May 16, 2018

Opinion Piece – Our Rapidly Changing Cities Are Threatening The Aussie Way Of Life – Ten Daily – Wednesday, 16 May 2018

In a nation famed for its easy lifestyle, we must find ways to manage growth in our cities so it does not destroy our Australian quality of life.

Late last year statisticians reported a fascinating demographic shift that highlighted a fundamental change in the lifestyle of Australians in the 21st century.

Official figures on housing approvals for November 2017 showed there were more apartments and townhouses approved by councils across Australia than stand-alone houses with yards.

The figures highlight how population growth is leading to increased population density in our cities as more Australians embrace apartment living in preference to the traditional house on a block of land in the suburbs.

As the population increases, there has been a consequential increase in population density, particularly along existing public transport corridors.

This growth presents a great challenge for all levels of government.

In a nation famed for its easy lifestyle, we must find ways to manage growth in our cities so it does not destroy our Australian quality of life. Indeed, if we confront today’s big demographic shifts in a spirit of goodwill and collaboration, we might just be able to harness change in ways that improve our quality of life.

The starting point is the promotion of communities.

When you live in a house with a yard in the suburbs, you tend to see your neighbours frequently, either on the street, over the back fence or at the local shops.

This contact nurtures community links.

In a future where more people live in apartments, we must think of ways to ensure that apartment buildings are designed in ways that also promote human contact.

Urban planning regulations should encourage the development of lively precincts around high-intensity residential areas including entertainment areas, parks, playgrounds and other areas where people can congregate safely for community activities.

We should also encourage mixed-use developments with units on upper floors and shops and other public spaces at ground level.

Indeed, governments could seek to partner with the private sector to incorporate public facilities like libraries or government service centres into residential developments.

Putting this another way, governments need to move beyond seeing themselves as impassive regulators that tick boxes on building standards and start seeing themselves as partners in building better communities.

Governments need to work with the private sector to look beyond the design of individual buildings to also consider the spaces between buildings and he way in which buildings fit into their neighbourhoods.

We have a choice here.

We can create soulless and sterile streetscapes where people seldom stop to talk to each other. Or we can be creative and create vibrant public areas that facilitate human contact and enrich communities.

Good planning can deliver these outcomes.

For example, in the Inner West of Sydney, slight height increases were allowed in new apartments on New Canterbury road, Dulwich Hill, in return for ground floor space to accommodate the Emanuel Tsardoulias Council Library.

The other key to better cities in the 21st century is increased Commonwealth investment in public transport.

The Government’s Bureau of Transport and Regional Economics has calculated that traffic congestion cost the Australian economy $16.5 billion in lost economic activity in 2015.

Increasing population density in cities will worsen this problem.

We can no longer afford to ignore the need for major enhancements to our urban rail systems.

State Governments are doing their bit, funding projects such as the Melbourne Metro, Brisbane’s Cross River Rail project and the Perth METRONET.

But the Coalition Federal Government has been indifferent to public transport. In 2013 the Abbott Government cancelled all public transport investment not under construction.

Malcolm Turnbull overturned the ban on public transport investment. And while the 2018-19 Budget did include some public transport commitments, the money will not start to flow in many cases until years from now.

That’s not good enough.

The shift to greater urban population density is already on.

Governments must keep up with changing needs. There is no time to waste.

This piece was first published by Ten Daily on Wednesday, 16 May 2018: