A futuristic potential view of Brisbane

Australia’s new Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has been actively engaged with our cities for years. An enthusiastic Twitter user, he has frequently Tweeted about his public transport journeys around his native city of Sydney. He’s also married to Lucy Turnbull, former Lord Mayor of Sydney.

Now that he is Prime Minister, this interest in cities has coalesced in his identification that “…historically the federal government has had a limited engagement with cities, and yet that is where most Australians live”.

To address this, Turnbull has appointed Jamie Briggs as Australia’s first ever federal Minister for Cities and the Built Environment. The new Cities ministry will sit within the Environment portfolio, working alongside Environment Minister Greg Hunt.

ASBEC has been calling for a Minster for Cities since 2011. Federal involvement in planning and building our cities is crucial if we are to avoid rapidly diminishing our famous ‘liveability’ with unmanaged population growth, transport gridlock, and the effects of rising greenhouse gas emissions.

Federal policy engagement on our cities has been top of our list for a long time. Our cities are home to around 80% of all Australians. They are growing rapidly – the populations of both Sydney and Melbourne are forecast to reach around 8 million each by late this century. Much of our economic and social activity takes place in these urban settings, meaning that tackling many of our problems requires engaging with the design and development of our cities.

Some clues to the PM’s agenda were evident in his announcement of the appointment. In a veiled reference to Tony Abbott’s preference for road over rail, Turnbull called for the ‘ideology’ to be taken out of our infrastructure funding decisions. ‘Infrastructure should be assessed objectively and rationally on its merits, there is no place for ideology here at all,’ he said. ‘The critical thing is to ensure that we get the best outcome in our cities.’

Now that we have a Federal Minister for Cities at last, ASBEC believes that there are some urgent policy tasks ahead.

Increasing cooperation between federal, state and territory governments is crucial. The way we plan and develop our cities could be vastly improved with this kind of integrated approach – and the new Minister needs to lead the way in creating it. An Intergovernmental Agreement between Federal, State and Territory governments is needed to provide the structure for this cooperation.

One thing better integration could achieve is improved data collection and research. If we can improve our measuring and reporting, using transparent and consistent indicators of factors like economic prosperity, health, liveability and governance, we will be much better equipped to track our progress in improving our cities and judge our performance over time.

PM Turnbull recognises that our cities are crucial to our economy. Cities are “where the bulk of our economic growth can be found…. Liveable cities, efficient productive cities, the environment of cities, are economic assets,” he said.

With infrastructure provision critical to ensuring the ongoing productivity and liveability of our cities, tackling Australia’s infrastructure backlog is central to improving productivity growth and bolstering our international competitiveness. Leadership to take new initiatives forward is essential, and the new Minister is well placed to provide this. New financing arrangements that leverage the strengths of every sphere of government will also help deliver more productive, liveable and sustainable cities.

What will our cities look like? ASBEC has been calling for a Minster for Cities since 2011. This imagined futuristic image, produced by Monash University, shows what Melbourne would look like if it was overlaid by Manhattan.

The Minister should also support and champion the principles identified by the building sector in its Urban Design Protocol, which are designed to facilitate the creation of productive, sustainable and liveable places for people through leadership and the integration of design excellence. The principles are productivity, sustainability, liveability, leadership and design excellence.

Finally, there is the issue of resilience. With challenges ahead including the impacts of climate change, rising temperatures, extreme weather events and a population that is both increasing and ageing, the Minister should work with every sphere of government, industry, academia and the community to create resilient cities that can withstand the shocks and stresses that these hazards may cause.

As the go-to organisation for consultation and policy development on this portfolio, representing the key segments of the built environment sector, ASBEC can’t wait to work with the new Minister and his Government to ensure that our cities stay great.

Suzanne Toumbourou is executive director, Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council

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