Jan 16, 2012

Steering the Gold Coast from the past into the future – Opinion – The Gold Coast Bulletin

Its golden sands caress the coast for almost 60 kilometres forming one of the most famous pleasure grounds in the nation. Lieutenant James Cook noted it in 1770 and Matthew Flinders later chartered it as they sailed past on their respective journeys of exploration. It wasn’t until 1823 when John Oxley landed his cutter The Mermaid at what is now Mermaid Beach that European settlement really began. Now almost two centuries later, the settlement we now call the Gold Coast has become a mecca not just for tourists but for Australian families seeking a better life. It is a region with many claims to fame, but we now know a whole lot more about this much loved coastal City.

For instance, the popular belief that the Gold Coast is dominated by retirees is not true. In fact its age profile largely mirrors the Australian average with projections pointing to children as the fastest growing group. And there is no doubting the area’s popularity – it sits just behind Cairns as Australia’s fastest growing city. We love it so much that we are choosing to ‘migrate’ to the Gold Coast and greater south east Queensland in numbers three times greater than the next most popular growth areas of south west WA and the NSW mid-north coast.

Surprisingly for a place famous for its outdoor life, we also know that Gold Coast locals are among the most inactive in Australia. And while they own more bicycles than just about anyone else, very few are actually hopping onto them for transport purposes. That said, people are choosing public transport over their cars more than ever with trip numbers increasing by more than 70 percent over a ten year period. This trend will no doubt continue when the new Gold Coast Rapid Transit, funded under the Gillard Government’s Nation Building Program and State and Local Governments, is completed.

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 an environmental challenge for the Gold Coast. With more than 15,000 residential buildings near soft, erodible areas of coastline, it is particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change and any sea level rises. The report paints an optimistic employment picture – while unemployment still sits at a comparatively high 6.3 percent, labour force participation is growing steadily. The Gold Coast has the highest proportion of people employed in property and business services of any non-capital major city.

In recent years the Federal Government has contributed substantial investment into Gold Coast projects, including the Rapid Transit, the Tugun Bypass, the Pacific Motorway and the Gold Coast Stadium. The run up to the Commonwealth Games will focus even more attention on the Gold Coast.

Converting cities such as the Gold Coast 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 region 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.