There is nothing new about ‘megaprojects’. Cities and indeed civilisation has depended on major infrastructure works to enable the concentrations of humans in cities far in excess of the carrying capacity of their physical footprint. Think of Roman aqueducts, the water supply systems of Angkor Wat, or the rail system in India.
The novelty of the term ‘megaproject’ and reason for its emergence comes from the shift from publicly funded infrastructure projects where the public sector has borne most of the risk, when large projects were simply what governments did, in the early to mid 20th century, to projects where the risk is shared in public-private partnerships or other arrangements, to mixed-use urban renewal projects that do not always have clear benefits for the wider city.
As large tracts of cities fall into disuse due to shifts in economic geography and technology, governments are attracted to the prospect of possible revenue from the sale of government assets, ‘remaking’ and re-integrating these areas with their surroundings and possibly acting as a ‘catalyst’ or stimulus for further investment.
These mixed-use projects have emerged as a result of an ever diminishing capacity of governments to undertake even the relatively modest infrastructure works that might be required for areas of urban renewal or urban expansion.
Although these projects are claimed to involve little risk to the public sector, because government is a willing and necessary proponent, clearing the way for approvals, assembling sites, and usually offering transfer of land from public ownership to private, the question must be asked what is the motivation and what is the way to maximise the public benefit.
There are three aspects that need to be thought about: the external or contextual rationale; how the ‘project’ relates to the city, the internal rationale; how the project is structured and delivered, and lastly, whether the development of whole precincts as complete ‘projects’ or ‘precincts’ is the best way to make the city, as compared to critical infrastructure that would allow the surrounding area to evolve over time.
The contextual rationale of the project is about defining what it is trying to achieve, and in particular how the public benefit will be maximised. This requires a broad view and positioning within the entire city, not just the integration with or concern for the local context.
The internal rationale is about defining the best way to share risk, who pays and who benefits. It may also be about questioning assumptions, for example that the best ‘deal’ for the public is to get cash up front, or that the private developer should deliver the public domain.
This leads to the last aspect; the very use of the word ‘project’ when applied to whole precincts is also problematic. It suggests something that is well defined in time and space, it has a starting point and an endpoint and a clearly defined boundary. While such a precise definition is essential to allowing the project to be subject to contractual arrangements, this is very different to the way cities and areas within them emerge and grow over time, where there is no end point and an uncertain end-state, so what exactly is the ‘project’? and how and by whom should it be managed as a precinct, if at all differently to the rest of the city after the initial project is completed?
In short the key questions for any megaproject as it is formulated must include:
-What sort of city do we want? - for whose benefit.
-What is the best way of getting it? - designing the delivery and procurement processes.
-What sort of governance is required? - both on-going and during the delivery process.
Watch TV program Utopia on ABC iview for some humour on the topic, highway upgrades and megaproject endeavours of the fictitious Nation Building Authority.
Associate Professor Rod Simpson. The University of Sydney.
 Roman aqueducts, Angkor Wat, Tenochtitlan, Haussmann, Panama Canal, Indian Railroads, etc.