By Jane Jose

4 March 2011 – It’s been a summer to remember. A summer that saw Queensland go from beautiful one day, perfect the next, to disaster for the next few weeks.

Speaking with characteristic calm and control we heard from the Queensland Premier, now national hero, Anna Bligh, as she reported on buildings damaged in the storms in North Queensland, and how families who were unable to stay in damaged homes would be rehoused.

While some Australians and politicians became fixed on working out if the floods, cyclones and bush fires that have affected Queensland, Victoria and Western Australia so savagely this year, are a sign of things to come and climate change induced, the reality on the ground is finding places for people to live now while rebuilding is planned.

The bigger and longer-term job will be figuring out where and how people should be living in Australia’s cities in future.

Our communities care about what happens in their streets and neighbourhoods and how we are going to plan for the bigger Australia that the Canberra demographers promise is coming, whether or not it is official government policy.

The prediction in last year’s Intergeneration Report 2010 drew attention to the big Australia that is on the way. From 22 million people we’ll be around 36 million by 2050, potentially putting Sydney and Melbourne at around eight million each!

The recently released Australian Government publication, Our Cities The Challenge of Change Discussion paper, predicts that Australia’s population growth will mainly occur in our four largest cities , which means there will be the need for 3.2 million additional homes by 2029 to meet demand. The paper is inviting public comment now.

Trends for growth
Two social trends have increased the growth in the number of households faster than the growth in population. An ageing population means more people are living longer, and more people are living alone. These trends, together with overall population growth, have increased the number of households to the extent that the number is projected to increase to 11.8 million by 2029.

The Gillard Government has turned away from Rudd’s Big Australia as a formal policy and will develop its own Sustainable Population Strategy for release later this year.

Last year, The ACT Chief Minister’s Department approached my colleague Brian Elton, an expert on consultation, for advice on engaging the Canberra community in a conversation about how our national capital – the most planned of planned cities (even more than Adelaide) – should accommodate just 80,000 more people by 2030. Working together we designed and delivered a broad and deep process of consultation.

Time to Talk Canberra 2030 proved to be effective in reaching a really broad cross section of the Canberra community to talk about becoming a more sustainable city and community. Canberra has the largest houses and leads Australian cities as the city where individuals have the biggest carbon footprint of all.
Hot summers, cold winters, big houses, freeway-connected suburbs and workplaces away from home, all add up to high energy consumption and production of greenhouse gases.

Using a whole range of techniques of talking with the community, from Twitter, online forums, public meetings, surveys and web discussion to focus groups, and by inviting people to give their views, we reached more than 20,000 people. All this was supported by television advertising calling on people to get involved. We got deep connection and input on the issues.

The community understands that governments alone won’t solve the problems of our cities. Rather it will be, to quote from a Canberra citizen: “More partnerships – government letting go of some of the control and letting business and community begin to innovate”.

Statements like this were typical: “We need change managers, a sustainable vision for Canberra and the region and more expenditure on big catalyst projects that aim for maximum liveability, maximum affordability, maximum ecological preservation and enhancement that are autonomous and self- sufficient.”

Cities need to change

Around the same time that we were talking about cities with the Canberra community, the Federal Department of Infrastructure and Transport released Our Cities: The Challenge of Change Discussion Paper.

It’s a solid report by economists and planners and identifies well the myriad problems facing cities.
The fine print is saying that, “the development patterns of the past may not provide sustainable solutions for present and future changes.” It’s a statement of masterful understatement. Especially in the context of the disasters we’ve seen in Queensland, Victoria and now Perth in the first weeks of 2011.

The report notes that, with 85 per cent of Australians living within 50km of the coastline, the cities and communities in this zone are, “at particular risk of sea level rise, storm surge and in some regions, cyclonic activity.

“The extent of inundation projected for the Gold Coast and Darwin will affect local communities, infrastructure assets and natural ecosystems.”

What we’ve seen through January and February this year is Mother Nature beginning to demonstrate this.
There is no doubt that urban planners and city makers know how our cities need to change. They talk to each other about it all the time. The problem is it’s the community that needs to buy into change.
Rethinking and rebuilding in Brisbane and the coastal towns of Far North Queensland could put the spotlight on a broader conversation about the need for less sprawl and more compact cities.

Increased choice
The Canberra conversation made it clear we aren’t all going to opt for apartment living, but with an aging population and more people in single households, there is demand for more housing choice, including more compact apartments in existing residential suburbs.

We undertook a representative random telephone survey of 1000 adult residents and 28 per cent support a more compact city, and 59 per cent support a mix of development across Canberra and on the fringe. Only a minority of 13 per cent saw a more sprawling city as a desirable future for Canberra.
These findings were reinforced in a voluntary online survey answered by more than 1400 people, with 280 young people showing a strong preference for a more compact city.

The Federal Government discussion paper is pretty direct about what we need: “We need more compact cities, more choice in housing, more social housing, more affordable housing, higher rates of public transport use – so more access to good public transport and alternative transport such as walking and cycling, reduced water consumption, efficient use of energy by households and business, and increased recycling of waste.”

But we also need people to agree with this.

The challenge is how to get the development sector and the community to want this. That will only happen if the community understands the issues and the choices it must make. And they can only understand with help from the government and media.
The changes called for in the discussion paper line up nicely with what the Canberra community told us they want. But that was only after sharing information about the challenges facing government. We explained that the challenges facing government are the challenges facing the community.

My generation
Broadly, people accept that Canberra will grow and must provide for the needs of all sections of a larger and more diverse society. They accept the vital goal for Canberra is to meet the needs of different generations.

In the next 10 years, many of the older people in the community will retire and they will need younger people to take over.

People understand the concept of making room in existing suburbs for more people to share in the good places to live. They accept that more people staying and moving into existing suburbs can increase the viability of shopping centres, schools, transport and services.

Their nervousness is about the quality and local impact of new apartment development. They want design control and to know where high-rise buildings are proposed to go and what they will look like – and they are asking how high is high-rise?

Lowering Canberra’s carbon emissions, reducing consumption and generally being more environmentally responsible emerged as a universally shared goal. A majority supported limiting sprawl and the need to work out how to use scarce land more effectively.

The quality of Canberra’s environment repeatedly came under comment. Canberra’s relationship to its landscape, Canberra’s fresh air and the system of parks and reserves of bushland are seen as critical assets.

People called for more housing diversity in a variety of neighbourhoods. They called for more choice for students, younger and older people. People understood that a greater social mix makes for a richer place to live.

Provided with a list of four urban planning challenges facing Canberra, and asked to pick the single most important of these, there was an equal split at 33 per cent for affordability and choice of housing with more public transport. The remaining two challenges – reducing urban sprawl and changing behaviour to reduce greenhouse gases – scored 17 per cent and 16 per cent respectively.

Alternative transport
The biggest challenge for Canberrans will be the shift from cars to public transport and alternative transport such as walking and cycling. The place has been designed for cars. Most people have them and use them.

Reducing car trips won’t be easy and more public transport won’t be cheap for government. If the Federal Government really wants our cities to change for our long-term prosperity as a nation, they’ll need to help pay for the change. It is beyond the purses of even the capital city local governments.

It is a positive start that the Federal Government is developing national strategy for cities and is seeking to engage the community in talking about the future of our cities and how we are going to live in them.
Minister Albanese’s message is: “While 2009 marked the year that more people across the world lived in cities than not, Australia reached this point more than half a century ago. Australia needs a long-term national agenda for how our cities should look and work, to tackle the big challenges ahead.”

This is not new information to the Federal Government. They, and we, have seen decades of growth of our capital cities.

Enthusiastic participants
Our Time to Talk Canberra 2030 engagement showed us spirited enthusiasm from that community to share in talking about their future. We set up a direct, honest and open conversation. It was at times heated and at others frustrated.

The Federal Government‘s discussion paper is intending to inspire engagement from the community on policy approaches to inform a national strategy, but it takes a very structured approach inviting people to answer quite complex questions. It will be interesting to see if ordinary Australians engage in this way.
As a document it’s a great capture of the situation. The paper argues effectively for the importance of cities on the national agenda. That shouldn’t be necessary. The majority of us live in cities.

Historically, planning for change in our cities has been the battleground of local and state governments. Rarely is their relationship a convivial one.

It was rare and good to see the Liberal Mayor of Brisbane, Campbell Newman, and the Labour Premier Anna Bligh, sharing the problem. The Brisbane local government model is a unique model super council with a wider than usual strategic reach while still having a fine grain connection to the people. I’m sure they will work collaboratively with community on the rebuilding plan.

State and federal governments need local governments as partners in talking about the big strategic issues in their communities. The direct reach of local government into community has the best potential to engage the community in the need for strategic change in our cities.

Change happens in the micro, step by step, rather than the macro! Federal and state government must take the helicopter view of setting strategic agendas, but when it comes to engaging directly and to building support for strategic change among citizens, local government needs to be a key partner.

Follow governments’ lead
My work constantly shows me people are willing and keen to engage in conversation about where and how they will live in the future, and they want governments to listen and take notice of what they say. Otherwise communities won’t bother tuning into the big issues, and they’ll continue to oppose change in their patch.

With the prospect of 3.2 million homes being added into Australian cities and, with the big question of where people can live safe from flood, fire and cyclones in the next 25 years, it really is time to talk about our cities. Governments need to lead the conversation and empower the community through the process of change.


Jane Jose is a specialist writer and strategist focused on urban and community development, policy and engagement. She is an Associate at Elton Consulting. Prior to that Jane was Senior Strategist for the City of Sydney and had a key role in developing, writing and the engagement process for the Sustainable Sydney 2030 Vision. Key strategic planning roles she has held include, Deputy Lord Mayor of Adelaide; Member, Central Sydney Planning Committee; and Director, Land Management Corporation of SA. Jane wrote and edited Time to Talk Canberra 2030 Outcomes Report; The local action Plans for the Villages of Sydney; Sustainable Sydney 2030 Vision and Western Sydney Parklands Vision, and the Sydney Harbour National Park Plan of Management. Elton Consulting designed and delivered the Time to Talk Canberra 2030 project which can be found at www.canberra2030.org.au