Nov 30, 2011

Address to the Fifth Annual State of Australian Cities Conference – University of Melbourne

INTRODUCTION

Before I get down to talking about Australian cities indulge me for a moment while I take you north to our largest neighbour, China.

I had the pleasure last week of meeting the Vice Chairman of China’s National Development and Reform Commission, Xu Xianping.

He was in Australia to learn more about the work we are doing to make our cities more productive, sustainable and liveable.

After loading him up with our own urban policy which I released in May, and our latest State of Australian Cities Report released last month, the Vice Chairman reciprocated with this little red book.

It is, of course, China’s latest Five Year Plan – the twelfth such plan.

As I read through this little book – and it is actually very clear and readable – I realised that it is one of the most important documents in the world, and for the world.

Because in these globalised, interconnected times, China’s future is in part also our future.

It is heartening to see the great strides China is taking to promote alternative energy sources and curb CO2 emissions.

But the dominant theme of this plan is urbanisation and how to make sure that wealth generated in its cities also flows through to the regions.The fact is that China, like so much of the world, is undergoing rapid urbanisation.

In 2009, the global population crossed the halfway point towards urbanisation.

In China, it’s taken a little longer.

In 1978, China had 176 cities.

Now there are 655 and they are growing fast.

Sometime over the next five years China itself will reach a giant milestone.

More people – according to the official record – will be putting their head down to sleep each night in a city than in the countryside.

For a nation so large and so steeped in an agrarian past, China’s transformation into urban culture will be a reality for a majority of Chinese citizens.

Here, of course, we long ago made that transformation.

For we are among the most urbanised countries on the planet.

Despite the international perception of us as a nation of bushies and miners, it could hardly be more misplaced.

Those vast farmlands and desert landscapes are far over the horizon for the 85 per cent of us that live within 50 kilometres of the coast.

Three out of every four of us live in a major city of 100,000 or more.

And it is our cities that generate 80 per cent of our national wealth.

Seeing as I am standing here in Melbourne, I must congratulate this city on the news a couple of months ago that it is the most liveable city in the world.

That’s a remarkable result.

The annual Economist Intelligence Liveability Survey ranks 140 cities on stability, health care, culture and environment, education and infrastructure.

Sydney, Perth and Adelaide also made the top ten – a feat not equalled by any other country.

While I am not about to argue with The Economist – and clearly our cities are serving us well by world standards – it is still the case that our 18 major cities are facing unprecedented pressures.

Population growth, housing affordability, an ageing population, growing congestion and urban sprawl are the most obvious.

But there are less obvious ones that require national attention – such as the capacity of our cities to respond to severe storms like those that caused so much suffering along our eastern seaboard earlier this year.

Or how our ports, rail lines and roads will cope with the enormous growth in our freight load, given that volumes are set to double by 2030 and triple by 2050.

Historically in Australia, cities policy has been left largely to the States and Territories.

The fact is our cities have become simply too important to ignore.

NATIONAL URBAN POLICY

After a lot of hard work and consultation right across the country, the Federal Government released in May the nation’s first ever national urban policy – Our Cities, Our Future.

At the core of the policy are three themes – productivity, sustainability and liveability.

It is not the first time a Federal Government has turned a national eye to cities – Prime Ministers Whitlam, Hawke and Keating all had programs directly addressing the concerns of cities.

But it is the first time a national government has set out its overarching goals for the nation’s 18 major cities with populations above 100,000 people.

I am conscious that I am standing before a gathering of cities experts so I am assuming that you all have some knowledge of the policy.

So rather than go through it in any detail, I’ll use this opportunity to update you on its progress and the complementary COAG Cities agenda.

Under an agreement signed by leaders around the COAG table, all States and Territories will have in place strategic planning systems for their capital cities by 1 January next year.

These planning systems must meet nine nationally-agreed criteria.

For instance cities must show how they are providing for nationally-significant economic infrastructure such as transport corridors, airports and ports, intermodal connections, communications and utilities.

They must show how they are providing for evidence-based land release and an appropriate balance of infill and greenfield development.

And they must address big policy issues such as how they are planning for population growth and demographic change, climate change mitigation, housing affordability and how they can better connect people to jobs.

Future Commonwealth infrastructure funding will be tied to these plans.

Those plans are now being reviewed by the COAG Reform Council and the results will be made public early next year.

I should make clear that like the States and Territories, we in the Federal Government are also getting our house in order.

The COAG Reform Council found a clear lack of coordination between national agencies involved in cities activities.

The Secretary of my Department, Mike Mrdak, now chairs a committee of departmental secretaries in charge of fixing that.

LIVEABLE CITIES

The national urban policy flagged a new Government program – Liveable Cities – which seeks to encourage better planning and design of our cities, their buildings and urban spaces.

Liveable Cities will also encourage projects that reduce car dependency and congestion by offering practical solutions for better public transport, cycling and pedestrian access.

Projects selected for funding must be able to demonstrate good planning and design that can be emulated and applied across Australia’s cities and regional centres.

The application process for Liveable Cities is now well underway and I look forward to announcing the successful projects early in the New Year.

STATE OF AUSTRALIAN CITIES 2011

The response to the 2011 State of Australian Cities Report has been quite astonishing.

After I announced the report’s findings before the State of Commonwealth Cities Symposium in Brisbane on 20 October, my Department had to add extra capacity to its server to cope with the demand.

Within the first 24 hours it had been downloaded around 150,000 times.

A month later, it has been downloaded 350,000 times.

What this shows is an enormous hunger among Australians for our cities to perform better, and to be ready to seize the opportunities that come with being positioned in the fastest growing region of the planet.

The report was the second of its kind and provides a national snapshot of our major cities.

It makes for fascinating reading but – more importantly – what this and future reports will do is allow us to compare our cities with each other and to check progress over time towards becoming more productive, sustainable and liveable.

Around the country, Australian cities are growing at a rapid rate and there is no indication that this pace is going to slow.

On the contrary, in addition to the current 18 major cities, another six rapidly growing regional centres are likely to have a population of more than 100,000 within 15 years.

These emerging cities are Mandurah and Bunbury in the west, Bendigo and Ballarathere in Victoria and Mackay and Hervey Bay in Queensland.

PROGRESS REPORTS

A major challenge for us in Australia is sustainability.

I was therefore delighted last week when my colleague Kim Carr announced two major new cooperative research centres worth almost $60 million that directly address sustainability.

The first will help find solutions to better manage the way we use water in our urban areas – an issue of critical importance.

The second will bring together leading researchers and key end-users to develop new tools to reduce carbon emissions in the built environment.

I can also advise that guidelines for our Suburban Jobs Program are almost ready for release.

The guidelines have been prepared after widespread consultation with state and local governments and key stakeholders.

This program is about supporting employment precincts in the outer suburbs of our major cities – to help provide jobs closer to where people live.

That means more cars off the road and more time at the end of the day for family and friends.

URBAN DESIGN PROTOCOL

Today I am launching the first ever Australian Urban Design Protocol.

It is called, simply — Creating Places for People and is a direct response to the call by leaders at COAG for a higher standard of urban design and architecture in our cities.

The Protocol embraces the thinking of Danish architect and urban designer Jan Gehl, who said: ‘First life, then spaces, then buildings: the other way around never works.’

The Protocol also reflects a simple rule that guided the thinking of the late Peter Harrison.

I understand this evening you will be awarding a prize in his name.

Peter was an architect and the first Chief Planner of the National Capital Development Commission.

He was famous for always testing his ideas with the ‘mother test’ which was: ‘would my mother want to live in it’?

The urban design protocol has been developed in a similar vein.

In other words: ‘Would my mother use these words to describe places that she likes to visit or would want to live in?’

The planners among you will be disappointed if you were hoping to hear about permeability, legibility and way-finding.

Instead you will read descriptions such as ‘It feels comfortable to walk through,’ ‘You feel safe and secure,’ and ‘It is a place you want to visit, experience or live in.’

This is because we want the Urban Design Protocol to be used far and wide – and for that reason it must make sense to everyone.

Firstly, decision makers and professionals whose actions affect the urban environment.

Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, the individuals and groups who care about the design of their communities, or who may be affected by decisions about the built environment.

The protocol was overseen by an editorial board of around 50 people and in total more than 500 from right around the country contributed.

I am pleased that already there are commitments to incorporate it into industry, State, Territory and Local Government policies, tools and planning instruments.

The protocol web-site also features a selection of previous winners of the Prime Minister’s ‘Australia Award for Urban Design’ initiated by Paul Keating.

The first award in 1996 went to the City of Melbourne.

My great thanks to everyone who contributed to this process, in particular the Green Building Council of Australia, Melbourne City Council, the Heart Foundation, Government architects, the Planning Institute of Australia and Institute of Architects.

I am delighted to declare Creating Places for People officially launched.

CONCLUSION

Let me finish where I began, with our great neighbour, China.

It is not surprising that China is looking so seriously at what the rest of the world is doing in the realm of cities policy.

With its ever-expanding rate of growth and industrialisation, China’s cities have become a magnet for rural workers and their families seeking a better life.

Because in 21st century China – like the rest of the world – it is our cities that are providing most of the opportunities of the future.

This 12th Five Year Plan talks extensively about well-being.

China joins a growing group of nations including the UK, US, Canada and the OECD, all looking directly at this issue.

Because while GDP might be a great measure of national income, by itself it’s not an absolute indication of liveability.

I understand that with true Chinese efficiency, part of our National Urban Policy has already been translated so that they might look to adapt aspects of it to help guide the future of their own cities.

The policy is also being used as a model by other countries as they – like Australia – grapple with the great challenge before us, of making our cities not just productive, but also sustainable and liveable.