Oct 17, 2017

Better cities need greater vision – Opinion – Planning News

It was Gough Whitlam and Tom Uren who first argued for the need for Commonwealth engagement in the proper planning of Australian cities.

Launching his successful 1972 election campaign, Whitlam highlighted the absurdity of the view that urban policy could be fenced off as the province of local and state governments.

Whitlam said: “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 was right then, but his comments are even more relevant now.

Our cities are growing quickly but their economic productivity is being held back by traffic congestion which, according to the Bureau of Transport, Infrastructure and Regional Economics, cost Australia $16.5 billion in lost productivity in 2015.

Urban Australia is also suffering from the fact that high housing prices make it very difficult for average income earners to live close their workplaces.

This is because jobs growth is strongest in and around the central business districts of our capital cities.

As a result, many Australians spend long periods commuting to and from work from drive-in, drive-out suburbs, robbing them of time in their local communities and with their families.

Indeed, it is a tragedy that many Australian parents spend more time travelling to and from work than they spend playing with their children.

Australia needs a plan to improve urban planning to confront this and a range of other challenges.

It’s not just about the economy, as important as the economy is.

It’s also about our quality of life and the extent to which we ensure that at least some of the proceeds of national economic growth are ploughed back into community infrastructure and initiatives that enhance that quality of life.

An ad-hoc approach won’t work.

We need a plan that not only boosts productivity, but also recognizes that cities are home to 80 per cent of the national population.

The former Labor Federal Government was a serious player in urban policy.

We created the Major Cities Unit within the Department of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Development and worked with state and local government to create integrated transport plans for our state capitals under a process chaired by Brian Howe.

We also created Infrastructure Australia to assess proposals for major projects and allow the Government to invest in infrastructure on the basis of evidence, not political considerations.

Our aim was to improve quality of life through infrastructure provision as part of our ambition to realise the concept of the 30-Minute City concept  – the idea promoted by some planners 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.

The dream of a 30-Minute City is a tall order in the 21st century in cities with populations that run into the millions.

But the following 10 ideas provide the blueprint for the actions of the next Labor Federal Government.

  1. Investing in properly integrated transport systems involving public transport and roads. State governments are taking up the fight against traffic congestion by investing in major projects like the Melbourne Metro and Brisbane’s Cross River Rail. However these mega-projects need Commonwealth financial support along with public transport projects in other capital cities.
  2. Investing in active transport solutions which connect up with public transport, education and employment hubs. This will involve, for example, expanding Infrastructure Australia’s assessment of road and rail proposals to include consideration of whether it would make sense to construct bikeways or walking paths as part of these projects.
  3. Addressing housing affordability through urban planning, land supply, the use of incentives and modest changes to the tax treatment of negative gearing and Capital Gains Tax.
  4. Aligning greater housing density with existing public transport corridors. This will require closer collaboration with state and local governments as well as the development community to ensure the delivery of quality developments that also improve liveability.
  5. Promoting jobs growth in outer suburbs. This would take place through direct investment in projects such as the Western Sydney Airport and intermodal facilities, or by giving consideration to incentives for re-location of business.
  6. Promoting jobs growth in middle rings around cities by investing in research precincts around universities and hospitals.
  7. Supporting connectivity and productivity through fibre-to-the-premise National Broadband Network. It is clear that the rollout of the fibre-to-the-node technology is failing to meet public expectations or requirements, even as the new network is under construction. We need to accept this as a fact and embrace the 21st century fibre-based technology contemplated by the previous Labor Government when it commenced this important project.
  8. Supporting renewable energy including buildings and precincts that produce their own power in new developments. This is particularly important given that cities consume 75 per cent of the world’s energy use and produce more than 76 per cent of all carbon.
  9. Enhancing sustainability and resilience of household and industrial water supply and rehabilitating our urban waterways which for too long were used for industrial waste. Improving water quality in urban waterways is not only good for the environment, but will also offer enhanced recreation opportunities for city residents.
  10.  Co-operation between Governments to promote the development of second or third CBDs to decentralize jobs growth. In Melbourne, for example, centres such as Box Hill offer great potential for urban renewal. Improved public transport and roads to such areas would spark business investment and lead to jobs growth, creating the potential for more people to work much closer to where they live.

When it comes to our cities, legislators need vision.

It’s not enough simply to respond to the pressures of development and population growth as they arise.

A wiser approach is to imagine better cities in consultation with experts, build community support for your vision and then take the concrete steps that are necessary to make that vision real.

Our cities will grow in coming decades. It’s up to us to work collaboratively to guide development in the public interest.

In 1972, Gough Whitlam’s decision to involve the Commonwealth in the affairs of Australian cities was seen as bold and unprecedented.

Whitlam delivered genuine change, particularly when it came to preservation of heritage.

But if you ask older Australians, many will tell you that the biggest outcome for Australian cities was that fact that Commonwealth investment allowed councils across our cities to fully sewer their communities.

This made a material difference to the daily quality of life of millions of Australians.

In the 21st century, our goals will be very different.

But if we get it right, the effects of our work can be just as profound.

This piece was first published in October 2017 edition of Planning News – the journal of the Victorian Division of the Planning Institute of Australia.