Ken Maher

As the most urbanised nation on earth, Australia has good reason to invest in cities. More than two thirds of Australians live in a major capital city. Our cities are growing rapidly.

And we’re not alone. Urbanisation is a worldwide trend. Globally, the UN estimates that around five billion people will be living in cities by 2030. This provides global challenges, but it also means that opportunities for research, innovation and best practice are evolving at a rapid pace. Most major nations are already responding with shifts in policies and practices.

So why does the Australian Government ignore this critical opportunity to nurture our cities, increase productivity and consequently the success of our nation in a globally competitive market? The wellbeing of our citizens is reason enough to focus on cities policy.

A laissez-faire attitude by government and neglect of the health and welfare of Australian cities is neither acceptable economically and environmentally nor if we want to build strong, safe communities.

The cost of congestion could hit $53 billion a year

Communities have lamented problems caused by poor urban design and a lack of infrastructure planning for years. City dwellers suffer traffic gridlock, air pollution, impossible commutes, a lack of green space and sedentary lifestyles leading to poor health. Infrastructure Australia also predicts a huge economic toll, with the cost of congestion potentially hitting $53 billion a year by 2031.

Economically, Australia’s cities are the powerhouses of the nation, generating more than 80 per cent of our GDP. Current population growth trends mean we are more than 200,000 houses short of accommodating everyone, not to mention critical infrastructure required by a growing population.

This is good news for the construction industry, but it’s important that we design this growth to ensure that our cities deliver the best possible places for all of us.

Cycling is a huge trend

With increasing awareness of the risks of a sedentary lifestyle, Australians are moving to a more active way of life. In the decade from 2001, Australians bought 11.5 million bicycles – 2 million more than cars. Good urban design is a crucial way to support this choice, leading to improved health outcomes across our urban populations, and relieving the strain on the health budget at the same time.

And we’re growing older

Demographic factors are changing the face of our cities. An ageing population means we need to cater for a growing population of less mobile city dwellers who need access to health services and social services and facilities. Continued high levels of immigration mean that our cities are increasingly diverse, with residents from across the geographic, cultural and linguistic spectrum.

This diversity is a great asset to our cities, making them rich and complex in the arts and food, yet the challenge of social integration and affordability remains.

Young people are choosing higher density urban living and this will bring a shift away from suburban lifestyles to apartments and townhouses which imply a more public mode of living with shared facilities and common space, as well as more intensive social infrastructure. This social change points to an urgent need to invest in cities – and to a lessening of liveability if we don’t.

Rob Stokes gets it, but what about Canberra?

In a recent speech to the property industry NSW Planning Minister Rob Stokes gave an impassioned plea for us to care about the future of Sydney, and his comments could apply to all Australia’s major cities.

He suggested Sydney has three key positives: ethnic diversity, educational institutions, and environment, but also three negatives: trains (lack of), traffic (too much) and transport (poor connections). These last three are all about infrastructure. Despite the recognition of these issues by the NSW state government, they cannot be remedied without a significant focus at ministerial level by the Federal government. We need a shift in federal policy to bring cities into the foreground of Australia’s future social and economic growth.

Investing in cities delivers economic, environmental, social and health benefits. ASBEC has four major recommendations for how we can achieve this:

Leverage government roles & responsibilities.This means all parties playing to their strengths, with the federal government leading on policy and research via a Minister for Cities; state government delivering the funds and measuring success; and local government engaging with communities to determine their needs. Industry can provide the expertise to identify best practice and then implement it on the ground.

Measure and report on cities performance. We need to use consistent indicators to demonstrate the performance of our cities across the country, and make sure this data is accessible.

Better infrastructure planning and new investment. Governments and the private sector need to work together collaboratively to deliver a 30 year Infrastructure Plan, providing a blueprint for our cities as they grow.

Best practice design. Creating Places for People is an urban design protocol that aims to “create productive, sustainable and livable places for people through leadership and the integration of design excellence”. The protocol identifies 12 major factors of good urban design, grouped into three broad areas.

Place based attributes include enhancement of the local environment, physical and social connection, diversity and resilience. Design factors that increase liveability are comfort, vibrancy, safe, enjoyable, and ease of movement by bicycle or on foot.

Finally, a design process that provides leadership and accountability should include working within the planning, cultural and social context, engaging with stakeholders, innovation, collaboration and engagement with issues of custodianship, management and maintenance over time.

The Urban Design Protocol website showcases some examples of excellent urban design. The Paddington Reservoir Gardens in central Sydney has been revitalised with an exceptional design that respects its heritage and creates a calm community oasis in the middle of the city.

A youth-focused outdoor space in at the Geelong Youth Activity Area, embodies principles of flexibility with space for markets and outdoor pursuits like skateboarding, creating a vital community hub.

Who benefits from better cities? With so many Australians, and so much of our health, economy and communities dependent on our cities, who doesn’t?

Time to demand action

It is time for action. We must demand of our federal politicians to show leadership on this critical issue. Didn’t Tony Abbott promise in the 2013 campaign “If elected, I want to be known as an infrastructure prime minister”. But I won’t be all talk and no action like Kevin Rudd.”?

There is no more critical issue than to develop long term strategies for funding and delivering the nation’s infrastructure, and to ensure this delivers well designed, vital, productive, equitable, delightful and healthy cities.

Ken Maher is president of Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council and Professor of Practice UNSW Built Environment Faculty

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