The Fifth Estate is hosting an event tonight (2 May) on the out of control housing prices in Sydney and Melbourne.

On Friday we’ll be moderating a so-called super session where delegates at the yearly conferences of the Planning Institute of Australia and the Australian Institute of Architects come together for an hour-and-a-half in a kind of kitchen cabinet confidential (in front of around 1000 people!) on the topic of urbanism as cities move to mega-populations of 50 million.

What’s the connection?

More than we thought it turns out.

A bit of research, some thinking and some discussions with anyone we could nab proved that.

And then we came across a wonderful interview by urbanist Richard Florida with the late social theorist Benjamin Barber on CityLab. It made the whole cities story gel beautifully.

The interview was about Barber’s well-known love of the city (see his book If Mayors Ruled the World) and his belief in its rebel power to buck whatever the crazy feds want to do next.

Barber is talking about the US and the threat by president Donald Trump to punish cities for not heeding his edicts, by withholding funds. But the feds can be found anywhere on this planet. Think of the word as a metaphor.

Barber is brilliant on the theme.

He says there is a lot of negative disempowering messaging coming out of Washington (as there is from Canberra) but that it’s not an accurate picture of the true power play.

The framing, he says, “gives the impression that it is citizens on their own in the civil movement up against the powerful institutional forces that have been taken over by Donald Trump”.

“I want to suggest that that draws a too pessimistic picture. There is an institutional and constitutional haven for resistance, defined by cities, which have resources, money, citizens, and the power to do something.

“All their institutional powers – their resources, their capacities, their lawyers – are in a position to mount an ongoing, systematic, institutional resistance to Trump and everything he stands for. It’s not just, ‘He acts, we protest.’ It’s the confrontation of power with power – of national power with urban power.


But he goes further.

“The word I want to introduce here is interdependence,” he says.

“We need think of the challenges any government faces – local, state, national or international. There is no New York climate change, no US warming, no North American carbon emissions. It’s a global problem. Terrorists in fact are pernicious, malevolent NGOs with no known national borders. They don’t work within borders. That’s why they are so effective. Pandemic disease doesn’t carry a passport. It doesn’t stop at borders. It’s not American or French. The economy, jobs, the political consequences of how they come and go, along with financial capitalism, and corporations. They move where they will.

“We still love that word, independence, but interdependence is the reality.”

At this architects and planners super session the story delegates will hear from the kitchen cabinet about the power of the city to shift outcomes for people and places.

Rahul Mehrotra, based in India, teaching at Harvard, is focused on the challenges India faces by rapid wealth generation and what that means for its cities. At a specific level he rails against his country’s “impatient” capital to build the same [dumb] office buildings and resorts for the wealthy that it does everywhere else, reliant on big glass facades and aircon, with little regard for local environmental or cultural conditions.

Prathima Manohar, also Indian, likes to work more at the interventionist human scale, particularly in the public realm, as she put it to us this week during a Skype chat.

She believes in the power of urban planning and architecture to change the lives of people and urges a different type of thinking from her peers.

For instance, why not award the kudos of “Starchitect” to architects who have a big impact on social outcomes rather than artistic, she says.

“There’s nothing wrong with artistic,” she says, but how much more powerful and life-changing is the work of Pritzker Prize winner Alejandro Aravena, who focuses on projects that meet urgent human needs?

Most inspirationally though, Manohar has alighted on communications to push her vision. She’s a columnist in big newspapers, a television journalist, blogger and videographer. And she’s not afraid of using big names such as Imran Khan to push her point.

Manohar is a trained architect but her studies in public policy at Stanford were invaluable, she says. Media and politics are tools that should be taught and encouraged and demanded in every urbanist course in all countries, because it’s through understanding politics and how to shift agendas that you can get things done.

The other two guests at the table will be landscape architects Sylvia Karres, from the Netherlands and who has worked on Melbourne’s Federation Square during its earlier phase, and Julian Bolleter, from University of Western Australia, who focuses on the power of more naturalistic parks to create the biophilic qualities that make living in dense cities better experiences.

So what’s the connection between the cities’ challenge and the way we deal with housing affordability and why is The Fifth Estate wading into that realm?

First, median prices of $1.2 million in Sydney do nothing to keep our young, talented and creative people in the cities where we need them to tackle the wicked problems our cities throw up.

The so-called slow down in the housing boom of last week will not bring prices back to where they were three or four years ago, except perhaps in cases of stressed vendors caught out by rising interest rates.

We need the energy of the young and the insights of the creatives to tackle climate change, sustainability and the transition to a low-carbon economy. And we need our teachers and nurses and firefighters.

Even more, to fight climate change, or at least temper it a bit, we need to demonstrate a sense of inclusion, equity and diversity, because in the end we are all in this together.

So we don’t want people leaving the big cities in droves because housing is too expensive to allow a reasonable quality of life.

And quite frankly, most people don’t want their kids moving to Bendigo, Wagga Wagga or Newcastle.

But people are moving. They’re going to the regions.

In the last financial year net population growth in Victoria was 1.1 per cent; NSW was 0.8 per cent and around Wagga Wagga it was a massive five per cent. What the decentralisation policies of decades ago tried in vain to do, the market has done in a few short years.

But it’s not clear this is the kind of growth the decentralists had in mind: urban sprawl is now a rural problem. The folk who’ve been to Echuca on the Murray River lately have come back horrified.

And the anecdotal evidence is that many people being forced to the regions are the most marginalised and disadvantaged. The risk is that we have rising areas of disadvantage that are doing it even tougher than those on the suburban fringes of the cities.

Maybe there would be a better balance of skills and social diversity if regional cities could attract more of the the 90,000 immigrants coming to Sydney each year and the 120,000 who move to Melbourne, using figures flagged by Louis Christopher of SQM Research, one of our presenters at the Flash Forum.

Okay, some of the young and talented we need in the regions.

See our article from Sandra Edmunds this week on what they’re doing in the Latrobe Valley to provide jobs now the big smoke of Hazelwood has been shut down.

And check out what Tim Horton says about it.

Innovators are looking for big areas of covered space for creativity, for example, light aeronautics or experimental unmanned vehicles.

“Without being too unrealistic you could start to see that it becomes a really interesting place, like nowhere else, that is a mix of small-scale tinkering and maker space but on a massive scale.

“What you need is really large footprints that are undercover, that are well resourced, with a whole lot of the infrastructure that is needed – a men’s shed on steroids. So don’t decommission too much.”

Horton was Australia’s first commissioner for integrated design to advise the South Australia premier on design, planning and development on major projects, and is now registrar for the NSW Architects Registration Board.

So that’s a city guy inputting a whole lot of thinking and connectivity he’s picked up in the city. And no, we are not saying cool concepts and meme thinking only occur in the city.

But it helps. The bump factor and social germination can be hugely productive.

We’ll give Barber the last word:

“My view is not just everything devolves down to the cities and we just do it there – we bring cities together working in organisations like the C40 Climate Cities, ICLEI, my new Global Parliament of Mayors, working together as they deal locally with these issues, so they can also deal globally.

“We have the democratic majority. We are the source of wealth creation. We are the source of universities. We are the source of culture.”

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