Oh no, not another master plan…

Master plans can be useful things that need a dose of pragmatism, a sprinkle of vision, wads of engagement and a prescription for reality…

There has been a bit of an argument in my office regarding ‘master plans’ and ‘master planning’.  Are they the same? Is it one word or two? How do we solve word peace with a master plan?

Well, in my job I do a lot of them. After all, I work for a city council, it’s almost expected we do a lot of them for many, many things.  Master plans (see below) can be useful things, as I shall outline. However they are things that need a dose of pragmatism, a sprinkle of vision, wads of engagement and a prescription for reality.

Firstly though, the word ‘master plan’?  Is it one word or two (i.e. ‘masterplan’ or ‘master plan’)?

Secondly is it a verb, noun or an adjective (an action, thing or describing word)?

According to the Macquarie Dictionary, and fortunately for me, it is two words, and it is a noun.  So no argument there then. The process of creating a master plan (not masterplanning, it doesn’t have an entry in the dictionary) has in effect, the same outcome – to create ‘a comprehensive plan, often lacking details on individual items, but providing an overall picture’. Look up ‘plan’ and the description includes all the words you might hear in this space.

So why are master plans created?

Master plans are as much about a process of sorting stuff out in a spatial or process sense, as planning a product.  They reflect a point in time and usually broad aspirations as much as guiding outcomes and things we can deliver.  Many argue they are good for delivery, and indeed this can be a feature of a good master plan.  We can also use the process to plan a process for anything. A wedding. A city. Winning a tender. Planning a space. Buying something. Creating a plan. Doing something for anything.

In the public sector, they are arguably political and democratic documents, reflective of a need for broader planning and strategy of a place, reflecting policies of one or all tiers of government.  Elected officials require master plans to shape policy, strategy, engage voters, change minds, create investment, and deal with land in government ownership. Essentially, they are about generating a better city/suburb/town/place based on opportunity.

In the private sector, they facilitate expenditure efficiently, guide shareholders and stakeholders, stage investment, and create certainty of outcomes.

In the hands of people who can guide and develop the process, they are very useful documents and effective.  They provide the basis of talking to people, sounding out ideas, capturing comments and opinions, and providing aspirations. Good master plans are easy to read, largely graphic based, provide information and reflect the aspirations of an area.

For example, a master plan for a major precinct in any of our cities explores the possibilities for a site and posits a future and outcomes. One of the most critical elements of a master plan is the understanding of the site.

A good master plan analyses the site best and worst properties and usually landscape architects are the most skilled in doing this essential task.  A site’s aspect, views, lay of the land, existing features, built form, vistas, materials, uses etc are all mapped and explained as the starting point for guiding the development of the site.

Scenarios are the key to a good master plan.  A transparent yet design-led master plan, with good data, evidence, analysis and discussion can yield relatively good results and better outcomes.   Understanding the voluminous needs of those affected by a master plan is critical, as are the outcomes of the authors. These need to be clear, understood, valued, agreed and delivered upon. How will a street look? What is the impact on me? Will I benefit or lose out? Can I still use something? Is there opportunity to listen to my needs?

A bad or poorly conceived master plan however, in the hands of those less experienced, ill prepared, defiant, obstinate or incompetent can be disastrous. They can be replaced quickly, criticized, dumped, lead to major controversy, lose value or become toxic politically.

To a ratepayer, taxpayer, resident, visitor, layperson, someone who doesn’t come across master plans or just plain cynic, I plead: these are the pages of a democratic, elected society. If used properly, they can provide the things we respectfully desire.

These are the tools of the elected, a method of engaging the masses. A way of evolving our society. They are not perfect, and whilst most of them manage to somewhat plead achievement of perfection, they are a way of allowing ‘orderly’ development (in planning speak).

As with all ideas and expression, take it all very lightly and ask what you can do for your local master plan and what it can do for you. Here’s a little secret – the power of the written word, in an A4 format, with a respectful font (Arial works best), return address and hand signed signature, with a reasoned argument, always elicits a response from elected people. It is known fact. This (relatively) primitive exercise still requires a response.

In this space, I am a born optimist. I believe the process of listening, responding, developing ideas, asking for advice, and developing something concrete is a sound and valuable process for expending public or private funds.

So get active, respond, attend workshops, vocalise your views and shape your local master plans.

They are not always a demonstration of an afait acompli.

However, as so beautifully espoused in the landmark ABCTV series ‘Utopia’, all you need for a master plan is a (very) loose idea, a logo, and a website.

This was originally published on Sourcable.net on June 25, 2015



Capital Metro: helping reshape Australia’s national capital

I wrote this for the Canberra Times in 2014 in the early stages of the project’s design, and as the debate continues, it is important to remember a city is shaped by its mobility in all forms, and light rail is just one part of an integrated system.


capital metro

Sydney’s light rail makes sense – but it needs to work with other transport to be successful

Making mobility work – light rail is part of an integrated solution

SMH Transport report, Jacob Saulwick, reports on Sydney’s new light rail network and some lessons learnt elsewhere, includes some wise words from yours truely.

“Daniel Bennett, the urban design leader for contractors Arup and Hassell who worked on Sydney light rail, says the tram’s relationship with bus services provides the biggest opportunity and also the biggest challenge of the project.

“I’m a Five Dock boy, so I’m used to catching buses,” says Bennett of the inner-west Sydney suburb ill-served by rail.

“And every year I could see them get slower and slower. George Street is just at absolute capacity, maxed out, so you’ve got to have this new thing that’s going to displace those buses,” he says.

He says the key will be making sure that it is easy for people to change off buses onto frequent, quick and easy trams: “What we’ve got to get right is the interchanges with buses – it has to be simple.”

Link to SMH article here: http://www.smh.com.au/nsw/advocates-of-sydneys-george-street-light-rail-can-take-lessons-from-the-gold-coast-20150612-ghm7nh.html

Image: Hassell

Image: Hassell



On the Buses

Adelaide rediscovers its fabulous Obahn!

The State Government announced on Wednesday 10 June 2015 a revised plan to improve the unique guided busway service that follows the River Torrens Linear Park, a genuinely internationally significant park land system that hugs the riverine corridor.

Working with stakeholders, including Adelaide City Council, the project will realise improved public transport service to the city as well as provide a basis to improve and enhance the Adelaide Park Lands.

There will be some impacts, however working with Adelaide City Council, the Adelaide Botanic Gardens, and many other stakeholders, these will be minimised as announced today.

Some press from today’s announcement:





The Advertiser:



….and the front page of the Tiser this morning:

Obahn Advertiser

Chance to reimagine Hobart

I recently went to Hobart as part of my AILA National Council duties and presented to the local chapter at the University of Tasmania on the current debate regarding light rail in the Apple Isle’s capital.

It’s not all about MONA, but let’s put things in perspective.

For years Tasmania has hidden from Australia – partly for self-sufficiency, partly for self-preservation. Yet the injection of attention from quarters not usually aroused by Tasmania has put it back on the map.

Let’s look at one aspect of Hobart that could benefit from this renewed interest – its public transport network.

So many of us in Australia are obsessed with our mobility. We love driving cars and, until recently, were drunk on their affordability, buying record numbers of new vehicles.

The Federal Government has decided to invest in roads, and left the states to fund public transport infrastructure. For the foreseeable future there will be little to dissuade us from using our cars for almost everything as most state budgets have little room for significant investment in public transport infrastructure.

There are personal, environmental and economic benefits from moving away from private cars to low-emission public transport, such as light rail.

As a mainlander, I have a passion for Tasmania, borne of almost 20 years visiting to enjoy its natural beauty (bushwalking mainly). My recent visit impressed on me that Hobart is fast becoming more bohemian than my home city of Adelaide.

I’m not saying there is no future for the private car, as undoubtedly there will always be a need. However, there are personal, environmental and economic benefits from moving away from private cars to low-emission public transport, such as light rail.

Article as featured in Tasmania’s daily newspaper, the Mercury, 18 May 2015.