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Lucy Turnbull — Urbanism, YIMBYism, and Solutions to Australia's Housing Crisis (#156: Bonus Live Episode)

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Lucy Turnbull —  Urbanism, YIMBYism, and Solutions to Australia's Housing Crisis (#156: Bonus Live Episode)

In this interview, recorded live at Blackbird's 2024 Sunrise festival in Sydney, I engage urbanist Lucy Turnbull in a rapid-fire dialogue on how to make Australian cities more productive.

Lucy Turnbull is an urbanist, businesswoman and philanthropist. She was the first female Lord Mayor of Sydney, from 2003-4. From 2015-20, she was the inaugural Chief Commissioner of the Greater Sydney Commission, tasked with delivering strategic planning for the whole of metropolitan Sydney.


JOSEPH WALKER: Thank you. So allow me a couple of minutes just to set the context for this conversation. This is going to be a conversation about cities. And that raises the question, why talk about cities at a festival focused on startups? 

Cities are one of humanity's greatest technologies. They're one of humanity's greatest technologies because they're the places that give birth to all of our other technologies. It's no mistake that humanity's most astonishing efflorescences have arisen in cities, or clusters of cities, from the Renaissance in Florence, to the Industrial Revolution in Manchester and Birmingham, to the computational revolutions of Silicon Valley. 

But today, Australia's major cities are facing a major problem, and that is a lack of housing in the places that people want to live. Indeed, according to the latest Demographia report, Sydney and Melbourne are the second and ninth least affordable cities on the planet, respectively. 

A lack of affordable housing is constraining Australia's startup ecosystem like a boa constrictor. Between 2016 and 2021, according to the NSW Productivity Commission, for every one person in their thirties who moved to Sydney, two people left. That is, people in their prime working years are, on net, leaving one of Australia's most productive places. 

Late last year, the Committee for Sydney, which Lucy used to chair, published a report which estimated that if Sydney doesn't make housing more affordable, it risks recording up to 10% fewer patents over the next decade, as researchers and inventors leave to other places, and becoming home to 50 to 100 fewer well-funded startups just over the next five years.

So in this session, we're going to talk about what we can do about this – how we can create housing abundance – and how the tech community might actually be able to help with that. 

And I can think of no better person to speak about these topics with than both a tech investor and one of Australia's great urbanists, Lucy Turnbull. 

So, Lucy, great to speak with you. Welcome.

LUCY TURNBULL: Thank you, Joe. Great to be here.

[5:45] WALKER: So I thought we would start with a fun question. And that is: so you're a Sydney girl at heart; you grew up here, you love this city, you wrote a history of Sydney, and indeed, I think your love for Sydney, is why you originally went into urbanism.


WALKER: But you're also a lawyer, and you can appreciate both sides of the argument. So I want you to play advocate: make the case to me that Melbourne is actually the better city.

TURNBULL: Okay, I'm making a case. I live here, I've always lived here. I've never considered going to Melbourne. 

But with that caveat, Melbourne has a couple of really good attributes, and it has to do with its topography, which is much flatter, which means its spread is less contained, as Sydney's is by all the national parks, the Blue Mountains and the Hawkesbury. We're in the Hawkesbury basin. So we've got the Hawkesbury river down to the Illawarra and the mountains all around. So we are spatially constrained, which actually gives us a lot of good attributes, but it makes spreading out a bit of a conceptual and practical challenge. 

They were settled in completely different times. So Sydney was first settled… Obviously, the Aboriginal people were here for at least ten to twenty thousand years longer than we ever were. But when the colony arrived in 1788, that was still in the pre-industrial era, that was in the Georgian era. And that was actually, in terms of town planning and the shape of cities, exactly the same kind of basic principles applied as applied in Renaissance times.

So I know it's a really funny thing to say, but actually Florence and Sydney's initial urban grain, like The Rocks and Millers Point and going down to the Town Hall and down indeed to Central, you know, originally had a lot more in common with Georgian England, I guess, the Enlightenment period and before that back to the Renaissance, than Melbourne did, which was very much established after industrialisation had set in and after I guess orderly town planning had set in with wide streets and common urban forms and setbacks, etcetera. So they were settled at very different times.

And it actually plays into what it's like now. Sydney, possibly less so than before, but Sydney always had a sort of a raffish, sort of disorderly, messy streak of libertarianism and individual naughtiness. And that might be our original convict, settler origins. And Melbourne was always slightly more serious and I would say kind of Presbyterian. And you see that. You see that actually in the character of each city, I think, still. So the DNA is still there, right?

WALKER: So you can almost trace those cultural differences back to their topography and when they were founded.

TURNBULL: So Sydney's topography is, we all know – because at least if we don't live here, we visit here (because you’re all here) – it's kind of bumpy and a bit disorderly too. And I think that plays into our geography – and the constraints around the edges – plays into the way it's kind of organised into the east, the south, the north, and the west. 

And before the property boom really got cracking, back in 2003, when I was in the town hall, actually, Maxine McHugh, who was then a journalist, I think on The Bulletin or somewhere, asked me a question, “What do I think of the differences between Sydney and Melbourne?” And I said, well, in Sydney, people ask you where you live. Whereas in Melbourne, they ask you where you went to school.

And there are two differences there. If you're asked where you live, you could have moved into where you live, like, last week, the week before, two minutes ago, or you could have been living there for 50 years. Whereas if you ask where you went to school, you can never change that. You are kind of a product of your school. And I've had some very funny experiences where I bump into strangers on ski slopes and women with bedraggled children when our kids were little and skiing. And if they came from Melbourne, the second question would be, where do you live? They would ask me where I went to school. And I thought, well, She lives in Melbourne, so why would she care?

But it was a way of placing me. And a friend of mine who was actually with me in Melbourne, sitting with her, she said, “Oh, well, that's actually really a way of finding out whether you're a Catholic.” I said, “Fiona, I'm a Catholic. So, you know, what relevance is that?” So it is quite quirky.

WALKER: That is quirky. I guess less direct than just asking someone their religion.

TURNBULL: Correct. More polite.

WALKER: More polite. So in my introduction, I mentioned cities are like a technology. I actually meant that in a very real sense, in that if a technology is something that gets us more from less, cities are such a thing. 

I know one of your favourite books is Green Metropolis, by, I think, David Owen.


WALKER: He talks about how denser cities are more efficient. They use less energy per capita. 

But at the same time, as cities grow, they become more productive per capita. So you kind of get more from less, but in this case, you're getting more innovation from less energy. 

So given those amazing agglomeration effects, and I guess what they imply for entrepreneurship and innovation, let's talk about the different forms that cities can take, and in particular, the forms that are more or less conducive to entrepreneurship and productivity. 

So, just to play a thought experiment, if you were planning a city and you were optimising just for productivity – so you only really cared about sustainability and livability to the extent that they supported productivity – what would that city look like? Can you describe its characteristics?

TURNBULL: Well, it would be very high density, because one of the determinants of productivity is how long it takes you to get from A to B, whether it's work or cycling in the park or whatever it is – whatever you do, if you do in-real-life-retail, getting to shops and services. So it's a question of distance travelled, and every hour spent commuting is an hour lost… But I actually disagree with that because you can listen to podcasts like yours and learn a lot when you're commuting these days.

WALKER: You’d need to go for a very long commute for that.

TURNBULL: [Laughs.] But the least opportunity cost is good. So that would lead you to a very dense environment. 

But soon, if you overdo that, even if you thought it could happen (and there'd be a huge political pushback), you would get to dystopia very quickly. So there is a point beyond which focusing on productivity alone – and we can see this in the economic system, too – it actually becomes dystopian, it becomes very unfair. And in a big sprawling city like Sydney, which although we’re a city in its landscape as we said in our plan – the green sort of surroundings of Sydney (when they're not on fire) – you have to keep people inside there but not have a spatial disadvantage.

So say, for example, it's not a satisfactory social outcome, and I wouldn't say it's a satisfactory productive outcome either, to have some people living on the fringe spending two hours to come in to work around here or the CBD or something, and then spend two hours going back. It's just not a good outcome for families. Therefore, they become less happy, less fulfilled. Kids spend less time with their parents. So you've got to actually think of productivity in a wide sense, not just how long it takes a tech startup person to get to their work, to their office. You've got to have a wider conceptualisation of what productivity is.

WALKER: That takes me to my next question, which was given agglomeration effects… So, for context, in 2018, while you were Chief Commissioner of the Greater Sydney Commission, you published a report called A Metropolis of Three Cities. And that refers to the eastern harbour city.

TURNBULL: The central river city.

WALKER: Yeah, which I guess is like Parramatta. And then the new aerotropolis forming around the Badgerys Creek airport. 

And so my question is, given agglomeration effects, why not just focus on densifying the eastern harbour city and making it as affordable as possible by building up, rather than spreading all the way out to almost near the Blue Mountains?

TURNBULL: Because it wouldn't necessarily be affordable, because the land values would explode if that was the only place where development was happening. And there would be huge spatial inequity; if you lived in Parramatta and there was no opportunity for jobs or services in Parramatta, that would be a very bad thing for the current population, but it's also not building out opportunity for the future population of Parramatta. 

So we called the eastern harbour city the established city; the central river city, Parramatta, is the growing city, its momentum is growing, and it has grown a lot since we did those plans in 2018-19; and the western parkland city is emerging, it is very much an emerging area. So the population growth, in percentage terms, will be very high.

So you've got to actually support the services, whether it's schools, hospitals, jobs, transport, that those new areas need. If you just suddenly flatten the whole of Darlington and all the way to maybe Homebush, just flattened everything and built fifty-story buildings, you would have incredible spatial inequity if you happened to live in Penrith (because you wanted to live there, or you worked in a hospital there). 

So you've got to actually balance things out a bit. And I guess the big move with The Metropolis of Three Cities is that people always assumed that Sydney was the east – and for some people, that stopped at George street in the city, for some people, it stopped at the Anzac Bridge.

And this is what I learned when I was writing the book in the mid-nineties about the history of Sydney. I sort of conceptually thought once you got onto Parramatta Road past the Anzac Bridge, you were in the western suburbs. As time went on, I realised that was completely misconceived. 

The Olympics actually taught us that, you know, the centre of Sydney really is that area from Olympic Park all the way to Blacktown – spatially, in terms of where the change has been happening, that's the centre. And, in fact, if you spend time around Parramatta and even Blacktown and the Rhodes Peninsula, etcetera, that's where the growth is, that's where the change is. And you've got to support the jobs and the services, be it transport, health, education, whatever, retail, to make that population productive and make sure they're not stuck in traffic all day.

WALKER: Got it. Okay, well, let's talk about building supply and medium density. I was in New York a couple of weeks ago, staying in Brooklyn Heights, and I had this strange experience walking down the street, where everything felt very unfamiliar and kind of foreign. And it wasn't the fact that the cars were on the wrong side of the road, or there were metro stops everywhere. But it struck me that what it was I was walking through just continuous blocks of four to six story apartments, and then we just don't have that in Australia. We don't have that kind of medium density, the classic sort of six to eight story apartment blocks, the kind of apartment blocks you see in Paris and Barcelona and parts of London.


WALKER: Rome. 


WALKER: Why don't we have that here?

TURNBULL: Well, this is the funny thing, which I've actually conjured with for decades now. We were really good at doing medium density, maybe not six to eight stories, but three to six in the interwar period, when we were building the tram lines (which became the suburban bus network when they pulled out the trams – which is another story – because the trams were so slow, but that was unfortunate that they did that). 

But if you go, say, around Bondi Beach, not just on the beach, but a couple of blocks back, and around, say, Plumer Road in Rose Bay, another example, even a lot of Point Piper where we live, and even, not so much Double Bay now – well, there are bits in Double Bay – but the Lower North Shore, too, there is a huge amount of three and four story brick, dark brick, apartment buildings. And they've been there since the 1920s, the 1930s. There was a building boom at that time. 

Then suddenly the depression hit in the early thirties, and that all stopped. But that was actually a really good urban form, which I wish we'd done a lot more of. 

And then what happened is we had the Great Depression, which really knocked Australia sideways and knocked the property market sideways and building sideways. So when we came out of the Second World War, we had this massive housing crisis, and there was a kind of like a “build anything, we have an emergency.” And there were high levels of immigration, post-war immigration, there was bipartisan support around the idea of “populate or perish” (which doesn't exist now), but you had huge waves of immigration and a housing crisis. 

So the response was to borrow the modernist idea and principles, which, you know, the Bauhaus espoused, which is, you know, modernism – I don't need to tell you what modernism is, look it up if you don't know, but it's basically very sort of simplified design and construction, very concrete and masonry driven, mostly concrete and glass. And that actually was a good response. 

But because of the crisis, the modernist idea could just get built up and built up and built up. So it did get built up in places like in the towers in Darling Point, which led to a huge revolt, say, of Woollahra council against density. The whole political complexion changed in Woollahra Council. 

There was a similar kind of revolt in North Sydney, where there was a lot of high density going up. There was this huge local political pushback, which, combined with the idea of the huge movement to support heritage, like the green bans movement to save Victoria Street in Potts Point and Hunters Hill – the combination of the revolt against modernism plus the need to preserve heritage actually led to a reaction against modernism and height and density, which led to I guess, the NIMBY movement. There were two forces driving the NIMBY movement: heritage and anti-modernism.

WALKER: Interesting. So talking about solutions to that, if we wanted to enable template approvals for mid-rise apartments, what would it take to create a style book of approved designs for each suburb or local government area? Is that a complicated task? Has that been tried before?

TURNBULL: That's how Paddington and Glebe and around here, that's how all the inner suburbs that we all value so highly now, were actually built. They weren't built by professional builders, they were built by people who borrowed pattern books, who used pattern books and got the elements, say, of the wrought iron balconies, they bought them from a pattern book in the UK. 

You can see it particularly in Paddington, because it's hilly, you can see three or four terraces in a row which are obviously built by the same person with the same wrought iron. But they, Paddington, Glebe, etcetera, were built with pattern books.

And that's another thing that makes me worry, because it's like with the revolt against the medium density we used to do so well in the twenties and the early thirties, it's as if we had our brain sucked out and we forgot how to do pattern books and standard planning, urban forms, and everybody had to do their very own starting from scratch. And it's really frustrating because it adds to time and to cost and complexity, whereas if you can say, okay, this is a Type A medium to high density apartment block or a Type B or a Type C, and if it's standardised and it's not going to fall over because it's built on sand, et cetera, the geotech's okay, you should be able to build it, because we need to get going quickly.

And I think the government architect is trying, Abbie Galvin is trying, really hard to get these pattern books underway. 

Strangely enough, I spoke to her just before she got appointed, and I said, “Abbie, you've got to do pattern books. Like, we've got to speed this whole thing up.” 

So I think that's where we should be going back to. We've got to go back to where we were, truthfully, in the late 19th century and the early 20th century. We've got to go back because we've been making a lot of mistakes and making things way too complicated.

WALKER: Back to the future. Speaking of which – so this isn't an apples to apples comparison, but I do think there's some information in it – so, very famously, the Empire State Building took a year to construct and then, I don't know, maybe the planning before that was like two or three years. I think they bought the Waldorf Astoria Hotel and knocked it down in like 1928-29 or something. And then by 1931, the Empire State Building is constructed. Anyway, by contrast, the Barangaroo redevelopment takes 15 years. So if an alien landed on earth and you had to kind of explain that situation, how would you begin? Why was that the case?

TURNBULL: Not easy. Not easy to explain. It's actually really hard to explain. So why did it take so long? It's a really good question. So I guess the deal (and everybody here is in the startup economy), the deal or the proposition advocated by the former prime minister Paul Keating was to build the Barangaroo headland and the balancing item to offset that green headland, which is magnificent, was to put a whole lot of density on the southern edge, which is where you've got the towers. Now, a lot of people didn't like that density because it was a big sudden change and they still don't like it. A lot of people who live in Balmain still don't like it. But that was the fundamental architecture of the deal.

They still haven't figured out what's happening in central Barangaroo, by the way, which I just find it really hard to come to terms with. Because the other thing they've done in the meantime is that they're putting a metro stop there, which will be open, which is just built like a concrete block. It'll be open I think in June or July this year, something like that. And it will be a magnificent addition to that Barangaroo area. It will really connect it to the city so you don't have to walk for miles to get to, say, the eastern side of the CBD. It will be amazing, but there is no immediate development around it. 

The other thing that I think is the lost opportunity is the absolute deficiency of affordable housing. It's all sort of expat, very rich people housing. And I think that's really sad because The Rocks and Millers Point has a tradition and a history of supplying a lot of worker housing, a lot of affordable public housing, and we’ve completely dropped the ball there. So I think, you know, it's a very imposing thing, but there are a few bits missing, like some serious bits missing, like social and affordable housing.

And actually, talking about New York: New York is very good at doing affordable housing. So we have an apartment in New York, not in a billionaire building, in one of the 1931 buildings, along Central Park West. And that was built at a time when, you know, twenty stories, thirty stories, that was good. And it's great. And in the meantime, they’ve built all of the billionaires’, I call them the pencil buildings, all over the midtown area, some of them downtown. 

But they still have affordable housing as part of it. And we just never do that. And it's really sad. 

We tried to put it in our plans but it actually hasn't been delivered in any meaningful way. And it doesn't matter who's in government. It doesn't matter who's in government. It never happens.

WALKER: And why does it never happen? What are the incentives of politicians there?

TURNBULL: Well, I think they're obviously not focusing on delivering affordable housing. I mean we did try at the Greater Sydney Commission to drive this agenda, but there wasn't enough buy-in by the government or by, let me be honest with you, the property sector. That's not business as usual for them, whereas in New York, building affordable housing is taken as an integral part of building housing. 

It hasn't been kind of embedded in the culture of how you build things and how you do stuff. And so if that isn't part of the DNA of how things get built, there's a lot of pushback when people try to change it.

WALKER: You mentioned the Greater Sydney Commission. Just reflecting on that, so you were the Chief Commissioner from 2015 to 2020, would you offer a retrospective assessment that future policymakers could learn from? Is there like a key lesson, something you might have done differently?

TURNBULL: Well, what was great about the GSC was that – and the reason we were invented, or statutory invented, and there was bipartisan support for the Greater Sydney Commission Act – is that we worked collaboratively across the key tiers of government. Like on the infrastructure committee of the GSC, we had Treasury, Premiers, Education, Health, you know, Infrastructure, Planning. You had all these agencies of government. And Transport, of course. Did I say transport? That's fundamental. 

All the key areas of government could consider the plans. So you didn't have this exciting knot and very tedious, long, drawn out, “okay, planning sends it to transport, transport makes a comment.” You had everybody in the room; you had everyone in the room who needed to be in the room. And that was actually fantastic.

So for the first time ever in New South Wales history, we had an integrated land use plan, which we did, A Metropolis of Three Cities, the transport plan done for Transport for New South Wales, and the infrastructure plan. And we all talked to each other a lot, and it was a coordinated and collaborative set of plans. 

Now what happens then is one government agency has its redoing-planning cycle on another timeline and another one has another. So you fall out of sync. And I think that's a great pity that that integrated planning doesn't happen. 

Another observation I'd make is that we don't need to do new plans every five years. We need to actually make sure we're implementing the plans that we have.

We spend far too much time on writing plans, and not enough time implementing them and measuring and monitoring. So one of the things we did the year after we delivered the metropolis plan with the transport and infrastructure plan, is we did a document called ‘The Pulse of the City’. We had a whole lot of citizens panels and community forums to ask people “what matters to you”. And they were universal: it's access to services. The 30-minute city was really important. Tree canopy was really important. Walkability is important. And people – very Jane Jacobs – but think about walkability: people think productivity, sustainability and livability are mutually exclusive. 

But in fact, there's a fundamental principle. If you walk to work (and you’re not going to walk three hours to work; it only takes you ten, twenty, thirty minutes to work), you're going to be healthier, you're going to be more productive, you're going to have a more liveable life. 

So those ideas are universal human ideas and we've got to embed that in the planning and see how it's going. And access to green space is another one. So how long does it take you to walk to a park or an open space? All those things need to be measured and reported on, and I think that's more important than writing a whole new set of plans, right? That's my view.

WALKER: So like me, you're a fan of the YIMBY movement, which has sprung up in Melbourne, Sydney, now I think Brisbane.

TURNBULL: Everywhere. 

WALKER: Everywhere.

TURNBULL: Started in London, I think. That was the first one I heard of. I could be wrong, but that was the first time I heard the word.

WALKER: But yeah, it's certainly come to Australia now. I want to do like a pre-mortem with you. So fast forward, say, ten years and the YIMBY movement has failed to achieve its objectives – we haven't meaningfully increased housing supply, we haven't improved housing affordability – what's the most likely explanation for that?

TURNBULL: The natural conservatism of communities. But I think that if we can use this housing supply crisis as an opportunity for change, I think we won't look back in ten years and be sad with not enough having happened. 

I'm positive about the potential for change for the following reasons. The percentage of people who own their own homes or think they have any realistic chance of buying their own homes is much lower than it was ten or twenty years ago, and also rents are unaffordable. So it's not as if you can substitute not owning a home with easy to find rental accommodation. So there is an emergency, and there's a growth, intergenerationally, of people who would traditionally be owning their own homes, having lots of kids and stuff, who don't have home security.

And if we don't address home security we will have much lower rates of fertility. So we'll have a much older population, and that will be seriously less productive because if everyone's over 70, you know, like my case, I mean I'm not there yet, but you know, you need to have intergenerational equity and spatial equity. 

So the thing I love about the YIMBY movement is that they are advocating… And I wish they could come to some of the planning committee meetings I had to chair when I was in the town hall, because you would have these older people coming to meetings and saying, “We don't want any change in our community. We don't want any change in our community.” I would think, I wish young people could come and say they needed to buy a house here. 

But they were nowhere. Nobody was speaking. I'm not blaming anyone, but I would have loved to have had that voice when I was in the town hall, because you can only kind of listen to who's there at the planning committee hearing. And I would have loved to have had that voice of non-homeowners, not older people, younger people arguing for what they want to make their lives as good as they can be.

WALKER: Yeah. There's always been that sort of asymmetry there.

TURNBULL: Yeah. Lack of voice. So all these community movements, local community movements, which typically like things the way they are. And the great thing about the YIMBY movement is that they advocate for what they want to change. Voices for change. Love that.

WALKER: Yeah, love it. I have a few questions about how technology interacts with the housing abundance question. So one of the things that the history of cities teaches us is that distance is a temporal concept, and you can shrink distance by creating better and faster transportation. So if trains and cars shrank distance in the 19th and 20th centuries, what do you kind of anticipate will be the technology that does that in the 21st century?

TURNBULL: Oh, gosh, I'm not that clever. I really don't see us… So when I was a little girl in primary school, there was this huge thing about hovercrafts. And I thought by the time I was 21 (I was born in 1958), by the time I was 21, I wouldn't have a car, I'd have a hovercraft. So that made me very cautious about predicting future transport types. 

Strangely enough, I think demand-hiring services like Uber and its comparables has actually really shifted the temporal problem with getting from A to B, because in the olden days, before these ride services were available, you would have a very stay-in-the-lane taxi industry. So it was impossible to get a taxi in heavy rain at 3 o’clock when it was changeover. So there have been very positive changes.

And on a positive note, here in Sydney, there is an investment in transport infrastructure, the like of which we have not seen since the 1920s. Like the metro. I know it's going through its teething problems with people getting from Sydney to Bankstown, etcetera, and it's horrible, but it will be over in a couple of years. But a metro connection from Tallawong, which is just west of Rouse Hill, all the way down to Bankstown, will really shift the spatial dimensions of the city. So a kid in who lives in Bankstown, who desperately wants to study a subject at, say, Macquarie University – they might be offering something special – that person can get on the train and be there in 20 or 25 minutes, and vice versa. That is really amazing.

So it will make people much more easy to transit in and around the city. People, I think, underestimate that, because at the moment the metro stops at Chatswood, which may not be everybody's required destination or location. So once it comes down past the Lower North Shore, down Barangaroo, Martin Place and out to Sydenham, that will be incredible. So watch this space, and it's not going to be long.

WALKER: Okay, that's cool. I was wondering whether also maybe technologies like virtual reality could help, in a way, shrink distance, because you can kind of then just do meetings from your living room with people.

TURNBULL: Well, I think we do that already, don't we, with Zoom? I mean, my experience, my most recent experience of virtual reality is going to the Ramses exhibition – which is great; go and see, it's closing in a couple of weeks at the Australian Museum – but they have a virtual reality room at the end and you put on the goggles, etcetera, and there's a twelve minute thing and they swing you around. I think the target market is possibly our grandchildren's age, you know, ten and eight, but it is an amazing thing. But it's very self-contained. We are in ancient Egypt when we're doing it, obviously in Rames’ period.

But I'm struggling with how that will actually ever change the texture and the feel and the vibrancy of being in the same room as somebody.

I mean, we do Zooms when we need to, and we learned how much we missed it during the pandemic, that human contact and actually seeing people's eyes in real life, that's something that I don't think we'll ever not enjoy and appreciate or need. 

And especially for innovation, you need the collision of ideas and you need collision spaces. So that's either inside or outside. But don't underestimate the need for collision spaces, places like Carriageworks, but also outside spaces where people can bump into each other, like the street, for example. That's why walkability is important.

WALKER: So Jane Jacobs is probably one of your biggest influences as an urbanist. In The Death and Life of Great American Cities, she has this concept of street ballet.

TURNBULL: Yeah. And eyes on the street.

WALKER: And eyes on the street, yeah. Where is the best street ballet in Sydney? So, for me, it's maybe, I don't know, Stanley Street in Darlinghurst or Macleay Street in Potts Point.

TURNBULL: No, I think… You know what? I would not agree with that. I was at Stanley Street on Sunday after going to the museum with Malcolm, our daughter, and her kids. And, yeah, it's okay.

WALKER: But you can find better street ballet elsewhere?

TURNBULL: I would actually think King Street, Newtown. I think, actually Oxford Street on a day or even a night, because there's lots more food and drinking and places to hang out at night time. The night economy's really kicked up there. 

I actually think – I know this is really bizarre – people should try it sometime: go to Parramatta on a Friday night. You know, go to those places close to the river, down Church Street, and the river, especially when the light rail opens. That is really dynamic. And you actually see future Sydney there. So we're present Sydney. But in places like Parramatta, you can really see the future of Sydney.

For example, say, in the last census, the amount of members of the Gujarati community from India who came and settled around Parramatta and Hyde park exploded, like, by four-hundred percent. So you see the place undergoing change and transformation. I love that change, and I love that buzz, and I love that sidewalk ballet, because to me, a bunch of old people walking down Macleay Street is not sidewalk ballet.

WALKER: Yeah, it's a kind of ballet. So I just want to briefly come back to this question of working from home. I think it's a really good point you make about how these virtual technologies aren't substitutes for in-person interactions. They're compliments. And I think even in Ed Glaeser's book, Triumph of the City, which I know you like, he makes this point about how if you look at the people with the most interpersonal connections in Manhattan, they also have the most phone calls. 

TURNBULL: They're connecting on all levels. 

WALKER: Yeah, connecting on all levels. And the in person interactions are increasing the demand for the virtual interactions. 

But having said that, to the extent that working from home is now more of a thing, I was reading your book Sydney: Biography of a City, and one of the interesting things I learned was during the commercial real estate bust of the early nineties, or in the aftermath of that, in Sydney a lot of the commercial office space was repurposed residential. And I think the same thing happened in Melbourne as well in the nineties.

TURNBULL: Absolutely. And that was very much championed and advocated by Frank Sartor, who I stood on his mayoral ticket, I was the deputy mayor, but I stood on his ticket. And he in the mid-nineties developed a planning principle. And it was really good because every single planning control and document of the City of Sydney was organised around the principle of making it a living city, because it had become very much a non-living city because it was all commercial. 

And you're right, there was a debt crisis and all these big companies went under with too much leverage, and a lot of the buildings were either rebuilt or repurposed for residential housing. 

I'd like to think that could happen again. You need for any CBD, especially these days, to be vibrant and exciting. You need a combo of work and play and live. And it can't just be work.

WALKER: Right. And so I guess my specific question was, given the working from home trend, might there be another opportunity to convert a lot of office space into residential?

TURNBULL: Well, I think that would be a good thing. I think the costs are going to be a barrier if they've got big floor plates. It's not as easy as you think. 

But I think the other thing we need to think about is cohousing. And we've got a housing crisis. We have as a subset of that housing crisis, a huge women escaping violence crisis. 

And so one of the ways to address both those crises is to develop more cohousing, like student housing, where you have shared common spaces like living areas, etcetera, which removes social isolation, particularly for people who are, say, leaving violent relationships. And they do this, for everybody, brilliantly, in the US; especially I visited this amazing development in Washington D.C., like three kilometres from the Capitol building.

There's a developer, I think it's called Greystar, but they build build-to-rent housing for young people. So young people have, you know, small private apartments, but they use the common spaces on the ground floor for coffee, hanging out, living. And I think we need to get much smarter about doing that. And that is a potential use for these commercial, you know, second-, third-tier old type commercial buildings: is to actually create cohousing.

WALKER: So to finish in the public discourse, there's been a lot of focus on regulatory solutions to the housing supply problem. But I'm also interested in the technical solutions. And I know you're a tech investor and you're interested in this space. Are there any new or emerging construction technologies that you're particularly excited about?

TURNBULL: Well, there is more modular housing being built, but not nearly enough. So some of the big development companies had modular housing, prefabrication, but it didn't work out. And I don’t really understand why. 

But, you know, like eight, ten years ago, people were very optimistic about prefabbing, say, kitchens and bathrooms. So you just drop them in. So you accelerate build time. 

There is more modular housing being built, and it's easy to do in a low density sort of single dwelling context. I'd love to see it scaled up to that six to eight story medium density. 

Bizarrely enough, they do it really well, they do not so much modular, but they do deliver – I know it's going to be really unpopular when I say this – but they deliver the best affordable housing, most beautiful affordable housing, in Iran. (And I'm very indebted to Philip Oldfield, who's Professor of Architecture at UNSW…) And also in Spain. They deliver beautiful affordable housing, because they make it a priority, and they've been doing it for a long time. 

But if you go modular, you can speed up the process and actually get things done very quickly. And there's a guy that I met recently who had a very big house that he did a renovation of in London. And then he came to Sydney and decided to do a modular house because he got the building quotes and it was just off the charts because the cost of building is off the charts. So if you can use modularity as a way of reducing costs and also efficiency, that is a great idea, and there's no reason you can't do that.

I know that one government agency has looked at that, but we just haven't executed. It's like writing plans all the time and not actually monitoring how they're going rather than, “Oh, let's write a new plan. Because we love writing plans. We don't actually like checking that they're all tracking along nicely.” So you've got to kind of focus on building new housing types. So support innovation and make it happen.

WALKER: Make it happen. That's a great note to finish on. Please thank Lucy. Thank you so much. 

TURNBULL: Thank you.