May 5, 2017

Speech to Implementing the New Urban Agenda Conference


Every night from a tenth floor window of a building in the Rocks a red neon sign beams SOS across Sydney Harbour.

Save our Sirius.

The building catches your attention, but it is not conventionally aesthetic.

Its brutalist concrete blocks stacked side by side loom over the bustling restaurants and shops that draw in tourists and locals alike.

For so long this part of Sydney was its working heart.

Sirius, the building, just like its surrounding area in the Rocks and Millers Point has a place in Australian history.

And, until recently, it also had an established community.

The sell-off of Sirius and nearby public housing at Millers Point is a familiar tragedy that we’ve seen play out before.

As ninety year old Myra Demetriou, who has lived in the area for more than sixty years, said:

“They don’t think people like me should have these views.”

She says this as a matter of fact.

It’s based upon an elitist assumption that damages not just Ms Demetriou but damages the character of the city I am passionate about.

Like these residents I was raised in inner city public housing.

My first political campaign was in the late 1970s.

I fought with my mother and our community to reverse the Sydney City Council’s decision to sell its housing estate in Camperdown, along with other inner Sydney communities.

We were fighting for more than bricks and mortar.

It was our home.

The decision-makers responsible for selling public housing in Millers Point and the Rocks are forgetting one important thing.

These are not just physical structures.

They are people’s homes.

A living, breathing mixture of people that, critically, adds to the diversity of our cities.

As we respond to the challenges of urbanisation we must not diminish the rights and dignity of the vulnerable in our communities.

Successful cities are inclusive cities, something that is recognised by the New Urban Agenda, which states:

“There is a need to take advantage of the opportunities of urbanisation as an engine of sustained and inclusive economic growth, social and cultural development, and environmental protection, and of its potential contributions to the achievement of transformative and sustainable development.”

I am pleased to speak about Habitat III and implementing the New Urban Agenda.

Australia has committed to this very important Declaration that seeks to navigate the urban challenges we face, not only here, but in every nation around the world.

The New Urban Agenda is a roadmap for sustainable development.

What’s more, it puts people front and centre.

Exactly where they should be.


Four out of every five Australians live in cities.

By 2031 our four largest capitals – Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth – will have increased by 46 per cent.

Adelaide, Canberra, Hobart and Darwin are expected to grow by nearly 30 per cent.

Australia’s transformation to a knowledge intensive economy has seen the CBDs of our cities become the heart of the nation’s productivity.

Whilst most job creation has been in inner areas, growth in population has been in outer communities.

This disconnect between where people work and where people live has led to the development of drive-in drive-out suburbs, where people spend more time commuting to and from work then they do at home with their families.

This has impacted on the quality of life for many.

Mortgage stress.

Rent stress.

Urban congestion on our roads and packed public transport during peak hours.

Critically, there is also the issue of sustainable development.

We cannot talk about urbanisation without also talking about climate change, which is taking a toll on urban infrastructure.

Increasingly there is debate about how we can use urban design to make our cities more sustainable.

This includes more efficient energy and water use, the integration of active transport and maximising our green space to reduce the Heat Island Effect.

We need to replicate the many examples of best practice that are available, whether they are from our own cities, or internationally, from places like Singapore.

The New Urban Agenda is important because it provides a framework for dealing with these issues.

It is no accident that it is connected to the UN Sustainable Development Goals agreed upon in New York in September 2015.

The 17 global goals and 169 targets build upon the previous Millennium Development Goals.

Combined, the New Urban Agenda and Sustainable Development Goals provide a framework for countries to progress not only their nation’s economy in a changing world, but also the aspirations of their people.


How well we manage urban population growth will, in part, depend on how we use these examples.

It also depends on our willingness to participate in multi-lateral forums such as UN-Habitat.

UN-Habitat has an extraordinary history.

The first conference, held in Vancouver in 1976, sought to respond to concerns over rapid, uncontrolled urban growth, especially in developing areas.

Governments, armed with recommendations, then set out to influence human settlement across their cities.

The second UN-Habitat conference, held in 1996 in Istanbul, assessed what progress had been made in cities around the world since 1976.

It also produced the Habitat Agenda, a strategic plan adopted by 171 countries containing more than 100 commitments and 600 recommendations.

The third conference, hosted last year in Quito drew 36,000 people from 167 different countries.

36,000 people.

167 countries.

An exceptional level of international engagement.

And from this a New Urban Agenda was adopted.

Australia was represented by Gillian Bird, Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the UN.

But as capable as Ms Bird is, I cannot understand the Government’s decision to not also be represented at Ministerial level.

This follows in the steps of the Howard Government’s decision to not send a Minister in 1996.

UN-Habitat is the most important international urban conference of our time.

It has charted the progress of the world’s cities for more than forty years.

By 2050, the world’s urban population is set to double.

Indeed, as of 2008, for the first time, a majority of the world’s population lived in urban areas.

There were more than 400 cities over one million, and 19 over ten million.

This is why now, more than ever, participation from the Federal Government is critical.

As Gillian Bird said in her statement on the New Urban Agenda:

“The global urbanisation trend is one of the most profound transitions in human history and has occurred in less than a century.”

The fact is that while many people in our middle class have grown their wealth as a result of urbanisation, other people have simply seen their poverty entrenched.

Indeed, wealth in Australia is highly concentrated.

A recent report from the Australian Council of Social Services shows that the top 10% of Australian households own 45% of all wealth in our nation.

The dividend of Australia’s growth need to be shared more fairly.

A person’s background should not preclude them from the opportunities they need to fulfil their ambitions.

Aspiration is indeed for everyone.


This is why the New Urban Agenda is so important.

At the heart of this Declaration lies the principle, ‘leave no one behind.’

Successful cities are not disconnected enclaves of privilege and disadvantage.

They are diverse and their diversity can be harnessed to drive great social outcomes as well as the economic productivity that sustains our lifestyles.

The New Urban Agenda recognises this.

It provides a vision; a set of principles, commitments and recommendations to guide inclusive growth in our cities.

Our national government should play a leading role in implementing the New Urban Agenda.

But the very first step towards achieving this is to break down what can, too often, be a department by department, silo-driven approach.

We must instead put forward a holistic vision that genuinely understands how our cities work.

However the Coalition Government is intent on putting in places structures that achieve the exact opposite.

Most recently the Coalition outlined its plan for an Infrastructure Financing Unit in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, not in the Department of Infrastructure.

And indeed, this new Infrastructure Financing Unit will do precisely the job Infrastructure Australia is supposed to be doing.

It is a retrograde step that separates project assessment from project financing.

In contrast, when I was the Minister for Infrastructure and Transport I released Australia’s first ever national urban policy – Our Cities, Our Future.

It recognised that urban policy cannot be separated from other policy.

That our cities are intimately connected to the environment, water, communications, housing, employment, health and education.

But we have to do more than just talk about it.

Cities require investment.

When we invest in our cities we not only grow their economic potential, but also the nation’s.

Australian cities produce 80 per cent of our GDP.

Indeed, Dr Joan Clos, Executive Director of UN-Habitat, had this to say in his closing remarks at the conference:

“We need to approach urbanisation not as a cost, but as an investment, because the cost of urbanisation is minimal in comparison to the value that it can generate.”


An important part of this is ensuring we get the urban planning and infrastructure right.

But the issue goes beyond return on investment.

It’s also about the fact that how we plan our cities and where we invest in infrastructure has a very real impact on people’s lives.

Policy failures in this space have meant that in cities, like Sydney for example, housing has become extraordinarily costly.

Those that can’t afford to live close to the city are pushed to outer suburbs whereas areas that are serviced by good public transport and infrastructure have seen prices rapidly increase.

As a consequence home ownership is declining.

Between 2002 and 2014, home ownership in Australia fell from 71 per cent to 67 per cent.

Young home buyers have felt this keenly.

For those aged 25 to 34, home ownership rates fell by nearly 10 percentage points in this period to less than 30 per cent.

In turn, the rental market is feeling the pressure.

A joint report released in February this year from Choice, National Shelter and the National Association of Tenants Organisation revealed that, between 1994-5 and 2013-14, the proportion of Australian households who rent has increased from 25.7 to 31 per cent.

Of these, 63 per cent of renters are aged 35 or above.

Renting as such is not a bad thing for those live in a property that suits their needs and have a positive relationship with the agent or landlord.

But, for others, the instability that can exist means it often is harder to lay down roots in a community.

What’s more, as the cost of renting increases disproportionately to wages growth, more Australians experience housing stress.

Consequently, urban growth must be managed properly.

Yet the emergence of a few demographic trends across the nation complicates how we approach this.

First, the number of single person households has increased since the 1970s.

We know this trend will continue.

ABS data indicates that by 2036 more than 3.4 million people will be living alone.

A significant number of these people will be older and female.

That brings me to my second point.

Our ageing population.

Population projections by the ABS indicate that by 2064 more than 23 per cent of Australians will be aged 65 and over.

What’s more, those aged 85 and over will have increased to five per cent.

The bottom line of this is that Australia’s housing needs are diverse.

Consequently, the types of dwellings that are built must be varied to meet the needs of all types of households.

But we need to do more than just this.

Developers, community housing providers and governments should be incorporating the aims of the New Urban Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals in their work.

In doing so we recognise that the decisions we make shape the social fabric of our communities and impact the liveability, sustainability and productivity of our cities.

The Commonwealth cannot ignore the fact that it has a national role to play in housing policy, both in terms of housing affordability, and affordable housing.

I am proud to have been part of a government that recognised this.

We introduced the National Affordable Housing Agreement.

The National Rental Affordability Scheme.

The Social Housing Initiative through our plan for nation building.

What’s more, we were really starting to see these policies make a tangible difference in communities around Australia.

It is unfortunate that in recent years the focus on affordable housing has dropped off.

This is symbolised by the absence of a Federal Minister for Housing.

And, despite the recognition that excesses in negative gearing and capital gains tax discounts are not sustainable, the Government still has not acted.

Housing policy must be consistent.


As the New Urban Agenda states, we have an ‘historic opportunity to leverage the key role of cities and human settlements as drivers of sustainable development in an increasingly urbanised world.’

Here in Australia, rapid growth in our cities’ populations is taking a toll on our unique natural assets and agricultural lands.

So is climate change.

As a priority, we need to include as much green space as possible in city plans.

Not only do we know that this makes people happier and healthier, but it also offsets some of the worst effects of climate change.

Heat waves, in particular, are a serious challenge facing Australia.

In outer suburbs, which tend to be further away from coastlines, the Heat Island Effect means residents in these areas, especially the very young and elderly, are at risk.

I am pleased that many local governments are already taking a leading role in tackling this issue.

For instance, here Melbourne, the city’s Council is working to lift tree canopy from 22 percent in all public places to 40 percent by 2040.

Similarly, the City of Sydney’s urban forest is aiming to grow its urban forest by 50% by 2030.

Many of you will be aware of the 100 Resilient Cities Network pioneered by the Rockefeller Foundation.
Cities apply to join the Network and develop resilience strategies.

So far, both Sydney and Melbourne have signed up.

Sustainability is at the heart of Melbourne’s strategy.

The city aims to create a healthier environment by enabling its natural assets and ecosystems to thrive, whilst accommodating its growing population.

This is particularly important because Melbourne is particularly dependent on its food basin.

Forty-one percent of Melbourne’s fresh produce is currently grown within 100 kilometres of the city.

However, as Melbourne expands, the consequent loss of agricultural land could reduce this figure to 18 percent by 2050.

The New Urban Agenda, in combination with the Sustainable Development Goals can guide both urban regeneration projects, but also greenfield development.


We have more information at our fingertips than we have ever had before.

But it’s how we use this information that determines just how ‘smart’ our cities really are.

We know that use of smart technology can make our use of resources much more efficient, whether that is in energy, water, or the functioning of our roads.

Smart technology is about more than enhancing productivity.

It also is an enabler for creating opportunity and equity.

That is why I regard fibre to the home and business as being an essential social policy, not just an economic one.

When I visited Singapore last month, I was struck by the fact that their model was almost identical to the model that the Rudd Government began with the national broadband network.

Of course Singapore, as a city-state does not have the challenges that the roll-out of high speed broadband had in a vast nation such as ours.

They did however face challenges associated with high rise residential development.

I was struck by the fact that Singapore’s global average peak connection speed of 135 megabits per second means it is ranked first in the world.

In contrast, Australia has fallen further down the rankings since the abandonment of fibre as the basis of the NBN roll out.

There is no excuse for Government not being able to connect our cities and towns to high speed broadband in this day and age.

High speed broadband is such a critical part of ensuring access to employment, education and training opportunities, as well as the provision of health services, while connecting people to each other and the wider world.

We cannot afford to fall behind.


Can I conclude with making a point about process, or, as Jane Jacobs said, “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”

This is not merely an academic point.

People like Myra Demetriou, who continues to resist her eviction from her home in the Sirius Building in the Rocks, will never attend a conference such as this.

But their engagement as we determine the future of our cities is just as essential as the contribution which those in this room will make.

Part of what makes an inclusive city is true democratic participation in the shaping of our cities.

After all, this is one of the reasons why cities are so attractive as meeting places.

Cities provide a space for the agglomeration of ideas; they are a hive of economic activity and, a source of opportunities for people – so long as they can access them.