How Julie Bindon and Sydney evolved together

UDIA NSW Life Member Julie Bindon has been a part of Sydney’s evolution for the last four decades. Her career has also evolved, starting out as a planning consultant to becoming an Acting Commissioner of the NSW Land and Environment Court. Ms. Bindon spoke to UDIA NSW about planning in Sydney and where we need it to head in the future.

The Evolution of Sydney

Precinct-sized projects like Central Park and Barangaroo can have a truly transformative effect on the city. There is a flow on effect to development around these precincts – they create a domino effect.

When I first started working on Central Park it was a fully operational Carlton United brewery. The brewery was huge, very disruptive to the urban fabric and a major barrier to the southern end of the City. It was a high-walled, closed block with very poor permeability and a major barrier to the other end of the City. Behind it, Chippendale was largely isolated. It kind of killed that end of the city, and yet it was virtually next door to Central Station. Redevelopment of this significant site was hugely important to reconnecting that part of the city and maximising its locational attributes.

The community and the council started out opposing the project, but with good community consultation and the delivery of the promised open spaces, excellent design and revitalisation of the site’s heritage assets, they came on board. Done well, genuine community engagement is beneficial for all parties. Frasers [Property Australia – the proponent of Central Park] has done an excellent job of working with the community and along with the new residents. I think its fair to say the community supports the project as a major improvement to the area.

Central Park is one of the best redevelopment precincts in the world by any standard. It shows we can definitely do it here in Sydney. The key is that Sydney keeps its own character and identity: that it doesn’t start looking like other cities around the world. We must make Sydney’s evolution “authentic to place”. Sydney does have a strongly evolved character, especially around the harbour, but I think we need to focus on the other centres in the Metropolitan area and untap their unique attributes.

My interest in planning can probably be traced back to when I was seven years old and embarked on my first aeroplane flight, by myself, which was very exciting. I was sitting by the window and clearly remember flying over the towns and the cities, being fascinated by that moving birds eye view of what was happening beneath me. The roads, the houses, the parks, schools and town centres, the ports, the farms and the forested hills – this whole patchwork picture laid out. I still find that fascinating. From that point onwards, I had an interest in what made all of this system work.

When I started to study town planning in earnest I soon realised it wasn’t just what can be seen from above, or at the more mundane street level, that counted. The less visible forces of planning law, economics and politics were highly relevant to what made a city tick. After practising planning for a while I became particularly interested in the vital role economics played in the evolution of a city, even at a project by project level – if the economics didn’t work, there simply was no project. So I went on to do postgraduate studies in land economics at Sydney University.

I feel like I’ve had a dual career, one in planning and one as a business woman. I was always interested in being a business woman and had an opportunity to become an owner and director in a consulting firm (Scott Carver Architects and Planners) when I was 30. From then on I learnt more and more about business management and still find the whole ‘business of business’ very interesting. Setting up JBA, and running it for many years, was a fascinating process that required a different knowledge base from that of urban planning. Although creative thinking, complex problem solving and decision-making skills are essential to both, as well as a breadth of understanding across a whole range of interconnecting elements.

In the early days of JBA (now Ethos Urban), I focused on the urban planning content and delivery of service to clients. I had to be really across the planning law and issues. As the business got bigger, I became more and more specialised within the business. We could afford to hire or outsource more business functions. I could also delegate more of the day-to-day planning tasks to other planners as the other planners’ expertise increased. Ultimately, my prime responsibility to my clients was to be across the technical planning issues. As an expert, others were relying on my skills and expertise for the success of their own businesses.
Now, as an Acting Commissioner [at the NSW Land and Environment Court] I am free of running a business. I don’t have to think about cash flows, OH&S or all of the stuff that goes with that. Although I am fortunate in being able to continue my passion for business through my role on the board of Essence Project Management. What I find gratifying about my work in the Court is that it brings together my passion for good urban planning and development with my deep interest in statutory planning. A lot of people don’t understand the relationship between the myriad of urban policies and the statutory plans that implement them. In Court, I get to bring all of my experience together within the over-arching legal framework.

The Future of Sydney

It seems to me that increasingly Sydneysiders, especially those under 40, understand the need to increase densities, provide alternative types of homes, high amenity neighbourhoods and good public transport. They understand that urban living can be a great lifestyle choice. Governments, planners and those in the development industry all need to keep explaining the constantly evolving dynamics of cities and bringing them along with that by creating great urban areas.

There also needs to be a choice for people. Not everybody wants to live in low density traditional suburbs, and not everybody wants to live in the apartments either. We are fortunate in Australia that we can offer a huge range of housing choice to people, but we do have challenges with affordability and access. People don’t want to be spending a long time commuting and they can’t afford to spend a disproportionately high amount of their income on housing.

To help communicate the real benefits of urban living and for density to succeed we need to have good demonstration projects like Central Park. These examples of good urban development don’t happen without significant multi-disciplinary skills and perseverance. Residential projects have been supported in NSW by SEPP 65 which raised the bar and greatly improved the quality of urban housing. Other States lament the fact that they don’t have something like SEPP 65. Before SEPP 65 was introduced in the early 2000s, there was a lot of community backlash about the horrible apartments that were going up. Raising the design bar through legislation has really helped Sydney to accept higher density urban living.

It’s true however, that SEPP 65 can also constrain innovation. A lot of floor plans are now based on cookie-cutter templates that are compliant, but not necessarily the most ideal design. We need to be aware that SEPP 65 is a guideline only that can and often should be applied with greater flexibly to achieve better outcomes. It was never designed for highrise, high-density situations and we are sometimes getting perverse outcomes in developments driven by compliance with the Apartment Design Guide’s numeric provisions. For example with the solar access and natural ventilation figures. In my opinion we need a ‘new chapter’ in the ADG for high-rise high-density development.

BASIX has been very successful because it allows some flexibility on the part of the owner or developer to decide how they want to achieve an acceptable total environmental performance. SEPP 65 could be improved dramatically if a similar ratings tool approach was adopted such that designers were given the same kind of flexibility. We need to be much more sophisticated in delivering urban amenity and design excellence if Sydney is to continue to grow and evolve successfully. Cities don’t stop and neither must we.