If evidence was needed of Townsville’s growing importance as a national economic hub, it was provided in the recent release of the State of Australian Cities 2012. This snapshot of our 18 major cities reveals that Townsville is now on par with Adelaide when it comes to imports flowing through its port and is now the largest non-capital city port handling containers for both imports and exports. When combined with its large defence presence and a big flow of travellers through its busy airport, Townsville is increasingly important for the national economy.
The Federal Government’s decision earlier this year to provide $1.7 million for the Mt Isa to Townsville Economic Zone (MITEZ) was a vote of confidence in the region’s economic future. The 50 year MITEZ plan will alleviate hurdles and blockages to transport supply lines and allow the region to capitalise on the resources boom with better roads, rail and port infrastructure to service the 1,000 kilometre zone between Townsville and its distant inland neighbour, Mt Isa.
The latest State of Australian Cities report, which features Townsville and its picture-perfect Strand on the front cover, shows that the city’s economic health is reflected in its growth statistics. Townsville’s population is expanding at an annual rate of 2.3 per cent, well above the national average of 1.5 per cent. If this trend continues, Townsville will be one of Australia’s largest non-capital cities (behind Newcastle and Wollongong) in just over a decade. To meet growth, housing stock has increased by more than 7,000 dwellings in the five year period until 2011. Curiously, more than ten per cent of homes are unoccupied, higher than the national average of nine per cent. The city is also one of the nation’s youngest, with the highest proportion of 15 to 24 year olds of any Australian city, and the second lowest proportion of residents aged 65 and over.
The State of Australian Cities 2012 is the third in a series and, like its predecessors, includes the best and most up-to-date data on our cities from an enormous variety of sources. This year’s report looks right into the heart of our cities, at their productivity, sustainability and liveability. We are among the most urbanised of nations with three out of every four of us living in cities. And though we might be good at farming and mining, it is our cities that generate 80 per cent of our wealth. While the day to day running of our cities is, of course, the responsibility of States, Territories and Local Government, our cities are too important to ignore. That is why the Australian Government has reengaged with our cities, with the release last year of the national urban policy Our Cities, Our Future.
Our cities compare well with others across the globe. No other country has four cities in the top ten of the Economist’s Global Cities Liveability Index of 140 world cities. That said, the report contains some disturbing findings, such as that except for those in the far north, our cities are getting hotter and drier. Since 1952, the annual rainfall in Toowoomba, for example, has dropped by 33 per cent. Maximum and minimum temperatures are up by at least a degree across many of our cities with Geelong now two degrees hotter than it was 60 years ago and Canberra not far behind. Townsville has also become hotter, although its rainfall remains fairly constant.
The State of Australian Cities notes that Townsville is now regarded as a centre of excellence in sustainability research. It is one of seven ‘Solar Cities’ across Australia, part of a Federal Government program that works with all levels of government, industry and the community to change the way we think about and use energy. Townsville’s RSL Stadium is the city’s largest solar project, supplying much of its energy needs. On nearby Magnetic Island, an energy behaviour change campaign has seen peak electricity demand fall by 44 per cent during the busiest time of year.
Supporting Townsville’s growth as a port city is critical if it is to increase productivity and offer good local jobs. Extensive work to improve traffic flows around the city such as the Douglas Arterial Duplication and the new Port Access Road are helping. As will the missing link in the city’s road network, the Townsville Ring Road, to begin construction in early 2014. Once completed, the ring road will remove 5,000 trucks a day off local streets, vastly improving the city’s liveability as well as the flow of vehicles to and from the port.
The report highlights the need across Australia to support jobs in regional centres and the outer growth areas of our capital cities. Certainly, the Federal Government’s National Broadband Network will help here because no longer will geography determine access to high-value jobs. Australians everywhere will be able to participate in the knowledge economy, connecting them instantly to opportunities right across the globe.
Measuring and comparing tends to sharpen the senses and the State of Australian Cities is proving a popular way of doing this for our 18 major cities. So far, the first three editions have been downloaded two and a half million times, possibly a record for any government publication. Recently, the world clicked over an important milestone with more than half of us now living in cities. The London School of Economics predicts this will swell to 75 per cent by 2050. Nowhere is this rapid urbanisation more evident than in our own Asian region. There are significant potential benefits to Australia from this growth in the form of demand for our energy, minerals and services. How well we harness those opportunities will be dependent on how well we plan, invest in and manage our cities.
Leader of the Australian Labor Party, MP for Grayndler, Rabbitohs Life Member. Authorised by Anthony Albanese, ALP, Canberra.