Master planning for sustainable outcomes

31 October 2018 | Posted In: #134 Spring 2018, Planning and Built Environment Issues, Planning in Inner Sydney, Urban Development, | Author: Rob Roggema

Master planning for sustainable outcomes

The systems for roads and transport, water and ecology, energy, social interaction and communications are all part of a master plan. Rob Roggema explores how you can achieve more sustainable outcomes in master planning these systems.


Whenever an area is developed, or redeveloped planning has to be undertaken. Planning happens in different phases and at different scales.

The design for a garden is, as everyone can understand, something completely different than the design of a regional plan for the entire Sydney basin. Every type of plan has its own detail, and its own elements it is giving insight in. So, it is obvious the design for the garden requires the plan to give detail on the sorts of plants, the types of pavement and other furniture used in the garden. For a regional plan it must be clear where and how many roads will be planned, the number and densities of housing and where the waterways and green structures will appear.

What is a Master Plan?

The Master Plan is a category of plans that is somewhere in between the regional plan and the plan for your garden.

A Master Plan is a plan that can be made for a range of scales, but it nearly always will make clear in the plan what the main systems and structures in an area are, what the planned quantities and qualities are, and what the framework is for further spatial design. Generally, a Master Plan will provide the masses of urban elements, such as buildings and shows where public space of what size and type will be realized. In each of these parts of the Master Plan sustainability aspects can and need to be included.

In a Master Plan you will not find any detailed solution or design proposal.

Systems and structures

The systems and structures in an area are extremely important because they determine the main spatial lay-out of an area.

The systems considered are generally the road and traffic system, the water and ecological system, the energy system and the social and communication system. For each of these, major decisions need to be made as to how these need to operate. And each of these systems can be made more (or less) sustainable.

A more sustainable traffic system prioritises cycling and walking over the use of a car, prefers public transport over solo-use and will stimulate the use of renewable resources for the energy needed to run the traffic system. Also, the size and number of roads is minimised in a sustainable Master Plan in order to give more space to nature and people.

To create a water and ecological system that is sustainable all the water used in an area is minimised, but once used the waste water will be fully recycled. Rainwater is collected and stored as long as possible and made available for reuse. The ecological system profits from an abundant water system as nature needs water to flourish. Additionally, trees are required in abundance to create the habitat for species, and to provide shade for people. It may be clear that in a sustainable Master Plan the space for water and ecology is maximised and forms the main connective structure in the city.

The energy system can be made sustainable in different ways. To start with, the energy provided to the residents needs to be generated from renewable resources, the use in general needs to be minimised and waste energy needs to be reused if possible. At the same time energy will be lost if it needs to be transported over longer distances, hence (hyper)local energy generations is preferred. The local potentials for renewable energy, such as solar, hydro, wind and geothermal, may determine the location of land use that requires heating, cooling, electricity for their operation. Electricity intensive uses can be best positioned close to where electricity (solar, wind) can be maximally generated.

Once the energy is provided to a neighbourhood the distribution should be conducted in a smart way. If one household does not use its full capacity, that energy can be used elsewhere. Via a smart grid the optimal use at different times during the day and night can be negotiated to reach the most sustainable result. When energy is generated using renewable resources as close as possible to where it is used, this will generally be the more sustainable option. It is clear that in the master plan the potential resources must be identified, located and at best, determine the land use

The social and communication system is dependent on networks to become sustainable. These networks can be virtual and, as everyone experiences, require fast internet, but must also consist of daily encounters and face-to-face contacts with neighbours and friends close by. Both systems of network require space in the area. The more space and connections are made available and possible the more sustainable the Master Plan is.

Each of these systems require infrastructure to function. The place where these systems manifest themselves in physical structures determines the way the area is experienced and how sustainable it can become. For instance, if a neighbourhood is dominated by car infrastructure this is not very sustainable and does not makes a very pleasant impression. When an area is dominated by green and water structures and people have easy access to these places, the neighbourhood is more sustainable and makes a pleasant impression.

Each of the systems in its most sustainable way of operation, requires the spatial structures to make these sustainability ambitions reality. The Master Plan is the planning document to provide the spaces needed for this.

Quantities and qualities

A Master Plan should also indicate what quantities of which quality should be realised. This is the case for housing, green and water, and many other functions.

The quantities of housing will for instance determine the density in a certain area. But the quality will determine how this density is realised, as this can be done in many different ways. The balance between higher and lower densities is important here. Higher densities deliver environments that can afford higher investments in public spaces, pedestrian spaces and separate bike paths.

These environments can be located next to and around train or metro stations and the high quality of the public space will attract retail and leisure functions. It is important that these areas also provide the space for green and water storage, for instance on top of other functions (roofs, facades, etc). A more relaxed environment with lower density housing, such as detached, low-rise profiles are generally quieter and require less extensive investments in public spaces. In these areas there is more space for water and ecological zones.

These kinds of typological differences need to be determined in the Master Plan. In every case, when the balance of quantities and qualities is made, the sustainability factors need to be an inherent part of the way these typologies are projected. It often happens that the typologies are no more than a housing typology (high rise, rows, terraces) in a certain density, but the way water, energy, green and social networks are arranged is then forgotten. This should be organised in the Master Plan.

Framework for spatial design

After the systems and structures and the quantities and qualities are decided, the spatial manifestation of these elements is important to design well. The design includes how build masses are positioned and how light, sun, rain and heat can be accommodated/mitigated in the city. This spatial framework will not in detail design how each and every street, house and park will look, but it will indicate how the hierarchy of spaces is shaped, how streets are connected and how the relationships are arranged between private and public space.

Moreover, the typology of green and water spaces is visualised in an integrated plan for the buildings, public and private space. This spatial framework is an integral part of the Master Plan and will provide the guidelines for detailed designs of buildings, parks, waterways, streets, squares, energy generation and nature areas. In the next stage after the Master Plan these detailed designs, for neighbourhoods, or individual elements will be designed in great detail.


In the case of Waterloo, the Master Plan needs to be made for the redevelopment of the area. This implies the plan cannot be made from scratch such as a greenfield location can. This also means that some elements are fixed, while other can be changed or completely renewed. The final system achieved should be exactly the same as for a greenfield location.

The first essential step is that the systems and structures of mobility, water, ecology, energy and social aspect are made as sustainable as possible. Systems should be translated into structures that require space. Even if there is no water visible, it should be made clear that water requires additional space in the main structure of the redevelopment.

In the second step the quantities and qualities need to be brought in to balance. It is obvious that a location such as Waterloo will always be an area of higher densities. But this doesn’t mean there is only one choice for a certain high-rise typology. And if highest densities are planned, it is important to pay extra attention to the design and quality of the public space to still be able to realise the spaces needed for a sustainable water, ecological and social infrastructure.

The last element of a Master Plan for Waterloo would be the spatial framework in which the aforementioned elements are spatially represented in a logical, moreover beautiful, urban design. In this framework the sustainable systems and qualities must be represented and used to formulate the guidelines for further detailed design projects.

Rob Roggema is Professor, Sustainable Urban Environments, University of Technology Sydney.