Fender Katsalidis director Rob Mirams spoke on a panel at DesignBUILD last week, discussing 'big Australia', density in Sydney and how architects and urban planners should deal with population growth. 

From a design perspective, what are the challenges in Australia, or more specifically, in Sydney? 

RM: Europeans may still design the best clothes, furniture and cars but Australia has world-class designers and architects working under highly advanced development systems. We have a growing population to house and boundless opportunities for development. The community is more design savvy than ever and are generally positive about well-designed development. However, architects have the challenge of working with a different planning system in each state, the most complex and contradictory being that in NSW. Design outcomes are often driven by planning authorities, when paradoxically, greater freedom is required to create great places. Our challenge is to illustrate how a positive development outcome is better than no development at all.   

What are your thoughts on the concept of three CBDs in Sydney? Do you think it is an effective model? 

The Greater Sydney Commission has a vision to complement Sydney the Eastern Harbour City by enhancing Parramatta as the Central River City and the conurbation of Penrith, Badgerys Creek, Campbelltown, Macarthur and Liverpool into a Western Parkland City. The objective is to give better access to jobs, overcome the constraints of Sydney’s basin topography and transition away from car-based suburban culture and long travel distances to work. It’s a sustainable objective. The third city takes some imagination and is contingent upon new rail connections north, south, east and west. By allowing increased density through the Sydney and Parramatta CBDs, pressure would reduce for the third city. 

Through your projects, how are you using good design in both Parramatta and Liverpool?   

We won a design excellence competition for a 30-storey commercial tower facing the river in Parramatta. This is now under construction and will deliver the city a world-class office building. We worked with MAAS Powerhouse to design a reference scheme for their relocation to Parramatta. While the idea of decentralising cultural institutions outside the Sydney CBD has been hotly debated, this project is now in the design competition stage. It sits within the context of a newly regenerated river precinct. We have also designed and gained DA approval for a commercial tower in Liverpool. This will be a design-first for the area and is waiting for a suitable tenant before commencing construction.      

How do you think architects and urban planners can work together?   

There is certainly some crossover in scope between architects and urban planners. Successful outcomes normally occur with several positive ingredients; clear communication, not being precious or protective over design by welcoming new ideas and undertaking intensive but sustained design workshops encompassing a range of disciplines.   

What can architects and designers do to best respond to the rapid population growth and issues around density?  

Global economies are built on growth and this depends on people, driving increased population density, however, communities and planning authorities have a genuine fear of density. Sydney has a density of 30 people per hectare whereas New York has 100, Barcelona 160 and Paris 200. We love these cities but won’t support Sydney becoming this dense. The design profession needs to educate people and planning authorities need to understand that density can be sustainable, bring diversity and amenity and build communities.

In saying this, enshrined in our planning controls are limits to density through Floor Space Ratio (FSR) controls. Traffic and height are considered the collateral damage of increased density but this does not have to be the case. Traffic can be minimised by supplying less car space and providing better transport alternatives. Melbourne has developed more successfully than Sydney over the past 20 years without FSR controls, as have many cities around the world. My suggestion is to abolish FSR controls and allow each site to be assessed for scale and density on its own merits. Traffic, the urban realm, overshadowing of public or private open space can all be managed without an FSR control, allowing great places to evolve.