Henry Halloran Trust: Adding balance to debate on our cities’ futures

Henry Halloran Trust

Sydney city aerial view

Sydney faces enormous challenges, from dealing with an overheated housing market to a shocking lack of affordable housing and infrastructure provision failing to meet booming population growth.

These issues hit the front page of the papers almost every day. But in the debate of how we respond to such complex issues, there is a cacophony of competing voices whose solutions vary wildly, depending on political persuasion, interests and fields of knowledge.

Since 2012 the University of Sydney’s Henry Halloran Trust has been providing clarity and balance to these debates through evidence-based research, policy advice, capacity building and a renowned program of lectures, debates and other events designed to stimulate public discussion.

The Trust was set up following a $5 million gift from Warren Halloran– since doubled – and named after his father Henry, a pioneering town planning, developer, engineer and surveyor known for establishing settlements across coastal NSW, including Seaforth Estate, Avoca and Jervis Bay. Through the now $10 million gift, Halloran has created an “enduring legacy” for the promotion of liveable, sustainable and just cities, with the Trust tackling topics from governance and taxation through to transport, land use, finance and ecology.

According to the Trust’s director Professor Peter Phibbs, who is also Head of Urban and Regional Planning and Policy at the University of Sydney, discussion regarding the future of Sydney is often dominated by “noisy voices with a lot of skin in the game” – think groups such as the Urban Taskforce and Property Council of Australia. 

“Sometimes in their enthusiasm for supporting their members they seem to engage in what an academic would call ‘strategic misrepresentation’,” Peter says.

The Henry Halloran Trust is able to step in to provide a platform for independent, critical discussion and analysis. 

“Universities have an important role in this environment to provide an independent, evidence-led voice to promote public discussion.”

There are a number of ways the Trust is doing this. Take for example the recent debate on “zoning”.

The front page headlines all said a variant of “land use zoning raises house prices in Sydney by $489,000”. A wild accusation by the Reserve Bank of Australia, and one in need of analysis, which was, unfortunately, sorely lacking from the major daily newspapers, which failed to go beyond the sensationalist claim. 

Enter the Trust. As part of its event series, it brought together one of the authors of the RBA report, Peter Tulip, along with planning and housing experts with a variety of views to provide some much-needed nuance. It even produced a short film to help debunk what many see as outlandish claims.

Peter says the RBA’s claim of an enormous “zoning effect” was “pretty far-fetched”, demanding further investigation.

“The Halloran Trust has been able to counter some of the hysterical parts of this debate through producing a short film presenting an alternative view and hosting a number of events that have promoted public discussion,” he says.

A main objective of the Trust is to advocate “innovative research and practice to improve urban planning”. As part of this objective the Trust has a flagship “incubator program”.

“We provide financial support for a promising academic to focus on a research project for three years,” Peter says. 

“We also support a post-doctoral fellowship and a practitioner in residence in the incubator. The Trust’s funding is matched by other parts of the University, and cash and in-kind resources are also committed by industry partners.” 

The Trust has just “graduated” its first incubator – the Urban Housing Lab. Led by urban policy and housing professor Nicole Gurran and design and computational lecturer Dr Somwrita Sarkar, the Lab is developing a research platform for examining housing market dynamics in Sydney, and potential levers for change. Research areas include urban policy, housing and planning; urban mobility, health and urban form; the residential real estate market; and machine learning, network science and big urban data. 

There are also another two incubators running at present. 

One, led by Associate Professor Kurt Iveson, is examining the extent of citizen alliances (for example, the Sydney Alliance) across the globe, and their effectiveness as vehicles of citizen engagement and empowerment. Professor Iveson’s interest is in how social justice can be achieved in cities, and the project hopes to contribute to the scholarly understanding of citizen participation in urban governance. 

With our cities facing a barrage of what seem intractable, wicked problems, the importance of independent, evidence-led organisations such as the Henry Halloran Trust has never been greater.

Henry Halloran Trust