Peak oil & planning

by John Hayes

Planning is a political and a community activity. It should be about visioning how we want to live as a community in the future and how we would like our regions, towns and neighbourhoods to develop so that we can maximise social, economic and environmental benefits and minimise costs and adverse impacts.

Cheap oil has fuelled the outward spread of Tasmania’s towns and cities. Already unsustainable, this pattern of land use is likely to become unaffordable for many in an era of surging oil prices. Peak Oil demands a revision of planning priorities.

Past planning and real estate practice have separated out large areas for a single use – such as residential or industrial – and so have increased many journeys beyond walking and cycling distances. This pattern of land use assumes mass car mobility, cheap fuel and huge public expenditures on road building and maintenance. It tends to maximise benefits for some people but also shifts costs to others, and to future generations.

The reality is that cheap fuel is coming to an end and many Tasmanians will not want to, or will be unable to, travel everywhere by car in future. Many people and local communities will become vulnerable to the increasing cost of oil for transport and food production.

Planning for change in Tasmania

    New planning schemes are to be prepared across Tasmania in 2011, in accordance with recently prepared regional land use strategies. These moves provide an opportunity for all Tasmanians to help create a future that is much less oil dependent.

The broad aim is to develop a hierarchy of centres connected by public transport, and a greater mix of uses, local shops, local industries and workplaces within walking and cycling distances of homes.

Agricultural land and environmental assets would be protected from urban sprawl and urban uses. More compact settlements would help to build more socially cohesive, equitable and healthier communities. Land use and transport would be integrated, to encourage active transport by walking and cycling.

However, the reality is that houses (and people) have been increasing in size and are still spreading out to enjoy the space and benefits that cheap oil has provided access to. Many who benefit from the status quo are sure to lobby strongly for business-as-usual (eg new roads) or against changes in their neighbourhood.

The new planning schemes will also provide for a range of environmental pluses: energy efficiency through standards (or exemptions); domestic wind and solar energy generation; green roofs and rainwater tanks; management of vegetation, landscaping, stormwater and waste recycling; community gardens; working from home; sunlight, daylight and solar orientation; cycle and footpath connections; bicycle parking and showers, and by allowing or requiring smaller lots and higher densities close to urban centres and public transport.

It should be stressed that planning schemes are only relevant where new development (or change of use) is proposed, they do not initiate change. Peak oil and climate change will demand much better integration between state, regional and local policies, to drive concerted action across all levels of government. Positive action will be needed to retrofit, renew and improve many areas.

Tasmania has a long way to go to meet best practice in its land use planning. For an insight into what’s possible it is recommended that readers visit the website of Danish architect Jan Gehl who has been advising on wide ranging changes to Tasmania’s cities to make them more people friendly and sustainable.

(John Hayes is a professional planner. He is an active member of the Peak Oil Tasmania working group.)