Authentic leadership in an interconnected future

The idea that our built environment is central to the creation of community is a simple idea, but a fundamental one, says outgoing chief of World Vision Australia, Rev Tim Costello AO.

After more than a decade at the helm, Costello (pictured) has recently stepped aside to take on the newly-created role of chief advocate. In March, he’ll be headlining Green Cities 2017, and will be exploring authentic leadership in an interconnected future.

Costello says he has new insights into the future of our cities, having recently moved with his wife from a suburban house in Melbourne to an apartment in Southbank.

“It’s a low-rise green village and I’ve been amazed by the level of community – something we didn’t experience in the suburbs,” he says. He loves the shared spaces and diversity in age groups and adds that he is “absolutely staggered by the level of respect and civility” that can be found in the city.

“It underscores for me that when you get things right between the built environment and human needs it can be brilliant. When you get things wrong, because you’re thinking about a return per square metre or other economic factors, you don’t see humans flourish.”

The importance of place and ownership is “fundamental” to the human condition, he says. Over the decade he’s worked with World Vision, he’s been helping Indigenous Australians to seek title over communal and traditional lands.

“We know that when you unlock that sense of ownership, the pride, respect, upkeep and unification is unleashed.”

Costello was a founding member of the Port Phillip Housing Association three decades ago, which was established to provide secure and affordable community rental housing for St Kilda residents with long-term links to the area.

Speaking at the annual general meeting recently, he met up with more than 700 residents who had benefited from the program. “I saw dignity, celebration and respect for different socio economic groups. These people were not ghettoised but integrated into the broader community.”

A vocal supporter of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, Costello says the 17 targets are not just for poor people “over there”, and “Australia’s commitment to them will be marked”. These goals are interdependent, he emphasises. “So, if we fail on one, we fail on all.”

The built environment has an impact on six of the 17 goals: health and wellbeing; affordable and clean energy; infrastructure; sustainable cities; responsible consumption; and climate action.

“The Millennium Development Goals were about the poor ‘over there’, but the Sustainable Development Goals include cities, given we have more than 50 per cent of the world’s population living in cities.

“This is a unique opportunity for Australia, as the most urbanised country on earth. We have some long learning in our DNA that applies to these goals and our cities.

“We are going to have the spotlight put on us – and there will be no chance for smugness.

“We know we have to have smaller footprints – and yet up goes a new suburb without public transport, but with pokies promising community building on the back of addiction. It’s really bad planning.”

Costello says a “lived experience” is an important factor in any good development. “People in the property sector must ask themselves: Would I live here? Or would I have my kids live here?” He thinks anyone proposing a development should have to stay a night in a prototype.

“The heart sees and understands a long way before the head sees and understands.”

The Rev Tim Costello AO will be joined by Christine Covington, partner at Corrs Chambers Westgarth, journalist Catherine Fox,  and Michael Ullmer, independent non-executive director at Lendlease, as they examine why a sustainable future will be built on kindness and authenticity. Book your ticket to Green Cities.