5 Minutes With...Chris Johnson, Urban Taskforce Australia


Chris Johnson is the CEO of Urban Taskforce Australia, an organisation that represents the property industry. In this role Chris has produced research papers on the structure of local government in NSW and publications on the future of our cities. Chris has written and edited over a dozen books on urban planning, architecture and cities. He has been adjunct professor at three Sydney universities and was made a Member of the Order of Australia in 2012. 

Q. Tell us about your background and how you got into the development world?

I am an architect and I worked in various architectural practices in Sydney and London before joining the NSW Government Architect’s Office from 1995 to 2005. In this role I became involved in bigger projects including Westmead Hospital, the Olympic site at Homebush and the urban design of Parramatta Square.

In 2009 I jumped ship from government and ran my own practice connecting more with the private sector until 2011 when I became CEO of the Urban Taskforce. I now interact with government ministers, councils, developers, community groups, senior government staff and the media all in a very proactive manner as an advocate for a bigger and better built Sydney.

Q. Who has been a key mentor and what have they taught you?

There are a few mentors who have helped me along the way. Back in the 1970s in London an architect called Colin Davidson taught me about enthusiasm in communication about projects. In Sydney David Richmond was incredibly good in involving me in the Sydney Olympics in a way that encouraged me to think even bigger about urban planning and architecture as a framework for celebration and how to network with key people.

There is even an influence from James Barnett who was Government Architect way back in 1862 to 1890. Barnett was about nation building through public architecture in a very powerful way. I did a radio segment on him with Richard Glover on Radio 702 and he played the song “He Built This City….He Built This City….” And that is what Barnett did.

Q. How do the disciplines of architecture and planning best work together to achieve desired outcomes?

There is a time and scale difference between the two…. architecture is short term, a few years at most while planning is longer term for at least a few decades. Architecture is generally a building while planning is for a city or a suburb. Planners need to understand built form and architects need to understand the long term future.

The best planners, in my opinion, are the ones who understand three dimensional architectural massing while the best architects see their projects as part of a bigger city wide system.

architecture, planning

Q. What are the most pressing policy issues facing the development industry and what change are you seeking?

There are many pressing issues for the development industry but let me choose three. They are Housing Affordability, the hopelessly slow Planning System and the big change to Apartment Living as the new way of living in Australia.

Housing affordability is a big problem. We need lots more supply of new houses or apartments in Sydney. But we also need to incentivise developers to provide affordable housing.

The slow, complicated planning system in NSW must change. E-Planning may help but the major problem is that government wants to get every action group involved in the planning process and we end up with a camel after years of discussion. The future needs strong leadership, not multiple focus groups.

Apartment living is now home for around 35% of Sydneysiders. The detached house champions don’t like this but as our cities go from five million people to 10 million we must adopt a more co-operartive way of living.

Q. Is enough attention being given by government across various portfolios to development matters?

The vibe is there in media releases, but down the command chain there are still lots of anti development people in the system. There are some great achievements including the Metro rail form the North West now planned to go to Bankstown. Despite the anti car lobby WestConnex is an important piece of infrastructure as connecting the East and West by car is still a big issue.

My main concern is that politicians in suburban electorates will inevitably be anti-apartment to reinforce the value system of their constituents. We need some politicians to champion apartment dwellers or maybe a new political party called the Apartment Party.


Q. Is there a planned development in Australia or overseas that gets your attention? why?

Central Park on Broadway in Sydney is very impressive. Its density is 1,000 people per hectare and it feels good. It is mixed use and has 100 go get cars in the basement so you don’t need to own a car. It has tall buildings covers in greenery, parks, cafes, bars, shops and everything a mini city needs. Central Park shows doubters that density can work well.

Internationally Singapore is tops. We in Sydney can learn from Singapore. The landscape weaves through the city - tallness is accepted along with sky gardens. The top financial firms are there; public transport dominates with cars relegated to high paying congestion taxes. Housing is good but you need to accept the high rise lifestyle.

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