8 September 2010 – In a paper first presented at the 3rd International Urban Design Conference in Canberra, August 2010, David Wilson argues that since “Big Australia” was announced by former prime minister Kevin Rudd in October 2009, the new Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s call for  a sustainable population policy announced in July 2010 was timely.

The key to sustainable population is not population policy, it’s creating livable cities. Livable cities, like healthy bodies, need good circulation. The key to livable cities is mass transit connectivity to and from home, work and play. Citizens should be rethinking core attitudes and behaviors about “progress” when market forces and individual freedoms are generating major environmental impacts, increased congestion and housing stress in our cities.

In order to gauge the progress of Australian capital cities towards increasing livability, the Coalition of Australian Government (COAG) has developed a performance assessment that includes nine criteria:

1. Integration: the level of integration of the strategic planning system.
2. Presence of plans: existence of hierarchy of plans
3. Infrastructure: inclusion of  nationally significant  economic infrastructure
4. Addressing Policy issues: specifically  nationally significant  ones
5. Emphasis on networks: considering and strengthening networks between capital cities and other important regions.
6. Land release policies: land release and balance of infill and greenfield development.
7. Encouraging investment: identified priorities for investment and policy effort by government and the private sector.
8. Urban design: world class urban design and architecture
9. Implementation: effective implementation of arrangements and supporting mechanisms

These criteria have been applied to the eight major capital cities, highlighting where cities are responding and where they are failing to respond. This will become increasingly important as Infrastructure Australia funds will be allocated to those cities that are clearly seen to be managing their urban areas effectively, while those that aren’t will not be funded.

Future growth studies by different Australian states

Gaining an insight into future growth by the different states has been undertaken in a number of ways including:

  • Queensland undertook a Growth Summit  in March 2010 that involved various experts and stakeholders in response to rapid population increases.
  • NSW launched consultation review papers for the transport and metropolitan strategies.
  • Victoria undertook an independent assessment of Melbourne 2030 by a panel of experts.
  • The 30 year Plan for Greater Adelaide was subject to wide spread consultation.
  • The critical issue for all these plans is whether stakeholders are supportive or whether they are being opposed and contested for each development application for increased housing supply.

Brisbane, Perth and Hobart are expected to have higher population levels than the annual planning level and this means that they may face challenges in the way they respond to housing supply and service provision.

Significant population growth is the greatest challenge facing Australian capital cities. There are significant differences between the planned population forecasts and the actual increases in 2008-09:

  • Long term population forecasts are often unreliable “nonsense on stilts.”
  • They are more likely to be wrong than right.
  • Australia was forecast to have 8 million population; by 2000 it got more than double that amount.

Long term population projections for the major cities indicate major population growth. Implementation arrangements will be crucial in delivering this growth in infill areas and priority growth areas. At the moment the forecast additional population growth for Australian capital cities are:

  • South East Queensland 1.6 million additional population by 2031
  • Sydney Metropolitan area 1.7 million additional population by 2036
  • Canberra Capital area 98,000 additional population by 2031
  • Melbourne Metroplitan area 1.8 million additional population by 2031
  • Adelaide Metropolitan area 560,000 additional population by 2038
  • Perth Metropolitan area 556,000 additional population by 2031

There needs to be more regular reviews to ensure government agencies are responding to the demand to ensure service delivery of :

  • Housing supply
  • Education
  • Health and community services.

National re-think required on the location of future urban growth.

Australians have never idealised city life, instead the bush and the beach are celebrated. There needs to be a co-ordinated national rethink and review about where future population growth is located? Currently, as is well documented, sea changers are moving to the coast and tree changers are depopulatng the hinterland. With predictions of sea level rises, is population moving in the right direction?

Australian capital cities are dispersed with low density urban forms and structures that are failing to respond to increasing pressure from growth on ageing infrastructure, transport systems, un-met housing supply, lack of integration of land uses and transport connections by multiple unco-ordinated government agencies. Metropolitan planning strategies are not given the status of co-ordinating different state agency programs with different time frames and objectives and departments are often answering to different state government ministers.

Decentralisation of growth should no longer be regarded as a sacred cow in a rural pasture.

Queensland ‘s Urban Land Development Authority will master plan three new satellite cities at Ripley Valley, Greater Flagstone and Yarrabilla to house a population of 250,000.

Meanwhile Victoria has undertaken a regional cities feasibility study as to whether certain cities should be targets for growth. Eight cities have been identified, including Albury-Wodonga,  Ballart,  Bendigo,  Sheppartton,  Mildura, Warrrambool and Geelong.

The resources boom would benefit from government support in remote mining areas through the creation of  well planned settlements for workers and families and transport links to the ports.

Urban Form and the Supermarket Suburb

Urban form can be broadly influenced  through current state planning policies, local residential codes and design guidelines. The supermarket giant TESCO in the UK is maximising the use of its properties by adding house construction above its supermarkets. The new approach is being coined as the birth of the “supermarket suburb”.

Tesco the UK is preparing to build a high rise with 367 apartments, shops and health centre in West London. The project nicknamed “Tesco Town” would include a supermarket, creche and a square, named Tesco plaza. Many have objected to this truly depressing invention “living in a Tesco Tower would feel like being a packet of frozen peas stacked on their shelves”. Will Westfield, Coles and Woolworths in Australia follow this trend?

Spatial planning provides the backbone and skeleton to metropolitan planning to rationalise the functioning of the city. Australian capital cities are suffering from imbalances owing to centralisation of employment and haphazard dispersal of centres and lack of public transport links.
These problems are causing increasing distress, including dislocation of housing and job markets, increasing transport congestion and social stress. The VAMPIRE index highlights these problems and the lack of balanced development.

The Eastern Suburbs of Sydney is densely populated yet few residents complain about overcrowding  because they have access to reliable and frequent public transport. In fact, these suburbs are keenly sought after because they provide a high quality of urban living.

Density is not the problem in the Western Suburbs, it’s lack of public transport

Lack of transport connectivity in cities discriminates against commuters; the old, the poor and the young. There needs to be a rethink of transport priorities away from single car occupancy to walking, cycling and mass public transport provision.

Priority targets need to be changed to:

  • Promote walking and cycling facilities
  • Increased use of public transport
  • Improved pick up and drop off facilities
  • Improved parking management
  • Promote travel change – green travel plans.

Re-engineering working days from 9-5 into early and late shifts would create a 14-hour city defined by flexible working, resulting in a 30-40 per cent increased utilisation of roads and office buildings.
Density comparisons between Sydney and other Western cities

By way of comparison, if Sydney had the same density as London, we would share it with a population of nearly 58 million. Montreal has the same population as Sydney but covers only 35 per cent of the area.
Reshaping are cities with renewable energy

The first “Smart Grid city” in the USA is Boulder, Colorado, a city that provides cutting edge energy savings and services plug in electric cars with zero carbon emissions. A grid such as the one used in Boulder could be extended to support public transport vehicles  to reshape the city fueled by renewable energy.
Australia can accommodate future growth

National policy co-ordination is required to solve structural regional problems and to build strong well connected cities. As Australian cities expand it will be important to have balanced development instead of competing cities, for example, adopting models like the Ranstaad in the Netherlands.

The Melbourne 2030 plan endorses an integrated metropolitan structure by designating six sites for new CBD scale developments within the middle and outer suburbs.

The lack of strong decentralised centres is symptomatic of a lack of strong government authorities and lack of strategic planning and transport links that puts development at the mercy of Nimbyism and depressed development activity
Emerging Institutional arrangements

Urban governance of Australian cities ranges form Sydney, with its 43 different local government areas, to Canberra, which is governed by a single development authority.The institutional arrangements for delivering growth will depend on the powers they are given. Proposed agencies include:

  • VicUrban
  • East Perth Redevelopment  Authority
  • Sydney Metropolitan Development Authority
  • Growth Management Queensland
  • Queensland Urban Land Development Authority

The current arrangements have not been successful in delivering major growth precincts in Sydney, having been plagued with problems of multiple land ownership, levies that are discouraging development and lack of public transport access. Metropolitan city agencies will need to have extended government powers to champion future growth of Australia’s capital cities.
Capital city governance

Capital city governance has become more complex with multiple layers of government agencies. There is a need to re-assess urban governance models for Australian capital cities as they are not meeting the COAG performance criteria. The main challenges and priorities are:

  • Innovative funding strategies to release investment to address the infrastructure challenges.
  • Growth and competitiveness are the primary drivers in decision-making.
  • Environmental concerns are important but are often sacrificed for growth.
  • Resources are needed to build mass public transit systems to alleviate congestion in cities.
  • Better performance begins with better governance.
  • City management must become more transparent and accountable.
  • Silos and short-term thinking are holding Australian cities back.
  • Australian cities need integrated government  leadership.

David Wilson is senior transport planner, MWH Australia Pty Ltd, Sydney, Australia. Contact: david.wilson@mwhglobal.com

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