Living in Cities in Australia

by Peter Croft

We are an urban lot. The Australian Bureau of Statistics calculates that almost 70% of us live in the capital cities and major towns, while 90% of us live in towns of greater than 1000 in population (1).

City living brings lots of advantages – availability of services, people and goods. But there seems to be a point at which a growing city no longer exhibits economies of scale. Take the East-West link in Melbourne that was proposed for many years (2). Its purpose was as an 18-kilometre tollway to connect a Freeway to a Ring Road. Projected cost was $15 to $17 billion – almost $1 billion a kilometre.

That seems awfully expensive. $2 billion is enough to build a brand-new world-scale hospital (3). $1 billion is enough to build the equivalent of 8 to 10 major high schools in the City of Adelaide (4) or nearly 15 to 20 high schools in Western Australia (5). To get just 18 kilometres of road for $15 billion to $17 billion doesn’t feel like good value. Perhaps our cities would be better value if they were smaller and better designed.

I was interested to read in the Engineers Australia Journal of July 2015 an article entitled “Big Ideas are needed to break the cycle of urban sprawl” (6). It outlined a concept of halting capital city growth (which for Melbourne is about 100,000 people per year – the size of Ballarat) and channelling that growth into satellite cities that would be closely connected to capital cities – and each planned for a population between 100,000 and 750,000. The article focussed on the issues required to make this work – for example: transport design and the creation of new industries (particularly intensive horticulture). By designing new cities in a planned way, it would be possible to build in all of the current thinking about energy, water management, waste management and transport, rather than be hamstrung by past decisions in our existing cities.

There is a lot more to a city than its physical design however. A recent book, entitled Creating Cities, by Marcus Westbury outlines how a small group of people revitalised the run-down centre of Newcastle, following the demise of its steel industry (7). One of the ideas was to make available unused space at essentially zero rent to enable people with ideas (but little capital) to start-up a business. It’s an inspiring read. Marcus makes the point that the renewal process in Newcastle was essentially an exercise in creating fertile ground and based on small-scale actions because it is at that scale that there is the most immediate capacity for action. Marcus was recently interviewed on Conversations with Richard Fidler – definitely worth listening to.

There are some interesting examples of new developments in cities that are highly relevant. They include a US and a European example:

  • The small US township of Greensburg in Kansas. In 2007, almost all of the township was destroyed by a tornado. It was rebuilt along sustainability principles. It now claims to have the greatest number per capita of Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) buildings in the US and uses 100% renewable energy, 100% of the time to power the city (8).
  • In Germany, the city of Freiburg (population 220,000) was substantially destroyed during the war and rebuilt and is now recognised worldwide as an example of how systemic design and policy can lead to a more healthy, vibrant and ecologically responsible city. Some of the measures that have been implemented in Freiburg include: the prioritization of public transport, cyclists and pedestrians over the car; using renewable energy with local energy networks; buildings designed to be energy efficient and suitable for the local climate; large areas of green space and conservation areas; retention of as much rain water as possible; reuse of grey water; and a strong commitment to waste reduction including initiatives such as banning disposable drink containers at events held on public land. Dinali will be visiting this city later in the year and seeing some of this firsthand (9).

By contrast, some of South Australia’s earlier experiments with smaller satellite cities did not turn out as successful: Monarto was abandoned as an idea; and Elizabeth became part of Greater Adelaide rather than have its own stand-alone identity.

I would be interested to hear your views on living in our cities. What can we do to make them work better?

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