As one of the first generation of Australian urban designers, I have had the advantage of seeing many successes, and the odd failure, over 30 years of practice. This includes watching regional cities like Geelong, Bendigo and Shepparton develop over time. My professional work as an urban designer has mostly been as a private practitioner working for government and private clients, but especially for local government, over the last decade or so. I would like to raise three key issues:
Plans plans and more plans, but little action
The extent of adopted consultant studies and plans already on the shelf in Victoria that are not being funded, implemented or monitored is a real issue and waste of urban design effort. Over the last decade there have been many hundreds of consultant-prepared urban design studies for regional Victorian cities and towns.
Unlike planning strategies, they are not finished when they become part of the planning scheme. They need to be funded by public or private money and followed through to the management stage. It is my impression that as little as 5-10% of these urban design strategies get implemented before they are forgotten or considered out of date. There are lots of reasons for this, but it needs careful monitoring by the State Government. It is inefficient use of consultant effort and also discouraging for communities who are often involved with developing design proposals.
Regional councils lack urban design literacy and consistent application over time
Urban design strategies are not getting implemented because regional councils lack long term involvement of urban design champions. Except for the three largest regional cities in Victoria, there is a lack of design-literate senior managers, CEOs or councillors and they change jobs regularly these days. Most of these people are efficient responsible managers but that does not bring much needed vision for significant change.
As a result, our regional cities generally mimic the least desirable, and least sustainable, aspects of major cities. Car-dominated public spaces and mediocre suburban and lower density lifestyle expansion are the norm. Crass suburban shopping centres and big box retail typically develop on the fringe, always with free surface car parks. They tend to suck the energy and commercial life out of traditional centres that often become more car-dominated to compete.
Changing such trends requires great urban design vision consistently applied over decades.
Current local government procurement methods are a major limiting factor on the quality of professional consulting services.
The current all-prevailing local government tendering process is a major barrier to enabling experienced consultants to provide useful cost effective advice over time.
One possible partial solution could be to introduce urban design advice as a higher level ongoing consultant service in a similar manner to the role heritage architects have so effectively provided to local government over the last 20 years.
The other solution I would suggest is the closing of local government contracts departments, or at least excluding them from any role in consultant procurement.
Delivery of consistent, cost effective consultant services over many years was possible, and even common, before compulsory competitive tendering. The current system now wastes huge amounts of professional time, increasing costs for Councils and consultants, and making continuity of advice virtually impossible.
This is an elephant in the room that no one wants to confront, and it seems that the best that can be done is try to find ways around it. The use of consultant registers and expression of interest processes, before short-listing to say three tenderers, are possible strategies. They seem to be very rarely used and when they are they are used, they are rarely consistently applied over extended periods because of internal council staff change.
This is an issue that deserves independent evaluation by the Local Government Associations together with State Governments.