News from the front desk: Issue No 334 – on why there’s nothing like a crisis to focus the mind

There is the most charming video online on our site at the moment from Josh Byrne.

If you only watch a few videos this Easter (or any) make sure you watch this one.

It’s a glance into an early iteration of a sustainable community housing project in Adelaide created in the dim dark days of the late 90s when trying to design and build passive solar with sustainable materials was about as hard as it could get.

Dr Louise Crabtree of Western Sydney University, who has done her PD on sustainable community-housing and knows the project designer Paul Downtown well, says for instance, there was no such thing as a PVC free piping. Hard to believe, right?

“Christie Walk is beautiful, and a poignant example of the need for affordable options,” she told us in an email exchange after our newsletter with a story on the video went out on Tuesday.

Thing is that this development with 27 dwellings housing for about 40 people also tried to be affordable. But that wasn’t so easy.

In the early days of sustainability aiming for high ecological outcomes meant you needed deep pockets.

Louise Crabtree

Everything was hard to get and together with the high end ecological and social justice objectives, it slowed down the project, and drove up costs to complete, “despite the thousands of hours of sweat equity that went into the project via hundreds of volunteers and the extreme overwork of their core group,” she says.

“So many of the delays were because of when the project was occurring,” she says. “A lot of what they were doing was outside of the industry.”

“A lot of the sustainability materials didn’t exist or were incredibly costly. It was very hard to source everything, and it slowed everything down.

“Trying to get plumbing that was PVE free for instance: it didn’t exist.

“Thankfully a lot of the costs have come down as the industry and supply chains have evolved, but it was heartbreaking to see it unfold.”

Today it’s prime real estate because people increasingly understand how fabulous it is to live there not the least for the beautiful productive gardens and serene community atmosphere in the internal part of the project.

Part of its desirability too is low energy costs, about half the average according to Byrne on the video.

Another project that touched Crabtree’s heart during her studies was Pinakarri in Fremantle,

The proponents were an existing community of friends and activists “who wanted to articulate something of their objectives, she told us in a follow up phone call on Thursday.

“They partnered with the state so they could have a third private equity and two thirds public rental housing.”

The interior is car free and has permaculture and there is a common house, a big shared kitchen and lounge room and guest room.

But again the going was tough– so tough that some of the proponents on the design side – who’d been working in community housing for years abandoned any more similar work. Overly anxious bureaucrats also made the power sharing proposition impossible and the project sadly doesn’t have solar on its roof.

Yet another favourite for Crabtree is the K2 apartments in Melbourne which have on site waste water treatment.

K2 was notable for its individual metering so that residents could be educated to actively monitor and control their usage of energy and water, critically important if they are on low incomes and the bills go up.

“This kind of learning, how to run a house, is important at all levels of affordability”, she says, so that you can avoid people “cranking up the heat and sitting inside in their t-shirts”.

“When ecological design started to emerge there wasn’t much concern around the affordability because everything was expensive and bespoke, for the upper end of the market.

“Now the costs are starting to come down and there is emerging awareness in thinking how people can lower their bills.”

Mainstream now

What Crabtree has noticed over the years is that many of the ideas of the early communities have percolated to the mainstream. Especially in terms of with solar orientation and the idea of shared space.
A big one is normalising on site solar systems.

Equity issues

We mention that equity is another issue that’s moving more into mainstream thinking.

There’s nothing like a crisis to focus the mind, Crabtree quips, referring the housing crisis of escalating prices in Sydney and Melbourne.

She points to the Millers Point backlash to government moves to remove long standing public housing from a desirable part of Sydney and says the strength of reaction has taken many people by surprise.

“Millers Point really startled a lot of people in terms of seeing a big public asset being lost from the public estate, so this has triggered a lot of people into thinking about the politics of the city.”

The strength of feeling might also feed a potential emerging backlash to the proposal to demolish the Waterloo towers in Sydney’s inner city, flagged on the front page of Fairfax newspapers this week.

There’s an old saying that pioneers are the ones with arrows in their backs.

But the pioneers also get a lot of kudos from those in the know. Crabtree is in awe of their achievement on these projects.” Excellent people, big hearts, and phenomenal determination”, she says.

Truth is that Crabtree herself is a pioneer.

With others in her team at Western Sydney University she’s forged a new community title ownership toolkit to help communities set up their own alternative developments, the Australian Communities Land Titles Trust Manual.

It focuses on land title and governance issues primarily but an update about to come soon will also incorporate financial information.

It’s a toolkit, she says, on how a community can work out the goals it wants to aim for and the kinds of legal and governance frameworks that can help deliver these.

“A lot of start ups that want to set themselves up in this space are looking at the interconnectedness of sustainability, community benefit and permanent affordability,” she says.

There are no pre-requisites, “Choose your own adventure” is how the authors like to promote the toolkit, she says.

So how’s the appetite for this kind of alternative housing?

“It’s snowballing.

“It’s something people are increasingly interested in primarily because the market as it’s currently configured isn’t able to provide the things that people need and we know there is ongoing noise around affordability and how we do density well and people are starting to really want to have a say in the city.”

Most of the demand is coming from Melbourne.

But there is noise “all over the place; people with bits of land here and there, lots of people thinking about this.”

As Crabtree says, there’s nothing like a crisis to focus the mind.

NSW suffers week of serious transport woes

It hasn’t been a good week for the NSW government, and no, we’re not talking about the extremely questionable decision to sell off our Land Titles Registry.

We’re talking about transport. You know, the thing that’s supposed to get us around efficiently and create attractive, productive cities. Well, that’s if you do it properly. But the signs aren’t good for this government.

First there was Monday’s explosive revelation that the government had given a directive to transport officials to ignore public transport alternatives to major toll road projects.

The major example was a public transport option that would relieve congestion between Sydney and Wollongong through a pretty straightforward intervention that could shave half-an-hour off the 90-minute journey between the two cities. And all for $10 billion less than the government’s proposed congestion buster – the F6 motorway.

That’s shocking enough, but the document uncovered by the Sydney Morning Herald revealed that this potentially wasn’t the only project where the public transport option had suffered an early death. It was suggested that extensions of WestConnex – the Western Harbour Tunnel project and the Beaches Link tunnel – had received similar treatment.

Those battling against the ever-growing WestConnex behemoth were understandably upset by the revelations, particularly as a perceived failure to consider public transport was one of their initial concerns.

“These latest revelations prove that the transport planning process in NSW has been completely corrupted,” Westconnex Action Group spokesperson Rhea Liebmann said.

“Every business case should include a thorough assessment of the alternatives to the project being proposed – especially when we as taxpayers are footing the bill.”

Ms Liebmann said residents of NSW could not have faith in a government that ignored public transport in favour of tollways whose benefits went to private companies that also happened to be large party donors.

Opinion of the government’s transport credentials only got worse when Google this week announced it no longer wanted to be the lynchpin of the government’s vision of the Bay’s Precinct being transformed into a high-tech hub.

Why? Because there’s no public transport, and it’s not going to come fast enough to suit the tech giant’s employees’ needs.

Sydney Lord Mayor called Google’s departure an “indictment of the state government’s inability to put transport infrastructure in place to enable development”.

She said making the Bays accessible would have been easier had the government not tied up so much off its transport budget in the $16.8 billion WestConnex (not to mention the ever-increasing off-shoots).

Labor meanwhile has been pushing for the disused Glebe Island bridge to be reopened, which would put the Bays within a 10-15 minute walk or ride of the CBD. An UrbanGrowth artist’s impression in 2015 imagined the bridge as also including light rail infrastructure.

The government says it is remains committed to developing White Bay Power Station as a technology and innovation hub, but we wonder whether any tech companies will be interested without public transport

 

More Articles on this Topic