Photo: Freya Grove

By Margaret Simons, From Inside Story,

21 June 2011 – When it rains Australia’s big cities break. The traffic banks up. The air thickens. The stormwater drains, built decades ago and hardly thought of since, cease to drain.

The work–life balance skews towards a space and time that is neither public nor private, a kind of nowhere time spent in traffic, on a railway platform or in a bus shelter.

Sometimes it seems that any extra stress – a sharp downpour, a heatwave, a sporting fixture or a car accident – takes the city past the point where it works.

For a few hours, sometimes as long as a day or a week, we glimpse a future in which living in an Australian city is no longer consistent with having a good life.

In 2008, the human race passed a significant milestone. Since then, most of the world’s population has lived in urban areas, with the shift driven mostly by rapid development and internal migration in China and India.

With 90 per cent of the population already living in urban areas, Australia is ahead of the trend. Cities here generate 80 per cent of national wealth and 75 per cent of jobs. And as Australia’s population expands from today’s twenty-two million to a projected thirty-six million by 2050, most of the increase – if nothing is done to prevent it – will need to be accommodated in cities.

Who, if anyone, can control this growth? Eight state and territory governments and more than 155 local administrations are responsible for city planning. As we track our individual courses between the private and public spaces, the offices, the couches, the beds and the bars, the schools, the offices and the parks, we traverse all the complexities of the city system – the many owners, the many different authorities, all with their stake.

These vested interests sprawl from the financial heart through to the pleasant middle suburbs, each with its own lobby group, and on to the greenfields developments on the edge.

Constitutionally and historically there is little natural role for the federal government in city planning. The Howard government shunned it. In fact, one of its first acts was to cancel the Building Better Cities program of the Hawke and Keating governments, with the Coalition’s transport and regional development minister, John Sharp, arguing that there was “no clear rationale or constitutional basis for Commonwealth involvement.”

Sharp’s eventual successor, current infrastructure minister Anthony Albanese, has claimed that when it took power the Rudd government found “not a single urban planner in the entire Commonwealth Public Service – not one.”

But now, in what is surely one of the least-examined areas of public policy development since Labor came to power, the federal government is trying to get back into the game. This year’s federal budget included a statement by Albanese, “Our Cities Our Future” laying out a national urban policy. It hardly got a mention in the media.

A few days later came the government’s population policy. It got plenty of coverage, but only because it didn’t nominate an overall target for population growth, instead discussing how to house population increases in the regions and what might be called the politics of place.

“Population change is not only about the growth and overall size of our population,” according to the policy, “it is also about the needs and skills of our population, how we live, and importantly, where we live. Population change impacts different communities in different ways.”

In truth, the urban policy and population policy documents are a pair and don’t make sense if they aren’t viewed together. But perhaps the lack of serious media attention is understandable: these are documents rich in colour pictures and tangled syntax but short on the specifics of what the federal government intends to do, and how it intends to do it.

Yet there are strands of coherent policy, and signs of new ways of thinking. The National Broadband Network will overcome the disadvantages of isolation. The regions must be strong if cities are to be liveable.

Communities must be sustainable if they are to be productive. Suburbs built when oil was cheap, women were in the home and the population was youthful are now increasingly unsustainable and obsolete. And in all this the federal government needs to be involved. The politics of place can’t be left to local government and the states.

Two decades ago Brian Howe was the minister responsible for the Building Better Cities program, launched in 1991 by the Hawke government in cooperation with the states and territories. More than any other contemporary figure, Howe carries the legacy of Labor’s past intervention in the politics of space – and, as I found when I spoke to him recently, he is once again closely involved in the development of policy.

“The rate of population growth and the distribution of the population is largely shaped by the Commonwealth, through immigration policy and through the capital funds it provides to the states and territories,” Howe told me when we met at Melbourne University’s leafy Parkville campus, in the midst of Melbourne’s multilayered, public transport–rich inner suburbs. “And yet the federal government has generally kept out of planning and managing cities.”

But Howe believes that the mounting urban challenges are “driving the Commonwealth to a greater awareness of the spatial implications of its policies and encouraging it to work more cooperatively with the states.”

Howe was first alerted to the renewed federal interest in better cities in 2008, when he was invited – along with about 20 others, including the former lord mayor of Sydney, Lucy Turnbull, economist Saul Eslake and other professional observers of urban policy – to dine at the Lodge with Kevin Rudd.

Howe had dealt with Rudd years before when Rudd was a bureaucrat in Wayne Goss’s government in Queensland and Howe was trying to steer through the Building Better Cities program. Queensland’s Labor government “got it” better than most. Brisbane’s inner suburbs were revived by Better Cities thanks largely, says Howe, to the vision of the Goss government.

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