the power to reinvest it is able to take a long term view andcapture value, effectively hypothe­cating revenue for the development of the place.

One of the frustrations the community has experienced with Barangaroo is the difficulty in finding out what the current plan for the precinct is and how it has changed from the original concept plans. The development of a suitable monitor­ing framework for the Bays Precinct would help renew public trust in the planning and development process.

Principles for project formulation

5.  Establish the process and form of governance for community and public engagement

Define a comprehensive and ongoing engagement process that involves multiple communities and inter­ests as one of the first activities. In deciding the form and nature of this engagement the Community Charter for Good Planning provides a range of useful ideas. One of the first activities should be the initial expression of the public interest as it relates to the Bays Precinct.

6.  Respond to the strategic context and evaluate in terms of public benefit

Redevelopment of the Bays Precinct should provide what Sydney needs. The scale and limited occurrence of megaprojects and large precincts demands a clearly defined strategic rationale at the city, state and at times national level.

Is the megaproject a means to address identified issues outlined in existing planning documents, includ­ing the Metropolitan Strategy? Are there strategic issues relating to the retention of a working harbour? Most importantly, given the difficulty of addressing some of the major issues confronting the city, has the effective­ness of the megaproject, as opposed to alternative strategic investments been evaluated?

The best way to demonstrate that the project has responded to the stra­tegic context is to set out a number of alternative visions, configurations and scenarios for the project, and evaluate them in term of the public benefit. (Principles 1 and 3).From the definition of the public good (Principle 1 and 4) it should be possible to assess the relative public benefits of different options.

7. Optimisation of public investment Explicitly measure the impacts of alternative configurations and scenar­ios for the megaproject in relation to public infrastructure. Define an eval­uation framework and select alterna­tives that generate the best return in terms of outcomes per unit of public infrastructure investment.

Principles for Planning

These principles are more specific. If an open and transparent planning process is established it is appropriate that these initial principles can be changed and adapted over time. This is the key difference with successful govern­ance arrangements in international examples and the closed commercial processes that are typical in Austral­ian projects. The conclusion from the review of international projects (Harris 2014) is that these closed processes lead to sub-optimal outcomes.There are two type of planning prin­ciples – principles that should guide the planning and principles that begin to set out some of the outcomes that are expected on the site.

Guiding Principles

8.  Divide the Area into a number of precincts and include fine grain subdivision

Allow for as many authors as possi­ble: authenticity depends on many authors. The existing city is the mate­rial accumulation of the individual actions of many actors over many years, for new parts of the city to feel integrated these areas must allow similar processes to occur.Such an approach guarantees diver­sity in housing outcomes and the built form. Dividing the area of the megapro­ject into a number of precincts or plots also enables a diverse range of devel­opment companies and designers to participate in the development process. Although it may make sense to develop some large precincts in a single devel­opment, there should be a fine grain legacy subdivision at the end.As a guideline: no single developer should be give exclusive rights to an entire street block.

9.  Iterative and incremental development

That big ideas can be delivered in small increments emerged as a recurring theme of the Summit and has been identified previously.Incremental development of individ­ual parts within an overall planning framework (versus the closing off of large areas, and handing over to single developers), not only reduces risk and financial exposure, it also develops trust and demonstrates good faith. Early precincts should include those which deliver significant public benefit.

10. Connect the precinct physically and with the life of the rest of the city

Planning for the precinct should begin by thinking about and defining the public domain – the streets, the pedes­trian networks, and the open spaces which will connect the Bays Precinct to the rest of the city. This involves consideration of transport, the amount, type, quality and distribution of open space, and the design of the edges between the new and existing neighbourhoods in order to encourage activity and interaction. Tapping into community aspirations and needs is key, and this may be started early by opening the site for transitional, temporary and interim uses.

11. Leverage major projects

Many large urban renewal projects have been anchored by major events (Olympics, Expo) or buildings (Bilbao). This principle can be extended to all major works. Proposals for all major capital works should consider syner­gistic effects and how they might contribute to other objectives: for example, a road should not simply be a road; it should be part of the green network, direct views, provide vistas and contribute to a comfortable pedes­trian environment.Working with what exists through creative adaption and re-use of key heritage items such as the White Bay Power Station and the Glebe Island Bridge fits with this princi­ple. Deciding whether there needs to be, and what should be the iconic anchor in the Bays Precinct would be a fruitful, open city-wide discussion.

For example, the iconic Philharmo­nia at HafenCity is well known, but arguably the location and role of the HafenCity university has been more influential, pervasive and major bene­fit to the social and economic develop­ment and positioning of the area.

12. Determine the most appropriate allocation of risk with the objective of maximising public benefit

Widen public benefit prospects by minimising up-front developer costs and de-risking while sharing ultimate up-lift. The point here is the lowest cost/highest return short-term deal is not necessarily the best deal in the long run. This also raises the question of investing in an area and waiting for the value to accrue before divestment.

This in turn is related to the asset recy­cling approach of government – the ques­tion is whether the Bays Precinct is an asset for recycling or an asset for further investment with the aim of increasing the value through private investment.

In the latter case government should be holding on to the asset until the optimum value is reached (as opposed to an early sale).

Expected Outcomes

13. Land retained for public use A significant proportion of all the Bays Precinct lands must be retained for public use. In the case of the Bays Precinct this is likely to include continuous public access to the fore­shore. There should be no alienation of the Bays Precinct foreshores from public access by sale or long term lease. Clearly, access needs to consider both waterside and landside activity. Rather than stipulating a particular, uniform minimum width, consideration should be given to the desired character and function of the foreshore including the building frontage and activation, permeability and connection landside, and a variety of recreational activities.

14. Affordable housing

A high priority should be given to the inclusion of social and affordable housing for low and moderate income households as a significant element of any residential uses. International projects of similar size and location require between a 20 per cent and 50 per cent affordable housing component.

15. Environmental performance Major renewal projects, and particu­larly redundant industrial brownfield sites, provide unique opportunities for rectifying and improving the envi­ronmental performance of adjoining existing urban areas, including water cycle management, clean and low carbon decentralized energy produc­tion, sustainable transport and reduc­tion of the urban heat island effect amongst many others.

These systems may require the establishment of dedicated manage­ment organisations of some form, and these are common in many similar international examples.

16. Accessibility

The new precinct should be highly accessible to pedestrians, cyclists and public transport users, not just to car drivers. Transit connections should be frequent, fast and convenient. The area when developed should have a high walk score For example in a site like the Bays Precinct with obvious road transport constraints that may mean restricting development in favour of land uses which generate lower motor vehicle impacts (such as housing with restricted parking opportunities).

Principles for implementation / governance

17. Bureaucratic minimalism

The principle of subsidiary is that deci­sion-making should be undertaken at the lowest level possible, and that the number of government bodies required to be involved in the decision should be minimised. The establishment of sepa­rate government delivery and manage­ment agencies should be confined to where ownership arrangements or multi-party coordination is necessary, which has been and remains very apparent in the Bays Precinct. At the completion of the project or sub-pre­cincts, control should be devolved or handed back to the normal govern­ment and governance processes that apply to adjoining areas.

Notwithstanding this, there may be an important and valid role for ongo­ing planning, reinvestment, curatorial and management role in relation to aspects such as leasing, environmen­tal systems, utilities, affordable hous­ing and tenancy policy.

18.Separation of development and approval roles

There must be a clear distinction between the development authority and the planning consent authority.

This article is based on work commissioned by the City of Sydney and follows The Festival of urbanism at Sydney university where a series of talks and conversations on planning and making our cities focused in 2014 on Megaprojects including Sydney’s Bays Precinct. It is reprinted with permissions and was originally published by The Fifth Estate at www.thefifthestate.com.au/articles/a-guide-to-precincts-the-bays-in-particular-to-achieve-good-outcomes/70572

Roderick Simpson, Peter Phibbs, Julie Walton and Mike Harris are from The University of Sydney.