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Monday
Nov292010

A Bigger Australia makes for a Better Nation



Australia Dreaming

Anton Roux and John Stanley

Online Opinion November 1, 2010

Half of the world’s population now lives in cities. In Australia, this proportion is higher at over three quarters, spread across 17 cities, each with more than 100,000 people. The share of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) contributed by our cities (about 80%) is higher than the population share living in cities. Cities also are responsible for over three-quarters of carbon emissions.

These relativities provide some insight into why cities are important. The concentration of people in cities increases both productivity and liveability, through scale economies and agglomeration effects in production and consumption. Productivity, liveability and sustainability are critical goals for our cities. Managing the development of cities is fundamentally about finding the right balance between economic productivity, maintaining a high standard of liveability and achieving long term sustainability (social and environmental), as well as recognising that there are multiple interdependencies between these goal areas. Resolution of this balance will reflect local values and aspirations and will differ between cities and countries. International research suggests that agglomeration effects in production typically range between 3% and 8%, meaning that doubling city size can be expected to lead to output increasing by 103-108%.

Relative output increases in knowledge-intensive industries, many of which tend to concentrate in CBDs and other urban hubs (e.g. universities), are typically higher. Advertisement Agglomeration effects in consumption, an important element of liveability, are a relatively new area of quantitative research. Recent German analysis, for example, provides clear evidence that bigger cities (in population terms) show benefits for residents through a larger range of service choices, across areas like restaurants and bars, concerts, dancing, theatres and museums. There is a trade-off in city size between agglomeration benefits and increasing external costs such as traffic congestion, crime, pollution and noise /sustainability concerns).

Large cities that are compact and enjoygood accessibility, matched by efficient transport infrastructure, are among the most efficient urban settlements. These cities do not arise by chance but require decades of careful management and guidance. US urban scholar, Robert Cervero suggests that, beyond about 5-10 million, the increasing social costs of size exceed the additional benefits. Australia’s major cities have long held competitive strengths in liveability.

The 2010 ADC Cities Report: Enhancing Liveability describes liveability as a key part of “brand Australia”, a critical element in attracting and retaining the brightest and best and in providing the basis for a high quality of life for all Australians, whether they live in cities or simply visit them. Australian capital cities regularly feature in the top ten in international liveability rankings. However, the refreshingly honest federal State of Australian Cities 2010 report noted a concerning tendency for some rankings to decline in recent years.

The absence of cities of greater than 5 million among the top ranked cities in The Economist and Mercer liveability surveys is also notable. Australia has seen a number of different population projections of late, with projected numbers for 2050 being successively increased to about 36 million, and even higher in some scenarios. A range of 26 to 40+ million population by 2050 is currently well within the range of possibilities, the former perhaps reflecting a policy decision to have zero net migration and the latter assuming a sustained very high migration level, possibly linked to an humanitarian decision regarding a growing intake of climate refugees. In light of these numbers, should we be planning for cities of 8-9 million or aiming to redirect growth to new cities or smaller cities? Can we have better cities at the same time we have bigger cities? If we have bigger cities, must they be high density?

Professor Ed Blakely from The University of Sydney notes that, with the right linkages, cities of 250,000-300,000 people, either standing alone or as a substantially self-contained element within a wider city, can have the benefits of both scale and density to be competitive, without the detriment and burden related to larger populations. The “city of cities” concept acknowledges population groupings of this scale, and urban planning is increasingly recognising the benefits of structuring larger groupings of population into modules of this size.

This means that entirely new cities can get built with 250,000 to 300,000 people or parts of existing cities re-imagined around this sizing. 250,000-300,000 persons in large conurbations provide for a sense of spatial identity and boundary, while allowing each node to contain many aspects of urbanity, such as theatres, sports teams and large parks and gardens. The logic of this suggests that “cities” of 250,000 to 300,000 people, embedded with meaningful densities (sufficient to support strong economic and social networks, with a high degree of walkability being a key indicator), the right elements of competitiveness and inclusiveness for a knowledge economy, and good accessibility both within the city and between other cities, should provide one focus for our future thinking about cities. Within larger cities, the modularity implied by this approach provides an opportunity to soften the consequences of size by thinking village/neighbourhood.

There does not need to be a fixation on building mega cities. This allows our urban thinking to consider the most desirable strategic locations within the nation, taking into account relationships with resources, the environment and linkages to other cities and regions, both within Australia and externally. Against this general perspective on the future, the ADC Cities Report: Enhancing Liveability (PDF 7.6Mb) outlines a number of ideas for building better Australian cities, a few of which are presented in summary terms. Growth should be encouraged in new cities/regional centres, as well as adding numbers to existing cities. The significance of the new cities option increases with absolute population size.

Past experience with attempts to drive much faster growth in selected Australian inland cities, such as Albury-Wodonga and Bathurst-Orange, suggests a need to think carefully about possible locations for new cities, but a possible Very Fast Train along the Brisbane-Sydney-Melbourne corridor could open up new options in this regard and resource development in the north-west merits attention for city development. Paul Romer’s work on charter cities, which has taken learning from experiences such as China’s Special Economic Zones, is likely to be of assistance in managing urban innovation and planning new cities. The conditions of our existing cities need attention, so that they can also be seen as “new cities” (adapting/retrofitting our cities). These would ideally be considered in the context of broader settlement policy.

A particular focus should be on improving economic opportunities, liveability and sustainability in the somewhat neglected middle ring suburbs. This is where many jobs and large population numbers already exist and where demographic change will create opportunities for sensitive increases in density.

These suburbs are ideal locations for a greater share of population and economic activity, provided this is achieved with a high degree of community engagement. Good connectivity to outer suburbs will likewise be important: to improve access from those areas to the employment and other opportunities in middle suburbs. The village/precinct level is the urban space in which people conduct much of their daily lives and is where their sense of community is likely to be most firmly based. Village/precincts can range from small local centres, through large activity centres to Central Business Districts or parts thereof, with a sense of distinctiveness/identity being a key defining quality. Enhancing the liveability of villages/precincts within our cities is a high priority.

This is about place-making, including issues such as local job creation and innovation (e.g. in areas like energy efficiency, distributed energy generation and water self-sufficiency), promoting community building, extending low rise compact settlement patterns with more mixed use development and affordable housing, improving walkability and connectivity, enhancing local character and providing a high quality public realm (including passive security features). Whether considering new cities or existing cites, there needs to be a focus on the strategic purposes of individual cities, their current or potential comparative advantages, as well as their place within Australia and the larger world. To move beyond a culture of risk and change aversion, a new type of thinking will be required: one that embraces the use of narrative, centring around purposes and aspirations, as much as it emphasises mechanical attributes and requirements to be functional.

Supply and demand need to extend beyond being seen as static accounting concepts to embrace a much more dynamic view of economic demand, as Professor Graeme Snooks of the Institute of Global Dynamic Systems elucidates in his dynamic-strategy theory. Without a dynamic concept of demand that is connected to reality: to survival, to how we know civilisation actually works rather than our ideologically-bound current conceptions; and that embraces human dignity: the ambitions to embark on major urban projects will always be economically unviable. Cities are complex systems, our sites of prosperity, of social and ecological resilience.

Alongside their multidimensional dynamics, directed multidimensional thinking and policy becomes a necessity.

Evidence-based policy has its place – it adumbrates limits and suggests what is already known – but empirical over-determinism should not be confused for policy rigour in our aspirations for urban transformation. Humans are more or less rational beings, capable of imagination, hypothesis, experiment, deduction and induction; and so there needs to be more than incrementalist, backward-looking, trend-based projections or policy, or economic models that claim, for example, that a high speed rail project is unviable when those models are based on faulty, or static, assumptions, and fail to account for the strategic and other intangible benefits of boldness. The recent financial crisis and the market failures around climate change have made people aware of the problems associated with negative externalities.

What we need to be equally concerned about is a blindness to positive externalities: the squandering of upside potential: such as the unforetold economic gain that can come through new infrastructure and planning incentives, whether it be high speed rail, new cities, or knowledge-economy-enabling high speed internet across the country. Ideology is not something people often choose to discuss. Consideration of model risk is a way of confronting that, whether it be economic model risk, political model risk or environmental model risk; it transcends partisanship.

It makes us aware of the disconnect between reality and how that might work, and our theories, models and assumptions of reality. If significant changes in urban structure are to be successfully delivered, much greater community involvement in both planning for and delivering city futures is essential: to help ensure community ownership of the process, both at city-wide and village/precinct levels. Australia’s three-tiered system of government raises unique challenges, not to mention the planning impacts of partisan politics and staggered, multilevel electoral cycles. The reality is that urban development cannot happen across the disjunct of three or four year time horizons; and our urban needs transcend the neat division of local, state and federal.

Given that integrated and meaningful structural urban change often takes decades to come to fruition, a critical element of desirable city growth must be an embedded culture of urban strategy that embraces the interests of all stakeholders and constituents in a predictable fashion over time. One important ingredient of this is institutional: being able to engage with stakeholders in an ongoing dialogue, and making proposals for urban change: but this need not be a centralised decision-making authority. Inclusive governance – and decentralised urban functionality more generally – is a crucial aspect of the long-term development of our cities, and will be a good test for the spirit of our democracy. Collaboration goes beyond simple consultation, and by involving more stakeholders – not only for comment on individual planning projects or issues, but as legitimate voices in the direction their urban environment will take – suboptimal outcomes can be avoided.

Additionally, this urban strategy process has the potential to mitigate and transcend the vagaries of partisan politics. We would do well to remember that “urban” is a transcendent concept that pertains to rural and regional areas as much as major cities. Embracing this will be a step in the right direction of being more inclusive and neutralising the divide between cities and regions. And we would do well to better consider how we might optimise the urban-agricultural-forest balance in the context of broader settlement policy.

Just imagine a network of city nodes, each a few hundred thousand people connected by advanced communications technology and transport access, where people don’t need to travel too far from home to find meaningful work, where the society is economically productive and competitive, socially and ecologically resilient, surrounded by lush forests (perhaps geoengineered in large scale reforestation programmes to bring increased rainfall), and subsisting on “vertical agriculture” (where, without any derogation of the value of traditional farming, food produce is grown in multistory glasshouses); and while people would live in closer proximity, the quality and quantity of their public spaces, parks and gardens would be much greater too.

As the urban boundaries of major cities continue to expand and both deforestation and food security become recognised as long-term concerns, open space – both within and between cities – will become increasingly valued for both its scarcity and potential. This does not have to be utopia. Perhaps, in the future, sea levels will be much higher than they once were, that some of our cities or parts of them might have gone the way of Atlantis. If we thought that this might happen, how would it change our broader urban strategy today? We need to be rigorous about our visions, and we need to be bold in our policy.

We need to remember the long time horizons of urban development. It can reasonably be argued by most state governments that these policy directions are generally supported and are in place. However, such evidence as declining liveability rankings, high and rising congestion costs, overcrowded public transport, high and rising greenhouse gas emissions and a growing supply shortfall in housing (especially for affordable housing) suggests that change is not happening with sufficient speed. If our cities are to remain great cities, transformational changes will be needed, rather than a continuation of the incrementalism of the past

Urban Dreaming