We need to talk about our Australian cities, and how to sustain their growth
Published in The Guardian online on 28 January 2014.
We need to talk about cities, especially Australia’s large state capitals like Melbourne.
In the world’s most urbanised nation, around three quarters of recent population increase has been in our largest cities. Notwithstanding the mining boom, 80% of Australia’s economic activity takes place in major urban communities.
Since I represent an outer-suburban electorate in the federal parliament, questions of the future shape of cities are not simply an abstract concern to me. Every day I can’t help but think of how government actions – and failures to act – shape the choices people have in their daily lives, and the horizons of their futures.
If our cities are growing, outer suburban communities are booming. The number of people living in the outer suburbs is projected to double over the next 25 years. One in five Australians will live in the outer suburbs – while less than one in every 10 jobs is presently located there.
Under Labor, the shape of our cities was a national priority for our national government. Unfortunately, this isn't so under the conservatives. One of the first acts of the Abbott government was to abolish the Major Cities Unit which provided vital advice on supporting the development of Australia's 18 biggest cities.
Tony Abbott wishes to be known as the "infrastructure prime minister". But a more telling self-description is his view that the Commonwealth should "stick to its knitting" in terms of infrastructure funding and not support the passenger rail that is so vital to productive and sustainable communities. This speaks to more than simply a preference for cars over trains. It demonstrates a wider prejudice against the collective, indeed against the very sense that it should be the business of government to shape urban development.
On the other hand, the Grattan Institute has undertaken some important work through its Cities unit. Last year’s Productive Cities report neatly sets out why, this year, Australia must get to work on cities policy: "[b]etter functioning cities would unleash higher productivity, and provide everyone with more opportunities. In this case, what is good for the economy is also good for the fair go."
Useful work has been done in the past through the National Urban Policy and the Liveable Cities program, as well as through State and Local governments. And right across our cities, residents groups – people like the Aurora Community Association in my own electorate – are grappling with the big questions around the way we live, as well as issues more closely tied to individual communities.
But since the election, we’ve seen a vacuum in terms of political leadership. Labor proposed a minister for cities, and an outer suburban growth taskforce. In their place we have, well, very little with the promise of still less to come: a shrunken approach to "regional development" denying, in effect, its application to urban communities.
Before minister Albanese, Tom Uren and Brian Howe showed what can be achieved when we make our cities and suburbs national priorities. We cannot afford to hide behind the complexities of our federal system, or the limited direct policy levers at the disposal of the Commonwealth when the stakes are so high.
There is a major role here for Australia's government. Building communities is about so much more than building houses, and we must be prepared to lead a big conversation in the communities we represent and in the Parliament about the cities we aspire to live in. What is to be done about housing affordability? How do we support sustainability? How can we secure infrastructure investment based on need? How do we attract jobs to the suburbs? How do we build social inclusion and cohesion?
We must also recognise that the relevant timelines are much longer than the political cycle. Consider the impact of under-investment in public transport decades ago on Victorian politics today, or the huge productivity and liveability impacts of our failure to remove so many level crossings in Melbourne – a job finished in New York in the 1920s.
Places like Toronto, Seattle and Copenhagen demonstrate the benefits of a strategic and coordinated approach to the governance and planning of communities. Crucially, successful cities are engaged in a real dialogue with citizens in this reform project. Shaping how we live is a democratic process, not simply a problem for technocrats to "solve". In the US, this has been called a "metropolitan revolution."
Melburnians are proud of living in the world’s most liveable city, and rightly so. But we didn’t get to this point by luck alone and today risk the prospect of fragmenting into two cities: a prosperous core and lesser opportunities further out.
If we want to remain a vibrant, inclusive and dynamic place we can’t sit on our hands. Our cities and those who live in them deserve the full attention of all levels of government – working with one another, responsive to community.