Suzanne Toumbourou

As Infrastructure Australia’s CEO pointed out recently, the next few years are a crucial time for Australian cities, which are facing unprecedented challenges. Population is growing rapidly, with forecasts showing Sydney and Melbourne with populations over eight million by 2061.

At the same time, our population is ageing, with the average Australian’s age set to increase from the current 37.3 to as much as 44.5 years over the same period. Climate change is also gathering pace, with forecasts showing rising temperature, higher sea levels and an increase in extreme weather events – all posing challenges for our built environment.

Fortunately, new PM Malcolm Turnbull has demonstrated that he takes our cities seriously, singling them out for special attention in his maiden speech to Parliament as PM, and pointing out that cities are “economic assets”; the places ‘“where the bulk of our economic growth can be found”.

The PM has created a new role in his government to address the challenges ahead. For the first time in Australian history, there is a dedicated Minister for Cities. Jamie Briggs has been appointed to the role, in which he will work closely alongside Environment Minister Greg Hunt.

Our cities are complex, interdependent places. The challenges they face can be met – but only if local, state and federal government work together to create policies and make funding decisions that serve the long-term needs of Australia’s cities. Coordination is also needed between the federal portfolios of Cities and the Built Environment, Environment, and Territories, Local Government and Major Projects. This new portfolio provides an exciting opportunity to provide the leadership and coordination we need to make this happen and ensure the best possible outcomes for our cities and the increasing numbers of Australians who call them home.

ASBEC has been researching and consulting with experts for the last few years to determine the priorities that need to be tackled if Australia’s cities are to meet the challenges they face and retain their famous “liveability”.

Our publication Investing in Cities, released in July, shows the way that every sphere of government can support the productivity, liveability, sustainability and resilience of our cities.

First, we need a formal agreement between the federal government, states and territories, and local government to support new ways of meeting the challenges our cities face. This intergovernmental agreement would support the overarching structure we need to understand our cities (with better data collection and research) and measure our progress. It also needs to underpin improved financing arrangements to deliver more productive, liveable and sustainable cities.

Next, we need a way to measure and report our success. This means comparing like with like over time. Factors like economic prosperity, health, liveability, green infrastructure and ecosystem health, governance, housing diversity and supply, transport and greenhouse gas emissions need to be measured and reported on if we are to incentivise best practice.

It’s no secret that infrastructure spending decision processes are often extremely fraught, with bitter politics, short-termism and vested interests often getting in the way of the best outcome. Improved data and research, along with new methods of understanding the true economic benefits of infrastructure spending, will allow us to make informed, evidence-based decisions when it comes to infrastructure priorities and ensuring private sector investment delivers economic, environmental and social objectives for our urban communities.

Design is another important sphere in which the minister needs to show leadership. Urban design is both a process and an outcome of creating places where people live, engage with each other, and participate in the physical place around them. The Urban Design Protocol, Creating Places for People, is a comprehensive framework of 12 principles for delivering best practice urban environments. The new minister should champion the protocol to ensure it is central across industry and government.

Australia’s cities and built environment, along with our infrastructure, are vulnerable to the shocks and stresses of extreme weather events and the likely effects of climate change. The new minister should lead the nation’s efforts to increase the resilience of our built environment, bringing together industry, community, researchers and government to create a National Adaptation Policy Framework.

With buildings responsible for 23 per cent of Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions, incentivising energy efficiency in the built environment is crucial if we are to reduce our overall greenhouse gas emissions. But there are still serious obstacles for the building sector to access the Emissions Reduction Fund. The minister should seek to provide tax breaks for energy efficiency measures in new and existing buildings and consider other complementary measures to reduce emissions.

We’ve got very big challenges to meet, and as PM Turnbull has pointed out, we need very big changes if we’re going to meet them. The appointment of a Cities and the Built Environment minister is an exciting change that provides us with the opportunity to roll up our sleeves and do just that.

Suzanne Toumbourou is executive director of the Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council.