Nov 28, 2011

Helping our cities meet the challenges of the future – Opinion – Canberra Times

As Air Force One swooped low over Canberra before its smooth landing on the tarmac recently, it’s interesting to wonder what President Obama thought of the bush capital laid out below him. Because it is from the air that the masterful city plan of his compatriot Walter Burley Griffin most readily reveals its extent and elegance. In 2013, the city that began as a compromise between rivals Sydney and Melbourne will celebrate 100 years since Lady Gertrude Denman stood amidst the boulders and scrub on what is now Capital Hill and named it Canberra.

Much has been written about the nation’s capital as it has grown from dusty hamlet into modern metropolis. Burley Griffin’s dream of a successful, beautiful city has indeed been realised for not only does it function well as a centre of government, it also rates highly on just about every social and liveability scale.

But we now know a lot more about the city of Canberra. For instance, the city’s malls and restaurants can rest easy in the knowledge that Canberrans dig deeper into their pockets for goods and services than anyone else. This could be due to their higher than average wages or that unemployment stands at just 2.8 percent, only just behind Darwin as the lowest in the nation and well below the national average of 5.3 percent. The children of Canberra are also more likely than any others to live in a home where at least one parents has a job.

Cycle stores should also be thriving because the people of Canberra love their bikes with the second highest level of bike ownership and bike use of any major city. They also rank highest  for rates of physical activity and lead the nation in volunteering, always a sign of community connectedness and well-being.

We know that Canberra’s rapid suburban spread is slowing with nearly two flats and apartments being built for every new free standing house, a rate unmatched by any other capital city. Canberrans are also doing a great job saving water and are the best recyclers in the country, producing the lowest quantities of landfill waste. These fact and many more are contained in a unique publication – The State of Australian Cities 2011. It provides a snapshot of our major cities, defined as those with populations above 100,000.  While the report (which can be downloaded) makes fascinating reading, its purpose is much more than that. What this and future editions serve to do is to enable us to compare our cities with each other and to check progress over time, towards becoming more productive, sustainable and liveable.

Australia’s cities have never been more important. They generate 80 percent of our national wealth and are home to three out of every four of us. Despite the charming international perception of us as a nation of stoic miners and bushies, it could hardly be more misplaced. We are one of the most urbanised nations in the world. Those vast farmlands and desert landscapes are well over the horizon for the 85 percent of us who live within 50 kilometres of the coast.

Since 2007, the Australian Government has begun re-engaging with our cities. The reason is that while our cities rate towards the top of almost every international liveability scale, they are facing unprecedented pressures. Population growth, housing affordability, an ageing population, growing congestion and urban sprawl are among 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 earlier this year along our eastern seaboard. 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. There’s also a pressing need to make sure our new homes and office towers are more sustainable than the energy-wasting designs of the past.

The State of Australia Cities report does not paint a completely rosy picture of Canberra. It is highly dependent on a single industry (government) with the lowest level of manufacturing employment of any of the major cities, and low numbers of jobs in the retail and wholesale sectors. Public transport is also less available than in other capital cities.

Converting cities designed in another age into cities of the future is not easy. It requires fresh thinking by governments of all levels. Traditionally, the growth and policies of cities has been left in the hands of state and local authorities. But now, following an agreement between the Federal Government and State and Territory leaders, all major cities are finalising extensive plans, showing just how they are preparing for the future.

And these plans, which will be in place by 1 January 2012, are important. Future Federal infrastructure funding will depend on how well they address nine key areas of concern. These include planned evidence-based land-release with an appropriate balance of in-fill, preserving corridors at key transport gateways such as ports to allow for future expansion, preparations for climate change and natural disasters, better designed and more environmentally-sensitive new homes and offices, and addressing the housing needs of a growing and older population.

We live in the most competitive and fastest growing region of the planet. Our cities must be ready to seize the opportunities that come with that. The response to the Federal Government’s efforts to make our cities better places to live and work has been heartening. There is clearly a hunger among Australians for our cities to perform better and a realisation that it is for the benefit of all of us that our cities become more productive, sustainable and liveable.