Dec 24, 2012

Our cities are too important to ignore – Opinion – The Punch

No matter how mundane a city’s origins, urban concentrations can have magical consequences. So says the great urban economist Edward Glaeser. He points out that the Romans settled on an island in the Seine because it was a good spot to protect themselves against unfriendly Gauls. Two thousand years later we have Paris, one of the greatest centres of cultural and economic innovation on the planet. Here in Australia, our cities are mere infants compared to Paris but, like cities pretty much everywhere, ours face an immense array of challenges.

We are among the most urbanised of nations with three out of every four Australians living in cities. And though we might be good at farming and mining, it is our cities that generate 80 per cent of our wealth. While the day to day planning and maintenance of our cities is, of course, the responsibility of the States, Territories and Local Government, our cities are too important to ignore. That is why the Australian Government has re-engaged with our cities, including the release of the national urban policy Our Cities, Our Future early last year. Part of our engagement is via an annual report card on our 18 major cities called The State of Australian Cities. The third in the series has just been released and, like its predecessors, includes the best and most up-to-date data on our cities from an enormous variety of sources.

This year’s report looks right into the heart of our cities, at their productivity, sustainability and liveability. Overall, our cities compare well with others across the globe. No other country has four cities in the top ten of the Economist’s Global Cities Liveability Index of 140 world cities, with Melbourne earning top spot for the second year running. That said, the report contains some disturbing findings, such as that except for those in the far north, our cities are getting hotter and drier. Since 1952, the annual rainfall in Toowoomba, for example, has dropped by 33 per cent. Maximum and minimum temperatures are up by at least a degree across many of our cities with Geelong now two degrees hotter than it was 60 years ago and Canberra not far behind. The number of summer days above 35 degrees in Perth hit 50 in 2011, and its rate of sea level rise is now around ten millimetres per annum, a concerning three times the global average.

A degree here or a few millimetres there may not sound much, but small differences can translate into major changes in the climate of our cities. Cities such as Sydney and Melbourne are actively increasing their green cover which has been shown to cool cities and return moisture to the air. And storm water systems, which in the past were treated as little more than urban drains, are now being recognised as a precious resource and are much better managed.

Particularly interesting in this report is evidence of the decline in manufacturing in comparison to other sectors and the effect this is having on transport patterns. Whereas manufacturing plants have traditionally been located on the city fringe or through the suburbs in industrial zones, the dominant employment source now is the so-called knowledge industries – the banking, legal, insurance and myriad of other business services. These job-rich industries tend to locate in the heart of our CBDs. This means our transport networks are being called on to carry large numbers of people into concentrated city centres within a very limited period of time. Rail is doing the heavy lifting here and when the growing freight load on our rail systems is factored in, the strain on our networks is showing. That is one of the reasons why this Federal Government has committed more to public transport than all previous governments combined since Federation.

Improving access to public transport is critical if we are to tackle the debilitating effect on productivity caused by road congestion. Affordable housing near employment hubs must be supported if we are to stop people spending ever increasing time commuting to and from work.  While improved access to public transport is important, we must also ensure that high value jobs are created where people live. This means identifying opportunities for job creation in our outer suburbs and regional cities and supporting a policy framework that brings those jobs to realisation. Certainly, the Federal Government’s National Broadband Network will help. No longer will geography determine access to high-value jobs. Australians everywhere will be able to participate in the knowledge economy, connecting them not just to national markets but to opportunities right across the globe.

Measuring and comparing tends to sharpen the senses and the State of Australian Cities is proving a popular way of doing this for our 18 major cities. So far, the first three editions have been downloaded two and a half million times, possibly a record for any government publication. Recently, the world clicked over an important milestone with more than half of us now living in cities. The London School of Economics predicts this will swell to 75 per cent by 2050. Nowhere is this rapid urbanisation more evident than in our own Asian region. There are big potential benefits to Australia from this growth in the form of demand for our energy, minerals and services. How well we harness those benefits will in a big way be determined by how well we plan, invest in and manage our cities.