Climate change, sustainability, resilience and even governance are not key issues facing cities, if the federal government’s State of Australian Cities report is to be believed. However, many in the industry are just happy the report is finally out.

In the 2013 State of Australian cities report, there were entire chapters dedicated to sustainability, liveability and governance, representing 158 pages of the 404-page report.

The updated report comes in at just 140 pages, close to a third of the 2013 report, and the shortest one to date.

In the “2014-15” update (perhaps an attempt to skip a year of the report), sustainability and liveability were mentioned just once each – in reference only to what the other State of Australian Cities reports canvassed. Even with climate change reportedly banned in government documents, even other words to refer to these issues – risk, mitigation, adaptation – aren’t present.

In his 2013 State of Australian Cities foreword, then infrastructure minister Anthony Albanese said the reports had since 2010 “provided vital insight into the productivity, sustainability and liveability of our cities”.

In 2014-15, Infrastructure minister Warren Truss didn’t bother to write the foreword, leaving it to department secretary Mike Mrdak, who said the report “looks at the drivers behind some of the public policy issues facing the country today and into the future”. Keyword: “some”.

Most surprisingly, the federal government’s own role in shaping Australian cities isn’t discussed, with no mention of governance. In contrast, the last three versions had whole chapters discussing federal policies being implemented to meet the former Labor government’s National Urban Policy. With the National Urban Policy now archived on the Planning Analysis branch’s website, the government has completely removed any mention of its role in governance.

Not addressing issues that matter

According to Link Place’s Sara Stace, who 12 months ago was project manager for the report before being made redundant after the government axed the Major Cities Unit, the good thing was that it was finally out.

She said the report was meant to be read in conjunction with last year’s Progress in Australian Regions: Yearbook 2014 and the just-released Progress in Australian Regions: State of Regional Australia 2015, the completion of which was apparently the cause for delay in publishing the State of Australian Cities report.

Ms Stace said that neither of the latest reports mentioned climate change, mitigation, adaptation, disaster, or any other euphemism for climate change at all. In the regional document, affordability appeared just twice and not at all in the urban one, despite being a major challenge.

“It isn’t addressing the key issues that matter to people,” she told The Fifth Estate.

“The fact is, neither of the cities or regional reports mention climate or risk at all. Neither of them address the framework [in the Yearbook 2014] they are meant to follow.

“It just makes it irrelevant.”

However, Ms Stace did say a focus on public transport and active transport was surprising for this government, and very welcome.

The report details a steep increase in active transport, and notes the cost-effectiveness of active transport infrastructure.

“In contrast to road and public transport infrastructure, improvements to active transport networks are relatively cheap and can be made comparatively quickly,” the report says.

Industry welcomes release

The release of the report was met with a renewed call by the Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council for the federal government to join the cities agenda.

“With our cities growing so quickly, we need governments to deliver policies that maximise their value and protect the ‘liveability’ we are world-famous for,” ASBEC president Ken Maher said.

“Poor urban policy and design causes more than just traffic jams and air pollution. We already know Australia is sitting on a $53 billion per year cost of congestion time bomb; imagine what that means for the quality of life of the average commuter, let alone lost productivity. The greatest value can be achieved from infrastructure investment if it is integrated with the planning and design of our cities.”

ASBEC has released four priority recommendations for investing in cities:

  • Better leverage of the unique roles and responsibilities of all those with a stake in our cities
  • Measure and report success
  • Deliver best practice infrastructure planning and new investment
  • Create sustainable places for people supporting best practice building and urban design

The recommendations include the federal government creating a minister for cities.

“ASBEC calls on the federal government to provide national leadership and coordination through a Minister for Cities, supporting urban infrastructure investment with state and territory governments delivering projects, planning, and measuring success through clear indicators,” a statement said.

Both the Urban Development Institute of Australia and the Green Building Council of Australia said the release of the report reinforced the importance of the cities agenda.

“We are pleased to see that this report has been made public at long last,” GBCA chief operating officer Robin Mellon said. “Previous editions have been downloaded millions of times, demonstrating that Australians place a great deal of importance in measuring and reporting on the performance and progress of our cities.”

He said the report had captured the increase in density that was occurring in Australian cities.

“Increasing density can deliver improved productivity and a great quality of life in Australia’s cities, but it is only through best practice planning and delivery we can ensure that liveability, affordability, productivity, sustainability and health outcomes will be positive,” he said.

“All spheres of government must work together, and with industry, to develop effective, strategic, long-term planning systems.”

Urban Development Institute of Australia national president Cameron Shephard said the report made a “valuable contribution by bringing cities back into the policy spotlight”.

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  1. A well-known fact that building protected bicycle infrastructure is cheaper and provides a multitude of benefits to the population.

    So it is sad to see Sydney’s “Minister for Motorists” pushing through the narrowing of footpaths and ripping up of College St bikeway, all part of his plan to provide more space for motorists.

    In Brisbane’s budget, the Lord Mayor recently dedicated $100m to “road resurfacing” (roads that already exist!), along with $80m to widen the Inner-city Bypass to eight lanes (currently six). Meanwhile, many streets don’t even have footpaths (there is a 12 year wait for those) and bicycle infrastructure got a measly $31 million.

    Our governments are stuck in the 1950’s and even though they are aware of all the benefits of active travel, they persist with Westconnex (Syd) and Legacy Way (Bris); while I’m sure East-West Link is not dead and buried yet, unfortunately (Melb).