Jun 23, 2011

Time to seek a cleaner future for our cities – Opinion – Canberra Times

In early October 1957, a small satellite was launched from a rocket in the skies above earth and the world learned a Russian word – sputnik. While people almost everywhere marvelled at this leap of human achievement, a giant shiver ran down the American spine. If the Soviet Union could get ahead of them in the space race, in what ways could it get ahead of them on earth?

It became known as America’s sputnik moment and prompted a massive investment in space investment that saw Neil Armstrong step onto the lunar surface just 12 years later. Recently, President Obama used his State of the Union address to call for another sputnik moment to address environmental challenges and invest in the clean energy technologies “to strengthen our security, protect our planet and create countless new jobs for our people.”

The environmental issues here in Australia differ little from those in Obama’s America. Though vastly smaller in population, we face much the same problems of urban sprawl, road congestion, management of waste, water and energy and how to integrate green solutions into cities built for an entirely different age. And as Australia moves to place a price on carbon like our regional neighbours in New Zealand, we are also reappraising the way we make our nation more productive, sustainable and liveable.

It is just over a month since I released the Federal Government’s National Urban Policy Our Cities, Our Future. The policy was the result of three years of consultation, including meetings in all 18 Australian major cities with populations above 100,000 residents. I said at the launch that I wanted the policy to spark a national conversation about the future of our cities.

“The urban policy framework fills a yawning policy gap in Australia’s efforts to foster more competitive, sustainable and liveable communities,” said the Property Council of Australia. “The [policy] is a positive foundation for much-needed change in the way our cities and regional areas are planned and serviced,” said the Real Estate Institute of Australia, and the Council of Capital City Lord Mayors: “…the Gillard Government is making a long-term commitment to invest in and engage with Australian cities.”

The facts are cities have become too important to ignore. We know they are home to 75 percent of us and it is our cities that generate 80 percent of our national wealth. We also know that the population of Australia is growing and ageing. That is why the Federal Government is turning a national eye to our cities, to make sure they are prepared for the inevitable changes ahead.

One of the biggest challenges is something no-one living in a major Australian city can escape – road congestion. Not only does congestion steal time from our families but idling engines add pollution to the air we must all breathe. Left unattended congestion will cost our economy $20 billion by 2020 according to the Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics.

One way of reducing congestion is to encourage people onto trains. While this is the responsibility of the States, the Federal Government is investing $7.3 billion in an urban rail project in every mainland State capital. In fact we have committed more to urban rail than all previous federal governments – collectively – since Federation.

We’ve also allocated funds for smart technology where road sensors and electronic signage can make a big difference to the speed and flow of traffic, reducing crashes and cutting emissions. The budget also backed the Henry Review’s recommendation to abandon the old car fringe benefit tax which encouraged people to drive further, with a simpler single rate system.

For a city to really work we need to make our homes and our public spaces more liveable. This week, around 200 architects, planners and green building experts are descending on the national capital to place their ideas before parliamentarians. The Government is working hand in hand with these groups in a range of areas, such as the construction of demonstration urban renewal projects and design standards so our homes can be more sustainable and adaptable to changing needs.

By 1 January next year, the State and Territories have agreed through COAG they will have in place strategic plans for their capital cities. Future Commonwealth infrastructure funding will be tied to these plans. This is no takeover. It is an opportunity for leaders across the country to work together to help create cities that serve our people and our country better.

Australians deserve cities that are productive, sustainable and liveable and that can adapt as our population grows and ages. America’s race to the moon showed what can be done when a nation pulls together for a common aim. As President Obama now asks his people to turn their eyes to a cleaner future, Australia must do what we can to help our nation fulfill that dream.