Creating liveable cities: How can a Federal Government support cities?

iStock_000029640518MediumAustralia’s new prime minster, Malcolm Turnbull, is sounding very progressive when he talks of Australia’s future and introduces his new ministry line up. It was particularly interesting to hear of his support for cities as he introduced his new Cabinet today: “Liveable, vibrant cities are absolutely critical to our prosperity”, he said. This made me wonder: what role can the Federal Government play in supporting liveable cities? 

The State of Australian Cities 2014-15 report says, in 2013, more than 18 million Australians lived in the 20 major cities.

Turnbull said, “Historically the Federal Government has had a limited engagement with cities”. Yet, this is not completely correct. In 1973, labor prime minister Gough Whitlam established the Department of Urban and Regional Development (DURD). However, this department was quickly abolished in 1975 by the other liberal Malcolm prime minister, Malcolm Fraser. DURD’s objectives were broad and ambitious. DURD focussed on supporting growth centres and new cities. Key concerns were arresting the decay of older cities, changing growth patters and reducing pressures on established cities. DURD’s minister, Tom Uren, invoked strong political arguments in support of the department’s work. Here he stressed how one of the Government’s major initiatives and achievements was the recognition of its national responsibilities for the development of the cities and regions.

In the 1990s the federal Hawke Labor Government established the Building Better Cities Program (BBC). Its genesis was a Special Premier’s Conference held in July 1991 at which the Commonwealth, State and Territory Governments agreed to co-operate in a program focused on improving urban development processes and the quality of urban life. The goals and objectives of the BBC were to encourage better urban planning and management by all levels of government to result in:

  • Economic growth and micro-economic reform;
  • Improved social justice for the less advantaged;
  • Reform of inappropriate and outmoded institutional care for people with disabilities and the frail aged;
  • Ecologically sustainable development; and
  • More liveable cities.

I’m not aiming to plot the full extent of the Federal Government’s involvement, or lack of involvement, in urban development. However, it is clear that there have been various efforts at the federal level to work with state, territory and local governments to create more vibrant and liveable cities. I think it’s also interesting to track the changes in priority or purpose in these efforts. In the 1970s, the government was concerned with urban regeneration and reducing the negative effects of rapid urban growth. (Interestingly, Uren also raised the concern over property prices in cities. Clearly this has been a concern for a long time.) In the 1990s, it appears that the issues had changed – the emphasis was on micro-economic reform and connecting cities to the opportunities of a globalised economy.

To look at the contemporary challenges, it’s interesting to see what the new PM said today: Cities are “where most Australians live, it is where the bulk of our economic growth can be found… We often overlook the fact that liveable cities, efficient, productive cities, the environment of cities, are economic assets. You know, making sure that Australia is a wonderful place to live in, that our cities and indeed our regional centres are wonderful places to live, is an absolutely key priority of every level of Government. Because the most valuable capital in the world today is not financial capital, there’s plenty of that and it’s very mobile. The most valuable capital today is human capital. Men and women like ourselves who can choose to live anywhere. We have to ensure for our prosperity, for our future, for our competitiveness, that every level of Government works together, constructively and creatively to ensure that our cities progress. That Federal funding of infrastructure in cities for example is tied to outcomes that will promote housing affordability.”

There are a few things that strike me about this. Firstly, competitiveness. It’s clear that Turnbull sees that cities play a key role in the competitiveness of Australian in the international economy, and I think he’s right. Cities are places of intense economic activity that are rich in social networks and contain a variety of economic assets.

Secondly, he highlights mobility and links this to human capital. Because people are mobile, cities need to attract and keep people. They have to be enjoyable places to live, to nurture a family and to work in. The State of Australian Cities 2014-15 report says “Cities attract human capital and the co-location of educated and innovative people amplifies the effect of human capital. The clustering of jobs and people in cities increases the range of jobs on offer to a worker and gives them greater choice in employment”.

Thirdly, he talks about infrastructure. While there’s nothing new here, there’s plenty of scope to do infrastructure better and to ensure infrastructure planning is closely connect to social and economic development needs and opportunities. I’ve written on this before.

The Federal Government can’t support liveable cities on its own. It has a limited mandate and there would be too much resistance to such a highly centralised model of urban planning and development. What it can do is support states and local governments and develop pilot projects and new ways of doing things. The Federal Government can support the development of urban eco-systems that integrate industry development, education and skills development, R&D, transport, as well as housing and social services at a local level. The Federal Government should –– despite the denialism that permeates these issues – promote the transformation of energy use, transport and industry development to more sustainable, renewable forms of development. Providing tax incentives, subsidies and other inducements to ignite new markets and new investment opportunities. This can correspond to the PM’s other new mantra: support for innovation. In all of this, the Federal Government can encourage partnerships across all levels of government as well as with the private sector. And it can support the activities of local community organisations that represent local residents and business and provide a platform for these people to engage with government.