Ideas for Australia: City v4.0, a new model of urban growth and governance for Australia

In providing for the well-being of the next three million urban Australians, we need to take unvarnished stock of our situation.

Melbourne Skyline at night from Rialto. Image: Vincentq via Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

Originally published on The Conversation – April 20, 2016


The Conversation has asked 20 academics to examine the big ideas facing Australia for the 2016 federal election and beyond. The 20-piece series examines, among others, the state of democracy, health, education, environment, equality, freedom of speech, federation and economic reform.

We live in a global age of cities. Australia’s major urban regions are expanding rapidly. Melbourne took in a further 91,600 residents in 2014-15, giving an annual growth rate of 2.1 per cent. It’s one of the fastest-growing cities in the developed world.

Australia’s other large cities also grew quickly in the past year – Sydney at 1.7 per cent and Perth and Brisbane at 1.6 per cent. Together the five largest cities added more than 250,000 residents in 2014-15. Projected over the next decade, that’s 2.5 million, the equivalent of adding an extra Brisbane.

Behind the gloss of ‘liveability’

In providing for the well-being of the next three million urban Australians, we need to take unvarnished stock of our situation. Australia’s cities have a reputation for being highly liveable, but such corporate metrics obscure many malign facets.

After three decades of market-driven urbanisation, our cities have become engines of social inequality. The rich have been lifted, inflating housing markets and capturing sites with the best government services and infrastructure and near to high-paid jobs. The poor are displaced to cheaper distant sites where employment, infrastructure and services are lean.

Our cities are socially divided. We’re doing little to redress these failures.

Our cities are also machines for environmental degradation and climate change. Buildings and transport systems are overwhelmingly powered by fossil fuels. Expanding fringes continue to consume vulnerable habitats and precious agricultural land. Even infill development adds to urban land-clearing as backyard trees are bulldozed for townhouses and apartments.

We run our urban systems so that every new resident adds to environmental harm. We need to decouple urban growth from environmental loss.

We waste public resources on grand transport infrastructure for individual private motor vehicles. Our neglected public transport networks either struggle to meet demand, or are absent and so mire whole communities in costly car dependence. Car parking – ubiquitous, spatially hungry and inefficiently underpriced – consumes valuable urban space.

Our governance arrangements are mismatched to the scale of our urban problems. Financing arrangements favour the federal government, an absent actor in urban policy, save for election campaigns when infrastructure baubles are showered from on high. Meanwhile states struggle with their urban service responsibilities.

None of our cities have democratic processes that operate at the level of whole metropolitan areas. Brisbane comes close but is only one council among ten in the urbanised southeast Queensland region.

We urgently need to move beyond our failed model of urbanisation and development.

A fourth phase of urban growth?

Australian cities began as congested 19th-century administrative port towns. As the problems of housing and poverty emerged, we spent the 20th century suburbanising our cities. Via post-WWII reconstruction, we solved housing deficits with new residential suburbs linked to nearby manufacturing as a model of public welfare.

A third phase of urbanisation emerged in the 1980s as we offshored manufacturing. Our cities were reworked to the dictates of global capital by reorienting our inner-urban industrial cores around symbolic work and leisure complexes while deregulating planning and privatising infrastructure.

We began to infill our cities, but in a haphazard way, missing many of the assumed gains from consolidation. The reliance on markets has only added to our urban woes by reducing democratic influence on urban decisions.

With the failures of past planning now apparent, the unruly threat of a damaged and depleting planet is ushering us toward a fourth era of urban restructuring. What urban futures await? What might “City v4.0” look like?

Priorities for 21st-century cities

The problems are vast and complex, but here are some brief starting points.

The first big task for City v4.0 is rapid and radical decarbonisation of our urban systems to reduce our outsized consumption of planetary resources. We need to urgently reduce the use of fossil-fuelled automobiles by shifting to public transport and active travel modes.

Transport decarbonisation can be achieved by a combination of registration costs, road user charging, road space removal and expansion of public transport, though necessarily calibrated around progressive cost structures to avoid social harms. Walking and cycling, the cheapest and most sustainable modes, need an order-of-magnitude leap in the funding and support they enjoy.

We can’t wait for electric cars to be adopted en masse. That prospect is still decades away if it can be achieved at all. Electric cars are largely the preserve of the affluent. They offer little respite to poorer households driving older and less efficient fossil fuel cars across vast suburban distances.

We need to ensure decarbonisation is done inclusively rather than adding another axis of social division. It also means ditching most of our transport cost-benefit analyses which ignore environmental and social costs.

We need to resocialise our cities. Social disparities are hard to redress once entrenched, so that effort must start immediately. The first task is to achieve more even distribution of high-quality jobs, services and infrastructure across our cities so location does not equate to opportunity. This will require a mix of investment, active government planning and new revenue-raising models to fund better urban services.

We need comprehensive and progressive land taxes across our cities. These would draw revenue from the inflationary gains made in property markets during recent decades – which favour the wealthy – and redirect them to public purposes. Taxing higher-value service-rich inner properties, for example, to fund redress of suburban service and infrastructure deficits is an urgent urban reform for more inclusive, equitable cities.

Perhaps some land-tax revenue could go to rebuilding our degraded public housing stock. This has declined as a proportion of all dwellings in recent years.

Further mechanisms, like inclusionary zoning, to make our cities more inclusive and productive via more affordable housing are urgently needed. Removing minimum car-parking standards for infill developments could improve housing affordability and support sustainable transport.

Our cities need comprehensive plans to ensure urban land-clearing from infill development does not leave them overheated, stale and brown. Around half of all urban vegetation is on private land, so we need arrangements to preserve and extend green space. Converting underutilised road space to parks or biodiversity corridors has multiple benefits and should be widely adopted.

New paradigms of planning and governance

A further opportunity, though rarely discussed, is to reactivate our lost capacity for regional planning. Population growth in the major cities should be discouraged in favour of regional centres.

And we need to see our major cities not just as individual primate cities but as networked city-regions. That would entail co-ordinated planning effort to better distribute new population, backed by active facilitation of employment and service investment. This would involve much faster trains than the puffing billies that currently serve our regional cities.

Lastly, our governance arrangements need urgent reorganisation to embed democracy at the meaningful level of the metropolitan area. This would provide a tangible and accessible middle tier between the incapacities of local governments and the general duties of state governments. Metropolitan plans with a clear democratic foundation and enabled by a clear fiscal base should be a priority for urban democratic improvement.

Nationally, we need better co-ordination of policies and funding between the federal government, which controls immigration and taxation, and lower tiers such as the states, which have all urban service responsibilities. Introducing a spatial perspective into all domestic federal policy to understand how federal actions impact cities and their regions would improve policy performance.

As a migrant country with a high rate of population growth, Australia takes people from less environmentally damaging nations and cities and, through our inefficient and degraded urban systems, turns them into some of the worst planetary consumers in the world. There seems little appetite for limiting immigration, nor is stopping urban population growth feasible.

So in an era of global urban transformation, we urgently need to change how we manage, build and grow our cities to version 4.0 so every additional resident enhances, rather than detracts from, the liveability, environmental sustainability and prosperity of our cities.

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