Nov 11, 2011

Steering Hobart from the past to the future – Opinion – Hobart Mercury


HOBART is home to the nation’s oldest brewery, producing golden ale for close to two hundred years. Its harbour means safety and sometimes victory for exhausted sailors in the famous race from Sydney. And Australia’s first legal casino rises high from the green banks of its clean flowing river. The city of Hobart has many claims to fame. But we now know a whole lot more about the nation’s southernmost capital that enjoys more summer daylight than just about any other city on earth.

For instance, the men of Hobart deserve a pat on the back – fewer of them are overweight or obese than those living in any mainland capital. It would not be prime territory for psychiatrists because its residents have the lowest levels of psychological distress. That could be in part because commuting distances are the shortest in the nation, or that it is ranked the safest city for both people and property. Or maybe it is because so many people volunteer, one of the surest signs of community connectedness and well-being.

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 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 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 Hobart. For instance, it has the lowest number of green-star rated buildings, perhaps because the city’s low population growth means there is little call for new commercial buildings. And while more residents might live in a detached house than in any of the major Australian cities, this means that fewer live in apartments or townhouses which might be a better style of living for singles, the aged and less physically active, particularly in the future. Hobart also has the lowest levels of public transport use in the nation, a figure that has not improved in a decade.

Converting 19th century cities such as Hobart 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 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. The citizens of Hobart can breathe easy on yet one more front. The air they breathe is some of the cleanest in the nation, indeed the world.