Article: The role of infrastructure in community liveability

Emerging gaps between infrastructure investment in major cities and regional areas are a perennial risk and ongoing barrier in Australia. Yet despite having less to work with, regional councils are launching exciting, high-impact initiatives ranging from responsive design to futuristic eco-transport.

Ahead of Urban Infrastructure Strategy 2024 (30th April to 2nd May, Sydney), Quest Events spoke with Michelle Bisson, Executive Director, Planning & Environment at City of Newcastle, and Sonja Johnson, CEO at RDA Tropical North, to learn more about the role of infrastructure in community liveability.

How does investment in infrastructure in regional and remote areas impact community liveability, and what feedback are you receiving from residents about these changes?

“Newcastle is a growing city and infrastructure provision must be commensurate with population growth and increases in density,” says Bisson. “This is to ensure liveability is maintained for a growing population. City of Newcastle (CN) seeks to partner with the NSW Government on projects to enhance liveability in Newcastle such as regional sports infrastructure, playgrounds and pathways.”

CN also advocates to the NSW Government for funding for city-shaping projects including key transport projects (light rail and fast rail connections), Hunter Park ($500 million in funding to facilitate redevelopment), and the provision of social and affordable housing to meet the identified need in Newcastle.

The message from Newcastle’s residents is clear: more funding is required from the State Government. “Feedback identified there needs to be a shift away from the Sydney-centric approach to ensure that required regional growth can be appropriately serviced,” adds Bisson.

Johnson agrees: “Regional and Remote Australia infrastructure lags metropolitan centres. Indeed, in Far North Queensland’s case, until recently, the region lagged other similar sized regions in public investment by $1 billion.”

Connectivity is the lifeblood of regional communities. “Whether we are talking about digital connectivity or road networks, investment in these areas greatly enhances wellbeing for residents where people can access health and education services and connect from a social perspective,” she adds.

Examples include the sealing of the Peninsula Developmental Road, which is reducing the isolation of remote Indigenous communities in the Cape during wet season. Feedback from these communities has been positive, along with local businesses experiencing substantial increases in tourist traffic coming up through the Cape. In Cairns, upgrades to the Cairns Hospital have increased the specialist services available to ensure residents do not need to travel to Townsville or Brisbane for healthcare needs.

Could you share some of the performance metrics for social infrastructure projects you use to measure and improve community liveability?

Johnson points to the Liveability Index, which combines various domains associated with health and well-being outcomes. These domains include social infrastructure (community facilities and services), physical activity and well-being, affordable housing, local employment, public transport, public open space, walkability and more.

While they are not necessarily used for social infrastructure projects, Bisson says City of Newcastle would measure against the indicators in the Newcastle Community Strategic Plan (CSP). “For Place strategy, we’re interested in using the Movement and Place liveability indicators, too.”

The CSP was written to inform policies and actions throughout the city, including the Local Strategic Planning Statement, while a component of the CSP utilises community indicators to measure and improve liveability.

“The success of social infrastructure delivery requires forward planning, including upfront social infrastructure needs assessments, and a clear strategy based on principles that consider liveability to deliver social infrastructure,” Bisson says.

How can responsive urban planning help us adapt to changing community demographics and other challenges?

“Responsive urban planning plays a crucial role in adapting to changing community demographics and enhancing liveability,” says Johnson. “With population growth, aging populations and migration patterns impacting urban areas, responsive planning considers these shifts and adjusts infrastructure, services, and amenities accordingly. For instance, as more people age, planning should focus on accessible healthcare facilities, senior-friendly housing, and recreational spaces.”

Then there’s the challenge of a changing climate. “Responsive design allows architects and urban planners to create buildings and cities that adapt to changing environmental conditions and user needs,” continues Johnson. “By incorporating flexibility, cities can respond to evolving demands, climate variations, and technological advancements. This approach improves the sustainability, resilience, and overall quality of life for residents.”

Importantly, responsive urban planning considers factors like income levels, accessibility, and social inclusion, and ensures that resources (such as parks, schools, healthcare centres, and public transport) are equitably distributed across neighbourhoods.

Bisson has observed the growing importance of precinct planning and place strategies to ensure that CN is responding to changing community needs and to enhance liveability. The Broadmeadow Place Strategy which CN is delivering in partnership with DPHI is an example of this.

“Our new Development Control Plan (DCP2023) comes into effect on 1 March 2024 and provides controls to guide developers to produce developments which cater for our community. For example, to improve accessibility, NDCP 2023 requires all residential developments, aside from detached residential, to meet Liveable Housing Australia Silver Level Certification. We added an Urban Heat section to reduce and mitigate the contribution of built development to urban heat, through design and nature-based solutions. The plan also includes the retention and replacement of trees to increase canopy area, improving liveability through reducing urban heat and improving connections to nature.”

In what ways are public consultation processes being expanded to ensure they contribute effectively to the liveability of communities?

The best source of information and ideas around community liveability comes from the community itself. But how can the public best be engaged?

“We seek to undertake genuine engagement prior to consultation or drafting of plans and strategies,” says Bisson. “For larger, strategic projects, CN often provides opportunity for engagement outside the legislative process and ahead of formal exhibition, including community pop-ups, presentations to CN committees and the use of discussion papers. We also seek to use technology, such as social pinpoint and Facebook to engage with the community and to make information accessible.”

To complete the feedback loop, CN reports back to the community on how they are meeting the commitments made under the Community Strategic Plan and are looking at ways to make this information more easily available and current through the website.

Johnson believes public consultation processes play a vital role in shaping the liveability of communities in FNQ. She mentions the Far North Queensland Regional Plan Review, a 25-year framework built in collaboration with local government, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island communities, peak bodies, and the wider community. Similarly, the Far North Queensland Infrastructure Plan (FNQIP) involves extensive stakeholder engagement with workshops held across the region to help identify economic and liveability opportunities and challenges. Regional infrastructure plans now take a place-based approach, involving local communities to enhance liveability and address specific regional requirements.

“Community feedback is about more than gathering thoughts and insights,” says Johnson. “It’s about making sure these strategic plans are fit-for-purpose.”

What initiatives are being taken to integrate emerging technologies such as self-driving cars and eco-friendly transportation into urban design?

With the uptake of electric vehicles climbing steadily and self-driving cars on the horizon, it’s an exciting time to be in urban design.

“City of Newcastle’s DCP 2023 incorporates a range of urban design measures to encourage and facilitate emerging technologies,” enthuses Bisson. “Electric vehicle charging as part of development, electric vehicle bicycle charging, drone delivery capabilities, car stacking and restricting gas connections encouraging electric buildings and onsite renewable energy. We are also looking at micro-mobility devices in our transport strategies.”

Several initiatives are also underway in FNQ to integrate emerging technologies and promote eco-friendly transportation within urban design. “FNQ operators are actively seeking renewable energy sources for transport, EVs are gaining traction, and FNQ is embracing them to reduce emissions and improve air quality,” says Johnson.

“Nautilus Aviation, Northern Australia’s largest helicopter operator, has ordered 10 zero-emission electric vertical take-off and landing aircraft for scenic flights over the Great Barrier Reef by 2026. Similarly, Cairns Premier Great Barrier Reef and Island Tours is working with marine engine manufacturer Volvo Penta to build a 24m eco-catamaran featuring solar panels and an electric-hybrid engine.”

Johnson also highlights the Tropical North Queensland Sustainable Travel Hub, which helps visitors find interactive conservation projects, immersive cultural experiences, and eco-certified operators. “By promoting sustainable travel, FNQ aims to enhance both tourism experiences and environmental stewardship,” she says.

Join us at the Urban Infrastructure Strategy 2024 conference to hear more from Sonja Johnson and a host of other leaders shaping the future of Australian infrastructure. Learn more.

To access the detailed conference program, view the full agenda or download the brochure here.