A Profile of John Mant

(prepared by the Sydney Morning Herald - November 2008)

How we manage our cities drove this visionary to reform the rules. Urban-planning consultant John Mant believes being born in 1936 was a stroke of good luck.

"I was too young for the Korean War and too old for the Vietnam War. I enjoyed the long post-war boom, the ups and downs, and the increases in house prices, all the good things that happened to the baby boomers ... but I'm less hated than the boomers. At least I can say I suffered during the Second World War. We couldn't get chocolate ice-cream!"

Mant's interest in planning took root while studying law at the University of Sydney. "I never really wanted to be a lawyer," he says. "I studied law because there were lawyers all through my family and it was expected I would go into my father's firm."

Then an architect friend suggested Mant study planning "because I was always whinging about what the planners were doing". He thought Mant would learn why planners made the decisions they did. "In fact I discovered they didn't know why they were doing it either. And most of my life has been spent trying to get a different approach to the way we manage cities," he says.

Mant's curriculum vitae is impressive and varied but always underlined by concern for social justice. He was an adviser to Labor minister Tom Uren in the Whitlam era and he was the acting commissioner of the Independent Commission Against Corruption in the '90s but he is perhaps best known for rewriting the NSW Local Government Act and developing a set of planning guidelines known as place management and parcel formatting.

In NSW, urban planning is based largely on dividing land into zones, such as industrial, residential and business. It's as if the purpose of good planning is to separate land uses, Mant says, rather than to "create good places" in tune with their unique characteristics.

"Each place is important and should be entitled to have its own set of rules," he says. "If you are building in [hilly, coastal] Warringah, it's different to if you are building in [flat, inland] Penrith but what happens now is that the same set of rules applies to both. So you've got to take the treed slope in Warringah and create flat sites for project homes to be wheeled in. Nothing is designed. It's all formula."

What's more, suburbs are developed by first subdividing the land and then plonking buildings on them without regard to the total picture. "I have always argued we should start with the design of the houses, where they're going to be, then how the roads are going to work and last, where the boundaries might be,"

The way things stand "project house-sellers sell a size rather than good design".

Mant works to discourage councils from organising themselves into specialist silos. "Engineers in one division, planners in another, social workers and surveyors each in theirs, each with a separate set of standards. You add up all the standards and what you get is the city," he says.

This approach, Mant notes, creates "lumpy" urban areas in which separated interests protect their own patch rather than being devoted to a coherent whole.

Given a magic wand for Sydney, Mant says he would have a single set of standards for each place and one responsible person, backed by a team, overseeing each place.

"You need someone with a vision and backing and capacity ... who arrives on Monday morning and leaves on Friday night and does whatever it takes, from ringing a federal member ... to talking to the lawn-mowing people," he says. "Form follows organisation. That's the basis of my whole career."

Mant's father might have failed to persuade his son to follow in his footsteps but he did instil a powerful set of values.

"My father, in his conservative way, was a very upright person, incredibly proper about his practice of the law and doing the right thing," Mant says. "Whenever I complained about things he would say, well, what [are] you doing about it? I suppose in a sense most of my life has been about that."

The central path through Urambi Village a 70 dwelling cluster housing development designed in the 1970s by architect Michael Dysart.
By placing courtyard and terrace houses into the site and its natural landscape and involving the potential purchasers in the design, the standard densities were able to be doubled with excellent environmental and social outcomes.
Place design at its best!

The Big Questions

Biggest break
Being invited to help then premier Don Dunstan reform the planning system in South Australia after the downfall of the Whitlam government.

Biggest achievement
A 1992 commission of inquiry into the NSW Department of Housing that led to control of public housing being taken away from architects and engineers and handed to the people who looked after the tenants. I think that's had the most influence on the most lives.

Biggest regret
Not planning for a career. I tended to do whatever came along without thinking about whether or not it was the right move. [But] that turned out all right.

Best investment
Buying terrace houses in the eastern suburbs in two downturns.

Worst investment
Buying a house in Adelaide.

Attitude to money
Lackadaisical. I try not to bother about it if I can help it.

Personal philosophy
If there's something wrong, do something about it.