This article originally appeared in The Fifth Estate. It is written by Tina Perinotto.

Waverley Council mayor Sally Betts believes her community can shape a future for the Bondi Junction precinct that is “amazing” and “completely sustainable”. At a presentation early this month, she unveiled how this ambitious plan could unlock one of the richest veins of latent urban potential in Australia.

Bondi Junction is an intriguing place. It sits at the centre of some of the wealthiest suburbs of Australia in Sydney’s eastern suburbs, next to some of the best beaches, with a huge shopping centre and a massive transit hub that includes the most profitable bus route in Australia, the 333, which delivers seven million passengers a year mostly to the city.

And yet as a precinct, it doesn’t work well.

The commercial and retail heart has a downmarket feel that belies its assets. The Westfield Shopping Centre attracts 58,000 people but most don’t venture outside its airconditioned retail cocoon. The transit hub is poorly designed and badly connected, so that there’s little commuter interaction with the streets, and the mall itself is edged by poor quality buildings and retail. Worse, the streets are busy, but with car traffic that simply passes through.

On a Friday morning early this month, the Mayor of Waverley Council, Sally Betts, signals this profile of Bondi Junction is about to change. At a breakfast at the East Leagues Club, before an audience of developers, fellow mayors from other Sydney councils, architects and academics, Betts reveals a set of ambitious plans her community is devising to reinvent this interesting precinct and realise its potential – and to do so sustainably.

The place-maker

Star of the show is Michael Dieden, a US “place-maker” – not developer, he is keen to point out – who comes with a captivating presentation that outlines an array successful precinct developments. Each shows that if you enable positive community outcomes first, commercial success follows. Also starring is the mayor herself, Sally Betts who emerged as a passionate and committed champion for her community; Ed Blakely from the United States Studies Centre’s Future Cities Collaborative, which is working on precinct building; the University of Sydney’s Rod Simpson, who’s comment “congestion is our friend” could well become the central motif of the precinct agenda; and several audience members with some interesting views of their own.

It’s an invigorating session – exciting and stimulating. We’re talking about the unique power of urban design to unleash human imagination, interaction and potential. Heady stuff.

Dieden doesn’t disappoint. He’s a New Urbanist, which right up front defines a humanistic starting point for design. So how do people like to congregate and chat? Make a physical space for that, such as a bar or cafe or courtyard. What sort of housing and street activation encourages interaction, walking and talking? Design for those outcomes, rather than for the benefit of cars and drivers.

Perhaps to underscore this humanistic point – that you need to connect with the people you’re dealing with – Dieden starts the presentation with an introduction to his family. There is his “beautiful” artist and activist wife, his youngest daughter who keeps him in touch with modern manners and style, and a son with attention deficit disorder whose discovery of music at the age of 11 and family effort “kept him out of jail” and today sees him as a “bona fide rock star with the band he started, The Mowglis, soon to tour Australia.

He uses words such as “loving”, as in, “the car parking is lovingly dealt with”.

And he starts with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

“If someone is starving, they can’t afford milk for the baby” or if there is huge crime rate spurred by America’s prevalence of guns, “there are huge social ramifications for that”, he says.

You need to resolve those issues before you can “get to love and community and self-esteem – taking you to a higher level.

Then you can move on to the “four Cs of urbanism”, Dieden says, “currency, cosmopolitanism, concentration and charisma”.

But tackle the neighbourhood, not just individual buildings. His company, Creative Housing Associates, describes itself as a neighbourhood and transit-oriented developer.

“It’s not site specific. We have to do a neighbourhood in order to have the right impact.

“One offs don’t really do anything other than for the developer or the bank. If you look at a district you can resolve a lot of the things.

“We’ll look at social things in addition to the real estate. If the community needs higher education, we’ll put in a charter school. If the crime rate is high we’ll bring in people to work with the ‘at risk’ community; put them in construction jobs and turn their lives around.

“All that needs to be in close collaboration with the public sector, so nearly all the projects are through public-private partnerships. Almost all are around transit.”

Density and how to deal with it, is “one of the greatest urban issues of our time”, Dieden says. And it’s most closely linked to transport.

Whatever is proposed, he says, needs to “deal with the street”, to “what happens with the pedestrians”.

“How are you meeting the needs of the pedestrian, the bicyclist, the public transit traveller?”

Last, and not at all important, is the car.

“The car needs to be phased out of urban areas if we are going to survive.”

Dieden gives a stunning example of how bad design works, or more to the point, doesn’t work.

He shows images of an upmarket development where condominiums range in price from $2 million to $25 million.

The development is a “complete failure” predominantly because the urban planning is so car-centric, he says.

“We’ve been unable to calm the traffic; unable to calm the street. All the people have to go down 25 storeys, get in their cars and drive six blocks to get food.”

A good community is almost the exact opposite.

“You have to be able to incorporate all the necessities of life in a village-type atmosphere,” Dieden says.

Some attractive examples of what he means follow.

One project at West Hollywood, designed by Stefanos Polyzoides [See his discussion on “architecture of place” with Terrain], is centred on courtyards, with fountains, and all the units are open to the outside, designed to catch breezes.

And it’s dense. But from the street front you would hardly know.

“There are 32 units on about 30,000 square feet [3000 square metres] of land, which is quite dense but you don’t notice the densities with the three courtyards.

“And notice how it sits on the street,” he tells the audience, “how lovely to walk by the entry with its Spanish steps. And see how the parking is dealt with in a loving way.”

Rodeo Drive, famed for its upmarket shopping, is the opposite of ideal, Dieden says.

“I never use it. It’s a bore, filled with those stores… why would you even buy anything here – it’s preposterous – $5000 for a coat. What are you doing?”

The key to good retail, he says, is to “deliver place; create place”.

This is aligned to the concept of a “third place”, which comes after our family place and where we make our living.

“This third place is the most important, and we’ve lost this concept that used to be the corner pub or the coffee shop; where you congregate with your friends and you don’t talk about work and talk about your humanity and your communality.”

What’s needed is to make this “place” a “more interesting experience”.

A good starting point is to bring in the creatives.

“You have to bring in the starving artists… watch them in the window instead of the $12,000 mink coat you will never wear in Australia.”

Dieden flicked through some other examples. Among them an “upscale Manhattan” community with people who were “very difficult”.

“We started off by creating a town square, a living room for the community where they could bring their kids and let their hair down and quit being so self-absorbed.

“We started with the moral imperative and backed into the real estate development.

“We surrounded the town square with cool bars and kids running around the fountain and now families go there all the time.”

Many other projects followed. Some involved the restoration of run-down abandoned areas, another had become “dead as a door nail” because a new “Westfield mall had sucked the life out of the centre”.

But how do you compete with the mall?

Dieden and his team partnered with theatres, put in a “hip cool bar”, housing sites, a charter school and parking for a train station strategically placed to make sure commuters would walk past the neighbourhood shops.

“So you park here and will buy coffee and a magazine, maybe walk down to meet a friend.”

The Mayor

Sally Betts is a mayor clearly on a mission. Bondi Junction sits at the centre of one of Sydney’s major subregions, the eastern suburbs, adjoining some of the wealthiest suburbs in Australia, six kilometres from the CBD.

By 2036, Betts says, the Metropolitan Growth Strategy says it will contain 12 per cent more people and 30 per cent more jobs.

The big challenge is how to accommodate that in a sustainable way.

Betts is clear: the Bondi Junction 2030 strategy aims to reduce emissions by 30 per cent by 2020 (while the federal government aims for just five per cent reduction).

“We know that Bondi Junction can be a great city centre,” Betts says. “We think it’s got the best beaches in the world and Sculpture by the Sea caters for 250,000 visitors in two weeks.”

Westfield brings 58,0000 people a day that go through the shopping centre and Williams-Sonoma’s Pottery Barn has chosen the Bondi Junction Mall, directly across from Westfield, for its first outlet outside of North America.

The Interchange is itself a force of nature, the eighth largest bus/train interchange in Australia and the 333 bus route to the city is the most profitable, with seven million passengers each year.

This busyness is a major issue for the centre. Density is good, yes, but this a place with an enormous amount of through traffic. Even the visitors to Westfield rarely leave the centre.

There are “pockets of pedestrian amenity”, Betts says, but in general this is a place dominated by vehicles.

“The whole of Bondi Junction is full of vehicles.”

This means there are “great opportunities for revitalisation”, but as growth and as development occurs greenhouse gas emission will increase.

“We intend ­to reduce greenhouse gases by 30 per cent by 2020.

“So we know we need to be smart.”

A major centre is clearly central to ambitions, but one that people want to stay in and that is liveable, Betts says.

“If it’s not liveable people won’t stay here.”

But liveability is hard to define.

“It encompasses green spaces but also cultural opportunities and dynamism and safety to bring up families, where the community can develop in a more sustainable way,” Betts says.

“We want Bondi Junction to be a place for design excellence. We want the residents to get the maximum benefits of anything we do. We want to showcase leadership in low carbon technology, in water and waste collection.”

Among plans on the drawing board is an underground waste collection system that could rid the streets of garbage trucks; the Complete Streets project, which aims for more “holistic traffic planning”; an urban design review; partnering with Kinesis to test a plan for distributed energy and water; and light rail to connect to the beach and city alongside plans to reduce congestion.

Not much of this can be achieved without some major partnering, and Betts says the council is working with Westfield, the City of Sydney and other councils, the Green Building Council, the Property Council, the Department of Transport and Infrastructure, AusGrid, EnergyAustralia, and, of course, the community.

Bring the community with us

Betts says Waverley needs to bring the community with it.

“We want them to understand the need for strategic planning, our vision for Bondi Junction and to listen to them.”

She knows high-rise is a problem.

“We know our community is afraid of higher development because they are afraid it will impact on our wonderful heritage. And we need to make sure that doesn’t happen.

“But we believe anything is possible. We think we can build an amazing Bondi Junction that is completely sustainable and we think we can change the whole of Sydney, one precinct at a time, starting with Bondi Junction.

“We’re going to need help. We’ve got a lot of property owners in the room; we need you to help us. Because if Sydney is going to be a global city we need more than just Waverley; we need to cross boundaries and [local government areas].”

Future Cities Collaborative

There’s now also another collaboration, with United States Studies Centre and its Future Cities Collaborative, headed by Professor Ed Blakely, in order to pull together “an overarching strategy to get all our projects together to articulate a clear vision”, Betts says.

We need to talk about density

Professor Ed Blakely is at the event to stage manage some interesting discussion after the formal presentations, moving among the audience to stimulate maximum contribution.

It works. Sparks fly.

Blakely says urbanisation is a global issue and that the US Studies Centre brings in ideas from “all over the world”.

“We brought Michael out to talk about density, not height. You can have great meeting places and great streets, you can have great shopping centres, but you can’t have it without working at it,” he says.

Rod Simpson, associate professor at the University of Sydney, is working on several related issues including Oxford Street, where the failure of many retail businesses in recent years has been blamed on the opening of Westfield a decade ago.

Retail is key, Simpson says, in particular how it’s been designed in tandem with the car. So we have a “car-based urban retail geography” where big centres are spaced at five or 10 kilometre intervals.

These impede the emergence of good precincts, he says.

“The patterns we’ve got at the moment makes it difficult to accommodate some of those projects Michael was talking about.”

Overlay the old car-based patterns with bicycle and pedestrian-friendly neighbourhoods

Simpson says, “No one here suggests this is going to change, but what is going to change is the potential for a much more walkable, cycleable city, in other words, urbanity in living,” Simpson says.

It’s possible to do this as an overlay on the existing patterns.

“What we have to anticipate is a rewriting of parts of the city in terms of walking and cycling. We can overlay that with a new form of urbanity we know the market is interested in, which makes that geography more complex and richer.”

This means the densification of smaller centres, and he points to Sydney’s 137 railway stations as a good starting point, “but there are many others”.

It’s not replacing the existing pattens but supplementing them.

Liverpool gets it

Liverpool in Sydney’s south-west is quite depressed but interesting, Simpson says. There are 15,000 people living in the city centre; 25 per cent don’t own a car and 17 per cent walk to work in the centre of Liverpool.

“That’s a potential that in other centres will be realised in the next 10 years.

“We should see congestion as our friend.”

Executive director of the Shopping Centre Council of Australia, Angus Nardi says large developer levies impede some of the potential in new developments. In the US, he says local governments collect a share of retail revenue so that is more funding available for better precinct projects. Later he rejects the frequent accusations that Westfield centres “suck the life” out of nearby retail precincts and points out that Pottery Barn has chosen to come to Bondi Junction specifically because of the presence of Westfield.

A representative from Westfield talks about the changes the Bondi Junction centre is making internally to respond to customer needs and that some of its shops face open to the street.

The Millennials are different

Dieden thinks the Millennials get it.

“They have different value systems than we did or our parents did,” he says. “They don’t want the suburban house with the white picket fence; they’re not into consumerism.

“They’d much rather shop at a thrift store than Westfield. They want a cool bar, where they meet friends; they’re highly educated and want to be around other creative people.”

And they don’t particularly want to own cars. Or drive anywhere.

“Where is the trade off between density, height and quality?” Blakely asks.

Simpson: “I don’t think there’s necessarily a trade off between those things. We expect everyone to have it all in terms of having a car and driving to work so the trade-off is about people choosing to live differently in different parts of the city.

“The density we’re interested in is the density of people, not cars.”

Blakely on density: “What’s Melbourne doing that we need to do? Because they’re doing a helluvalot of density and they’re being congratulated and we’re being condemned.”

An audience member working on the North West Rail Link points out that in that in some areas, such as where the link is being built, the community can have an historic understanding of what the community means and it doesn’t include density.

Blakely thinks people will chose density “if you do the things Michael is talking about”.

He points to a 15-storey building in the US where a couple met, had a baby and moved to the suburbs, only to move back because what they really wanted was a community.

And in his erudite way, Blakely has the last word.

“So it’s not about how big the building is; it’s about how great the place is.”