Sep 25, 2014

A better life in our cities- Opinion- The Australian

FORTY-TWO years ago in Sydney, just before he became our 21st prime minister, Gough Whitlam made an important observation about the involvement of the commonwealth in urban policy.

He said: “A national government which cuts itself off from responsibility for the nation’s cities is cutting itself off from the nation’s real life. A national government which has nothing to say about cities has nothing relevant or enduring to say about the nation or the nation’s future.”

Whitlam’s observation in 1972 is even more relevant today than when he was outlining his ambitious plans to invest in cities and provide urban-policy leadership to other levels of government.

Cities matter. They produce 80 per cent of our GDP and are home to four out of five Australians. They are also under increasing pressure.

Our population is expected to double by 2060 and the rise of the digital age is changing work patterns with dramatic consequences for the way our cities function.

We must address these shifts, or productivity growth and living standards will slip backwards.

Urban policy is too complex to be dealt with without all levels of government working closely with developers, planners and other experts. I want to illustrate that complexity with an example of a key challenge facing today’s urban planners: the mismatch between areas of population growth and areas of employment growth.

The 2013 State of Australian Cities Report identified that population growth was strong in the middle and outer rings of our cities where housing was affordable. But it also noted that the decline of manufacturing and the rise of knowledge-intense industries meant jobs growth was increasingly concentrated in and near central business districts of major cities. For the first time in decades, population and jobs growth are not geographically aligned. Many Australians can’t find work in the places they can afford to live and can’t afford housing near the places where jobs are available.

This is robbing Australians of time with their families and is worsening traffic congestion, which is a handbrake on productivity growth. Australia is witnessing the rise of a new phenomenon: drive-in-drive out suburbs where people cannot afford to live near their workplaces.

This is a recipe for entrenched inequity and economic stagnation. But we can choose to confront these challenges.

They require a wide range of policy responses in areas including housing affordability, land supply, job shortages in the suburbs, inadequate public transport, access to education and training and urban amenity.

No government acting alone could address all of these issues.

Simply saying “that’s a matter for local councils,’’ is about as useless as saying you can address climate change just by planting more trees. Pretending these problems will be solved simply by building new toll roads, which seems to be the current government’s approach, is little better.

We need principles which drive policy development.

I’m attracted to the notion of the 30-minute city — a simple concept that most of people’s day-to-day work, educational, shopping or recreational activities should be located within 30 minutes’ walking, cycling or public commuting from their homes.

Urban policy is one of the great divides in Australian politics. While Labor governments since Whitlam have been activists in our cities, conservative governments, including the Abbott government, have always withdrawn from cities.

Since taking office Tony Abbott has abolished the Major Cities Unit and failed to convene a single meeting of the Urban Policy Forum, which provides a venue for co-operation on urban policy with other levels of government and industry experts.

Worst of all, Abbott has cancelled billions of dollars of investment in urban rail which had been allocated by Labor.

Public transport is one of our best weapons against traffic congestion. Abbott doesn’t understand this. He appears to have an ideological antipathy to mass transit.

In his 2009 book, Battlelines, Abbott wrote: “…there just aren’t enough people wanting to go from a particular place to a particular destination at a particular time to justify any vehicle larger than a car, and cars need roads.”

There is no issue too big for Abbott to show how small he is as a policy thinker.

This article was originally published by The Australian: