Why are Australian cities inequitable and boring?

Most Australian leaders have a go at urban policy, but none have reached the aspirationalism of Whitlam and Uren.

The day before Labor lost the 2013 federal election, then Minister for Infrastructure and Transport, Anthony Albanese, penned an opinion piece, writing “our cities are too important to ignore”. Yet, for almost the entirety of Australia’s post-war history, they have been ignored – or at least neglected. The idea of ambitious federal urban policy serves to remind us of what we have lost, the willingness to reimagine society in equitable but radical ways.

The idea of a federal urban policy framework has long affected Australian politics. Amidst a worldwide wave of interest in urban affairs, Gough Whitlam established the Department of Urban and Regional Development (DURD) upon his election in 1972. DURD was bestowed with an array of responsibilities in relation to cities: stabilising rapidly rising house prices, urban transport, and financing suburban amenities amongst others. Whitlam’s urban policy was driven by the desire to reduce spatial inequality within cities. It was a vision preoccupied by social justice, with Tom Uren heading the Ministry from 1972-75. One of Uren’s greatest legacies was saving Glebe from being demolished for a highway project in 1974. Instead, 700 dwellings were purchased from the Anglican Church and converted into low-income housing. In 1979, the Royal Australian Planning Journal described the Glebe project as being a “refreshing and humane contrast to the insane excesses of the commercial redevelopment … and as a remarkable symbol of official concern for community values rather than developers’ balance sheets”. 

Since then, most leaders have had a go at urban policy, but none have reached the aspirationalism of Whitlam and Uren. The most interesting developments have come recently – both the Gillard and Turnbull governments created national urban policy statements. The latter even appointed a Minister for Cities (who only lasted for 99 days). In the absence of federal interest, and in light of constitutional delegation of authority for planning laws, states and local governments have been tasked with the day-to-day maintenance of city policy. This naturally entertains tension between the different levels of government, with different voter bases to please, consequently impeding the consistency and effectiveness of urban policy in Australia.

No matter at what level urban policy is implemented, Australia suffers from a failure to properly conceive of the purpose of urban policy, to create cities with a uniformly high quality of life. Ever since the Whitlam years, urban policy has been conceived as an instrument of economic reform. This has been seen in the framing of changes to lockout and licensing laws and pedestrianisation efforts as being good for businesses, rather than conducive to agreeable urban environments. It has further been seen in the national preoccupation with infrastructure. Infrastructure has been long viewed as the primary mechanism of dealing with urban problems, including a rapidly growing population and growing spatial wealth disparity. Its construction is viewed as a vehicle of economic growth, more than a means of improving quality of life. Malcolm Turnbull said in announcing his Government’s national urban policy in 2016 that “an efficient city, a liveable city, is absolutely critical to the growth of our economy.” His framing of the utility of a liveable city based on its contribution to economic growth is a bizarre distortion of the purpose of government. This misunderstanding has real impacts on policy implementation.

State and federal governments tend to further silo urban policy. Zoning is dealt with separately to transport, which is dealt separately to water supply. The problem with this is that cities are at the intersection of a vast array of policy areas: urban policy is welfare policy, is economic policy, is arts policy, and so on. To tackle climate change in an urban setting is not only to plant lots of trees and put solar panels on roofs – it is to decrease travel times by intensifying housing and improving transport. It is to reduce car usage to cut carbon emissions and make cities more flood proof. Not only are traditional areas of urban policy linked, but all policy is interlinked when viewed from an urban lens. 

A lack of access to health services or education isn’t merely a problem with the health or education system, it is a problem which exacerbates and entrenches inequality between different parts of our cities. The health and education systems (amongst others) do not only operate in cities, but they reshape our experiences of urban environments. Urban sociology explains why this is the case because cities cannot be reduced to merely their physical properties – the height of their buildings or the number of platforms at their train stations. Instead of this myopic focus, the concern of town planners should be to view cities in terms of how they are inhabited, how they are perceived, used and remade. Not since Whitlam have politicians realised this fact and the culture of urban policy has suffered as a result.

Changing urban policy means assessing the success of all government policies and programs on their impact on our lived experiences of cities, not just the success of their procedural application. If this principle is to be applied more generally, it means not treating abstract policy goals such as a ‘strong economy’ as an end within themselves. Rather, they should function to enhance our experience of the world around us.

The Liberal Party at this election is a case in point of the mistakes to avoid. A search of ‘urban policy’ reveals their plan for infrastructure, which talks of “supporting jobs” in an area “vital to our plan for a stronger economy”. The Greens’ plan for ‘planning and infrastructure’ is framed in a similarly limited way. However, their policies to centre environmental justice and democratic processes indicate a willingness to place people and the environment at the heart of urban policy. The Labor Party’s offerings in this area are promising. Their six-point plan includes developing a national urban policy framework and an annual state of the cities report to inform policy. If implemented well, these policies could mark a significant change in the way urban policy is conceived and implemented, but the lack of attention paid to this area on the campaign trail again shows hesitancy to fully embrace the importance of urban policy.

In this election of such subdued urban policy ambition, no party has expressed a strong willingness to imagine cities as existing to improve social justice. Urban policy needs to care for people, for places and for the environment. In the face of an urban crisis, characterised by the threat of climate change and unaffordable housing, young people, diverse communities and people from a low-SES background are most affected by urban policy. It is our responsibility to radically reimagine urban policy so that it is centred upon community building. Doing so means retaking our right to a living and breathing city; the collective freedom to remake our cities, and therefore ourselves, in line with the values we seek to hold.