Jan 10, 2012

Steering Adelaide from the past into the future – Opinion – Adelaide Advertiser

Adelaide’s founders were so convinced of the morals of its free settlers that a gaol was not even considered in the original city plan. And that plan, with its elegant geometric boulevards flanked by parklands, made Adelaide one of only a handful of fully-planned cities since Roman times. Proclaimed as a British colony under a gum tree in 1836 at what it now Glenelg North, Adelaide is now known the world over for the remarkable quality of its arts scene, fine wines and restaurants. But we now know a whole lot more about the city that snuggles so comfortably between the Gulf of St Vincent and the Mount Lofty Ranges.

For instance, the people of Adelaide lead the nation in recycling, returning 70 percent of waste for reuse. They are also quick to turn off the tap with one of the lowest rates of water usage in Australia, not bad for the nation’s driest city. Adelaide is also extremely liveable. In fact it is rated as the most liveable city in the country by its own residents while the influential Economist Intelligence Unit rates it in the top 10 in its league of 140 world cities.

Curiously, despite its liveability and the fact that its houses are more affordable than in any other capital city, Adelaide ranks highest for adult psychological distress, just slightly ahead of Melbourne and then Sydney. It also has the smallest households, the smallest homes and the highest proportion of children in jobless families.

And while commuting by public transport might be growing steadily in other big cities, only Hobart residents use public transport less than the locals of Adelaide. This should change once the electrification of the Gawler line and the extension of the Noarlunga to Seaford line are completed, both funded under the Gillard Government’s Nation Building Program in partnership with the Weatherill Government.

These facts 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 other 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 last summer 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 points to a challenge for hot, dry Adelaide. While cyclones and floods in other parts of Australia are clearly devastating, the evidence shows that heatwaves are our deadliest killer. The record highs that hit Adelaide almost precisely two years ago and that persisted for eight long days caused up to150 deaths and 3000 heat-related illnesses. The load placed on the city’s power grid and the extreme heat caused outages, further adding to the misery of residents. The human and economic costs of heatwaves point to the need for greater resilience and preparedness in the face of similar disasters in the future.

Converting 19th century cities such as Adelaide 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 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 corner 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.