Perth ripe for change but transport, funding hurdles remain

01/09/2014 - 11:18


Save articles for future reference.

FEATURE: Architecture and planning professionals have some innovative solutions to the challenges Perth faces in reaching the world's top five most liveable cities.

Perth ripe for change but transport, funding hurdles remain
GROWING UP: Steve Woodland says Perth has considerable opportunity to define itself as an internationally significant centre. Photo: Attila Csaszar

Architecture and planning professionals have some innovative solutions to the challenges Perth faces in reaching the world's top five most liveable cities. 

Perth is already considered, relatively speaking, to be a pretty good place to live.

It is ninth best in the world, according to The Economist economic intelligence unit’s annual liveability report, released earlier this month.

In a period of massive redevelopment and urban upheaval, Perth managed to maintain its position in the top 10 most desirable cities on earth.

While Perth still trailed other Australian capitals, including Melbourne (first), Adelaide (fifth, in a tie with Canada’s Calgary), and Sydney (seventh), it’s clear the most isolated capital city in the world is punching above its weight.

Cox Howlett & Bailey Woodland director Steve Woodland, who was the state government's official architect until last year, said there were many reasons to believe Perth would soon be able to climb the rankings.

He said part of that optimism was driven by the city’s transformational projects – Elizabeth Quay, Perth City Link, Riverside and Perth Stadium.

“We’re clearly going through the most substantial reshaping of the city we've ever seen,” Mr Woodland told Business News.

“It’s not just about growth of the city, it’s not just about more of the same, it’s actually fundamentally recalibrating how we experience the city.

“Increasingly, people around the globe are seeing that, and seeing Perth as one of the cities of the future for this century.

“While we have plenty of challenges in front of us, people are looking at us and they’re looking at where we’re heading.”


Not the least of those challenges is a simple one – getting around Perth.

The results of a Property Council of Australia liveability survey of 626 Perth residents released earlier this year were a lot more critical of the city than The Economist, ranking it nation’s second-least liveable city.

A major contributing factor to Perth’s liveability woes, according to the people who live here, is the time spent in gridlock, not only on the Mitchell and Kwinana freeways, but also on most of the city’s major connecting highways and roads.

Mr Woodland said congestion was all part of the growing pains in becoming an internationally significant city.

He said the challenge was not to build more roads, but instead to find alternative ways to move people around Perth.

“We’re never going to see empty streets again, that’s just not our city any more,” he said.

“Light rail clearly is really our next key move in a transport sense.

“It’s not just about moving people, but what light rail does is it changes the way people live and work, it changes the way you experience and move around the city.”

The burning issue for the cash-strapped state government, which recently suffered the ignominy of its second credit rating downgrade by a ratings agency, is the high costs associated with building a light rail network.

In December last year, (then) treasurer Troy Buswell announced the construction start for the government’s plan to run a tram line out from the city to Mirrabooka had been deferred until 2019, in order to free up $432 million to spend on other projects.

The total project cost for the MAX Light Rail proposal was estimated at $1.88 billion, but the state government is pouring that kind of money into a different public transport plan – the $2 billion Forrestfield Airport Link.

While acknowledging the airport link would provide a significant economic boost, the attendees at a recent Business News boardroom forum were unanimous that the light rail network should be a higher priority for the state government.

Hames Sharley chairman Bill Hames said a light rail network would give developers certainty to proceed with medium and high-density mixed-use developments along transport routes, in accordance with the state government’s planning guidelines, Directions 2031.

But he was also scathing in his assessment of the government’s approach to the light rail solution, saying it had “lost the plot” in regard to its cost.

“The one beautiful thing about light rail is you can do it incrementally,” Mr Hames said.

“You don’t have to build a billion dollar railway, just build 10 kilometres. It will become a bipartisan policy if you build the first 10 kilometres.

“Just start it.”


POW WOW: Dominic Snellgrove (left), Lex Barnett and Anna Kelderman discuss Perth’s future at the Business News boardroom forum.  


Private funding

Rowe Group principal and managing director Greg Rowe said the government needed to take a further step to ensure it could develop a light rail network in a cost effective manner.

While he credited the idea to TPG Town Planning Urban Design and Heritage managing director David Caddy, Mr Rowe said the private sector had a role to play in the funding of public transport upgrades.

He said a state government agency should take control of development for the first 100 metres around major transport routes, and install a levy for projects that exceeded a certain scale, to raise funds to expand or improve the transport network.

“The notion is there is a give back,” Mr Rowe told the Business News forum.

“(The levy) funds either the light public transportation or it funds the public benefit.

“We’d straight away have a planning control agency that looks after density, delivering it where it is supposed to be, along transport corridors.

“But there has to be a commitment to put the levy back into that precinct or project.

“If Stirling Highway, or Canning Highway is your model, have discreet statutory delivery mechanisms for those alignments.”

Mr Rowe said a similar scheme was already in place in New South Wales, around the North Sydney train station.

“You can effectively buy plot ratio,” he said. “Unashamedly, after a certain point it's dollar per square metre, but it all goes back to North Sydney station.”

Taylor Burrell Barnett managing director Lex Barnett said there was currently a lack of a financial model that would work for the state government, and a development levy to allow increased density would also benefit developers through higher returns.

“It’s not just public-private partnerships, which we don’t do well, but if the government were to take on a planning control approach to the major thoroughfares, they can leverage a return off the investment in the rail,” Mr Barnett told the forum.

“The problem with the delivery of public transport infrastructure, particularly rail infrastructure, is the funding and financing is left to the Public Transport Authority, and they have a model that requires a return through passenger numbers.”

Even a light rail network wouldn’t solve all Perth’s major infrastructure issues, according to GHD Woodhead urban planning and design manager Anna Kelderman.

Ms Kelderman said a major constraint to increasing residential and commercial density, even around transport routes as mandated by the state government, was essential services infrastructure, including water and power.

“We’re not pre-funding infrastructure either,” Ms Kelderman said.

“So we might get the light rail, and we might get the planning controls that allow it all, and then someone says ‘you can’t build it because there’s not enough wastewater infrastructure below the ground’.”

Cameron Chisholm & Nicol managing director Dominic Snellgrove said local government authorities were also dropping the ball on the government’s target of 47 per cent of new housing to be built in established areas.

He said Perth was on the tipping point of a fundamental lifestyle shift towards apartment living, and state and local governments needed to understand and plan for that eventuality.

“They really need to push for the public transport infrastructure projects that are required, like the light rail, because if they don’t we’re going to fall behind this tipping point,” Mr Snellgrove said.

“History is telling us that we have to densify around public transportation nodes and we’ve got (Directions) 2031 telling us what we should and shouldn’t be doing.

“But unfortunately it’s the poor old developer, the designer and the architect that are having to go in and fight from the bottom up, project by project, against councils that are resisting it tooth and nail, in the face of state government advice.”

Ms Kelderman said the shift was largely being driven by a desire to avoid congestion, with apartment buyers surprised by the quality of life experienced living closer to the city’s burgeoning entertainment and restaurant scenes.

“They’ve discovered it’s annoying to be in the car, they’ve discovered there’s a better way to do it and they’ve decided to go with an apartment,” she said.

“People have become surprised by the fact that it’s actually enjoyable, and they’re building a whole series of activities around themselves … so it’s shifting very fast.”

Chasing Melbourne

Part of the solution to the congestion issues could push Perth closer to Melbourne at the top of the world liveability rankings.

Mr Caddy said the important thing to understand about Melbourne’s rise to become the world’s most liveable city was it was based on a residential revolution similar to what was just emerging in Perth.

“There was investment in the city centre, they brought apartments on, they increased the density and all of the interesting things followed the residential densification,” Mr Caddy said.

“So if we’re looking to achieve the same kinds of qualities in Perth, we need to see a greater focus on residential densification within the CBD, so it’s the resident population demanding all those things.”

Another factor that set Melbourne apart from many other cities is its clear, yet increasingly varied, culture and identity.

Melbourne is often lauded for its comprehensive laneway culture, its eclectic mix of new and old, the coffee shops, the art, the fashion, the die-hard football fanaticism, the eccentric and the expensive.

Hassell principal Andrew Low said the danger of having three transformational projects under way at the same time – in Elizabeth Quay, Perth City Link and Riverside – was the possible emergence of stale, monoculture precincts.

He said a key focus of the Metropolitan Redevelopment Authority, which is overseeing the transformation, should be on keeping the commercial-residential mix diverse and varied.

“If they are very monocultural in their outlook, if it’s all commercial or predominantly residential, then I think we'll get problems and we’ll be trying to unbuckle them like they’ve done in the Docklands in Melbourne for a long period of time,” Mr Low said.

“The MRA has to hold its nerve a little bit and actually demand a variety of uses across the day.

“Riverside is going to be predominantly residential with commercial, and the Link is going to be predominantly commercial with some residential, instead of having the capacity to jumble them a little bit more.

“That’s what worries me about the Link, because it’s going to be the space that overflows from Northbridge, and Northbridge is a completely different character.

“It’s a fantastic character and they want to try and weave those two together and I worry about the connection that comes through there, that it could become a bit monotonous.”

Mr Woodland said ensuring the current wave of development had cultural, creative and educational dimensions was a key challenge for the city, with planners needing to be careful not to lose the richness unique to the state.

“Western Australia has an extraordinary reputation in creative terms across all sorts of disciplines, whether it’s visual arts, performance, music or fashion,” he said.

“We need to somehow create a city that illustrates that creativity on the streets.

“It’s not just about public art necessarily in foyers and lobbies, it’s about creative streets, streets that have things going on, interesting artwork, interesting creative evidence on the streets.

“That’s probably something we haven’t got to grips with yet; we’ve thought of our streets and roads as being engineering tasks when in fact creating a street should be a creative task.

“Even though we have to deal with cars and deal with the pragmatics of movements, making them an experience is important.”


Subscription Options