Cities need to change. Creating modern, sustainable, accessible cities requires a reimagining of the city–a re-evaluation of what cities look like and how they function.
This Chapter will look at critical elements of urban form—the need for integrated planning; accounting for densification, agglomeration, and the distribution of population, employment and services; the centrality of density to sustainable urban development; and the concept of polycentricity. Part 2 of the report will focus in more detail on different aspects of sustainability and liveability in the urban environment.
Two noted experts on the urban environment gave their views on the need to re-think the way we view our cities. Professor Peter Newton, from Swinburne University of Technology, urged ‘more sustainable urban development’, principally through increasing housing supply in the well located established inner and middle ring suburbs of our cities’. This would require ‘an urban transition from low density suburban cities to more urban compact cities achieved by redirecting population growth and property investment inwards from the greenfields to urban infill, the brownfields and what I call the “greyfields”’. He also urged ‘a transition in the type and scale of new infill housing development’:
What I mean by that is medium density is the type that needs to increase, and at a precinct scale. This has come to be termed the missing middle, medium density at a precinct scale in the middle suburbs. In this context there needs to be less piecemeal, suboptimal knockdown/rebuild housing, which currently dominates the greyfield infill and is really contributing to cities not meeting their infill targets. Some cities have an infill target, which is a really positive step in terms of trying to limit greenfield development.
This transition needed ‘to be regenerative’, with new development shrinking the ‘ecological carbon and urban footprints that characterise our cities’. To achieve this, ‘the transition needs to accommodate new distributed infrastructures in renewable energy generation and also decentralised water and wastewater treatment’. He also argued that new zoning schemes are required to ‘more accurately target where intensified redevelopment should take place within our existing established cities, akin to what I would ascribe to precision surgery within medicine’. He noted that ‘at the moment, zoning schemes are locking up a massive amount of property with high redevelopment potential that needs to be regenerated’.
Professor Billie Giles-Corti (RMIT University) also urged an urgent re-evaluation of the city. She observed that in terms of urban design ‘density is really critical’.
One of our recommendations is that federally we need to look at the density of our cities. We’re still building at less than 15 dwellings per hectare in many cities across Australia—in fact, those are the policies of our Australian cities. This is a major problem because it means that we can’t provide enough people to have shops and services and have decent public transport. [Professor Billie Giles-Corti, Director, Urban Futures Enabling Capability Platform; Director, Healthy, Liveable Cities Group; and Lead Investigator, NHMRC Centre of Research Excellence in Healthy, Liveable Communities, RMIT University, Committee Hansard, 21 November 2017, p. 30]
Other important factors included distance to transit and diversity of land uses. She noted that ‘the agglomeration of shops into big shopping centres means that there are no shops and services for people to walk to in the local neighbourhoods’. She highlighted the need for diversity in housing, stating that ‘on the fringe of cities, we still continue to build low-density single-residential homes, as opposed to a mix of different types of densities. Small cottage lots, different types of townhouses and even medium to high rise could work on the fringe.’
Professor Billie Giles-Corti, observed, however, that the current policy frameworks were not delivering on liveability. She stated ‘we all value having liveable cities. We think this is important, but we do not have the policies in place to deliver that’:
We really need to have an inquiry to make sure that if we value liveability, walkability and better cities we have a policy framework to deliver it. We found a limited number of measurable spatial policies. There were none for local employment and housing affordability. We found little consistency and understanding of how to achieve healthy liveable cities. It depends on every jurisdiction and they come up with their own policies, so there’s variation.
She observed that ‘different cities have different levels of policy ambition. Some look good because they’re achieving their policies, but the policies are not very ambitious’. She urged national consistency in urban policy, and greater consistency of outcomes within the urban environment ‘otherwise, we’ll get inequities across our cities’.
Creating integrated cities
The need for the integrated planning and development of cities was highlighted in the evidence presented to the Committee. Integrated planning and development treats cities as complex entities with interrelated economic, social and environmental characteristics that require holistic long-term vision and management.
Ms Megan Motto, CEO of Consult Australia, observed that in Australia we are ‘seeking to solve a problem which is that we need to house a population that is three things’:
It’s growing exponentially and will continue to grow; it’s more demanding than it has ever been before; we want everything. We want the cheap house which is liveable, we want sustainability and we want good governance. We want it all and we’re very demanding as a population. And we’ve got more choice. We’ve got more choice where international investment goes, where we seek to and choose to live and where we take our skills around the country or internationally.
She noted that ‘we need cities that can respond to all three of those challenges simultaneously, and we need to do so in an environment where the challenges are both complex and need long-term solutions’. She stated that ‘we can’t continue to have ad hoc solutions to the way that we build our cities’. Responses required three elements—‘coordination, capacity and culture’. She observed that we had three levels of government, including 547 local councils:
The complexity and mismatch between some of the planning and desires and wants and needs of those different jurisdictions adds humungous layers of complexity to our planning that we don’t particularly need. We need to streamline and have much better coordination between the tiers of government and horizontally across agencies.
We need a much better, integrated and longer term view, and that’s only going to come through coordination. Governance is absolutely key here and that governance, for example, needs to coordinate the different agencies.
Ms Motto argued that ‘there is no ideal size of a city, but there are ideal efficiencies within cities’:
Each city will be constrained by geographical boundaries … and a whole range of other environmental constraints. What we can change within those cities though is the fit-for-purpose systems that we need to make those cities appropriately liveable, sustainable and economically productive, according to their own size and scale.
She also stated that ‘we need to be really careful about the planning and project prioritisation process’. A key element of the planning process was shifting from a short-term outlook to a long-term outlook. Ms Motto noted that currently ‘we seek to rush towards a solution as opposed to really defining what the problem is, identifying multiple solutions, doing scenario testing and looking at the different ways that we can deliver the built environment in a better form’. This needed to change.
Professor Stuart White, Director of the Institute for Sustainable Futures at UTS, introduced the Committee to the concept of the city as ‘a system of systems’, stating
… we often find it quite useful, in our research and particularly our practical work, to think of it in those terms, thinking about the infrastructure, energy and water systems and how they interact with each other and the transport and waste and so on, and then the human systems: the food that flows in and out, the livability of the city, the green infrastructure and the things which make a city more pleasant to live in. So that’s the first thing, and we often consider that—for example, as we’ve just heard from previous witnesses, the interaction between transport and housing affordability and the nexus, and often tension, between those two things. So it’s impossible to consider these systems separately.
He identified the need for the temporal integration of city planning—planning for the future as well as the present—using the method of ‘backcasting’:
… asking what is the city we want to see in 2030 or 2050, what is it that would serve our needs as humans occupying the city and as the environment with our other targets and goals that we have as citizens, and then to backcast, to work back from 2050 to 2040 and say what would we have to have in place in 2040, what would we have to have in place in 2030 and so on to determine what our policies would need to be in the next five years to set us on a path which is often quite different, and qualitatively different as well as quantitatively different, to the path that we are currently on. So that sort of futures methods foresighting is absolutely crucial, otherwise we’ll just be tinkering at the edges and making marginal improvements based on a trend that isn’t destiny anyway.
Professor White also stressed the importance of the ‘liveability of cities’:
We can have perfectly functioning mechanical cities, and often there are visions for the future which are somewhat technical in their nature, and that is extremely important. We do a lot of work in the area of smart cities and future digital services applied to cities, but cities are for the people. We know we have a sense of what is a more liveable city than another city and we know that there are profound implications for the way we design our cities for the health of their citizens.
He stressed the importance of integrated design and planning on something as basic as human health, stating:
The epidemic of diabetes that we see in low-income areas of Australian cities is something that needs to be addressed, and it can be addressed through the design of cities—through our transport systems, through support or not for active transport through the design of urban form and so on. These are matters that are both a cost to the Commonwealth and states but also within the power of the Commonwealth and states to have some influence—over a medium to longer term period to be sure; these are not things that can be fixed overnight. There is a huge linkage there—transport, obviously; active transport and obesity, diabetes; just one example of many. There is urban vegetation, the liveability of cities through greening. Some of our work, as you have seen in the submission, shows that you can get up to 15 degrees difference in terms of the urban heat island effect in an area like Penrith. These are significant impacts on the liveability.
Professor White emphasised the importance of data and targets to effective planning. He noted that ‘we can’t manage what we don’t measure’ and stressed that ‘generating data and having a common platform for managing that data—open data principles, open source management of that data and so on—is extremely important’. He argued that ‘targets are important, but they need to be clever’:
They need to be well designed and have a good strategy put in place to work out how to meet them. I would emphasise the importance of them as having something to shoot for, and then some design of a plan to be able to meet them and what that will cost.
Mr John Wynne, National Director of Planning for Urbis Pty Ltd, highlighted the challenges facing Australia’s cities and the need for effective planning to meet those challenges. He noted that ‘Australian cities are undergoing profound change’ and that ‘the megatrends of urbanisation and globalisation are propelling cities rapidly to a future vastly different from today’. In that context, Urbis was ‘strongly of the view that developing new and better approaches to planning cities is essential to securing the future of our cities’, and that ‘a national cities platform can contribute positively to achieving more holistic, integrated, efficient and innovative approaches to planning urban areas’. Mr Wynne stated that the federal role was not about regulation:
Frankly, we have so much regulation in the planning industry that we do not need more. It’s about vision, leadership and influence. It’s about fostering collaborative actions across states and territories. It’s about creating a unified commitment to addressing common challenges. It’s about engendering cross-portfolio coordination focusing on achieving better place-based outcomes.
He also noted, however, that ‘failing to plan properly will result in declining economic, social and environmental standards which will clearly undermine our much-envied quality of life’.
The Planning Institute of Australia (PIA) also emphasised the importance of strategic planning. It observed that ‘strategic planning integrated with infrastructure and service delivery funding and delivery is fundamental to the success of cities’. It argued ‘a commitment to developing and implementing a strategic plan for a city, region and state that takes account of growth scenarios is a prerequisite for success’, and that ‘a successful strategic plan must be based on actionable and measurable outcomes that are specific to the place’.
PIA members highlighted the importance of a focus on outcomes, identifying the following as the four most important outcomes to drive the future development of Australia’s cities:
Improve urban liveability, health and quality of life
Make the most sustainable use of natural resources (i.e. reduces energy, water, and resource consumption)
Bring jobs closer to where people live (i.e. productivity / agglomeration economies /reduced living costs)
Ensure high quality natural and built environment.
The PIA gave as an example ‘the adoption of an outcome for a ’30 minute city’ as a structuring element of the Greater Sydney Region Plan (in preparation by the Greater Sydney Commission)’:
This is based on an outcome to have jobs closer to where people live and underwrites a three-city approach (West / Central / East) in which more of Sydney’s housing has access within 30 minutes to a major city hub. This represents a measurable basis for the cities future performance with respect to accessibility—as well as a proxy for productivity advantages associated with agglomeration economies.
Other outcomes highlighted by the PIA included ‘our cities becoming “more compact” and “promoting poly-centricity”’.
The City of Sydney did ‘not recommend a density or city structure (such as compact, satellite or poly-centric) that is the definitive “sustainable urban form”’. Rather, it indicated that ‘the urban form, and the degree to which it is sustainable, liveable and productive, will be a consequence of geography and how a city manages the various pressures and changes imposed on its communities, environment and economy’. It observed that ‘the trajectory of existing cities can be directed towards a more sustainable and liveable urban form by addressing the key challenges of housing affordability, infrastructure, transport and climate change’.
The key to the future was a new vision of what cities should look like and do. Mr Wynne stated:
Of course we should have a vision of what Australia is as a country of highly urbanised people. What is this place? The advantage we have is that we have some of the best cities and places to live in the world. We know that. They are under the pressure of change. So we need to accommodate that growth and change. It is inevitable. It’s going to happen. But we need to accommodate it in a manner that ensures that our cities remain attractive, liveable and distinctly Australian.
Mr Chris Johnson, Chief Executive Officer of Urban Taskforce Australia, also sought a new vision—the shift from suburban to urban cities. He stated:
I think Sydney is at the forefront of a change in the nature of cities. As we were a city of three million, maybe four million, but now up to five million, the suburban model of people living in a detached house is questionable for the whole city as we increase our density. Some interesting research in Melbourne showed that, from 1950 to today, the average number of square metres per person for a typical house has grown from 30 square metres to 90 square metres. We now have the average house being 90 square metres per person—so for two people it is 180 and for three people 270. I think the average house size in Australia is something like 240 square metres, which is one of the largest in the world.
Mr Johnson questioned ‘whether this is a fabulous thing for an affluent society to be able to get the biggest houses in the world’, and suggested that ‘there is also a question on the long-term sustainability and affordability of that model as our population increases and the cost of housing goes up’. He suggested that:
… there has been a swing, particularly in Sydney and coming into other cities, towards a different lifestyle … a swing from a more suburban model—not that the suburban model is not an important one to have for many people—to a more urban model that I think really needs to be supported.
Mr Brendan Nelson, President of the Planning Institute of Australia agreed. He noted that there is still ‘an expectation around the great Australian dream, which is “owning my block of land”’, but that this was increasingly unsustainable and unaffordable:
I have a look at the average lot sizes here in Sydney, which are still pretty well the largest in the whole of the country. I look at the change in price point of being able to afford a home here. Building costs over the last 20 years haven’t gone up by a hugely significant amount, but what has gone up is land.
In his view, ‘where we need to get to around the role of housing in the future is to break this nexus and have an informed debate with the Australian people around what the new Australian dream is’:
Is it really owning a block of land, or is it living somewhere where I can go down to the cafe and have my morning coffee and then take the dog for a walk? I still have somewhere where I can have a dog but I’m not spending all my money on paying a mortgage.
Densification, agglomeration and distribution
Key features of urban planning include agglomeration, densification and distribution of population, employment and services.
SGS Economics and Planning observed that ‘there is an effective consensus amongst planners regarding the elements of a sustainable, prosperous and inclusive metropolis’, and that ‘this consensus is evidenced in the convergence and consistency amongst the metropolitan strategies developed across all Australian jurisdictions over the past 3 decades’. These elements include:
a poly-nucleated structure, including the formation of major second and third cities within the metropolitan footprint as foci for employment and services;
provision of advanced public transport to facilitate effective labour markets and to foster productivity boosting agglomeration economies; and
provision of widely distributed and embedded affordable housing to further boost efficiency in labour markets and create more inclusive communities.
SGS noted that ‘more recently, the scope of this “better cities”’ model has extended to include distributed power and water systems’.
Agglomeration refers ‘to a clustering of activities and the innovation and specialisation that stems from this’:
As more businesses and expertise locate within close proximity of one another it allows for increased collaboration, a reduction of costs when exchanging goods and services and a greater labour specialisation as people can move more easily between jobs.
As the NSW Government noted, ‘economies of agglomeration explain why cities such as Sydney are more productive and contribute more to the economy per capita than their regional counterparts’.
Agglomeration was a defining aspect of the knowledge economy, creating a new impetus towards urbanisation that has not existed before. The Committee for Sydney stated:
While all cities have such cycles of growth, dominance and challenge, what makes this era of urbanism different is the triumph of the knowledge economy which is adding to the attractions of certain cities and indeed certain places within cities. Agglomeration of the economy is increasing in the knowledge economy not dispersing because if having access to knowledge is now the prime source of economic wealth then success comes to cities which attract talent and enable them to cluster and learn from each other most efficiently. This process has been called the ‘reurbanisation of the economy’. By contrast, agriculture and indeed manufacturing were far more dispersed in terms of ‘location of industry’.
The Committee for Sydney noted that ‘certain cities attract today’s key workers—graduates—more than others and that such workers themselves are agglomerating in knowledge dense work environments’. They are ‘also seeking to live in denser settlements closer to where they work, particularly if well connected by mass transit or indeed walkable’. This process means that some parts of cities become ‘”hot” both in terms of productivity and talent attraction but also in terms of residential costs’; while other areas, ‘far from the economic action in their city’, have ‘fewer easily accessible opportunities for their citizens while still experiencing some of the consequences of higher urban costs, such as housing’.
The benefits of agglomeration were emphasised by the City of Melbourne. Mr Ben Rimmer, CEO of the City of Melbourne, noted that ‘within the City of Melbourne the economic activity is about 27 per cent of the whole of Victoria’s state product, and that equates to about six per cent of Australia’s gross domestic product’. That meant that ‘what happens in the centre of this city is incredibly important in terms of Australia's national productivity story and also incredibly important in terms of employment growth’. He continued:
Right now, today, there are about 400,000 people employed within the city of Melbourne. We forecast another 250,000 people will be working within the city of Melbourne over the coming decades, and over the last decade there has been about 90,000 additional jobs created within the City of Melbourne. So, in terms of the land mass of this wonderful country, the City of Melbourne is just a fragment, but in terms of the economic output of the country, the City of Melbourne is a very significant component.
If you take the centre of Sydney and the centre of Melbourne together, with no disrespect to Brisbane, you are getting up to 12 or 13 per cent of the national economy within a very small nonconcentrated couple of areas. So, to put that in real numbers, the economy of the City of Melbourne is now close to $100 billion on an annual basis, which has grown by 42 per cent over the last 10 years. There is no surprise in that because as the economy shifts from a heavy focus on manufacturing and mining towards a focus on knowledge, high-tech, biotech service economy what happens is that companies that are investing in those areas want to invest in areas where there are other companies also doing business of a similar kind.
You can see this. I know you were at Docklands the other day. You saw, within a couple of hundred metres of each other, the head offices of ANZ and National Australia Bank and there are some other very large banking institutions right next to each other. That is no accident. That is companies choosing to do their business close to each other. You can see another version of that in the Parkville biotechnology precinct where you have this incredible research output happening within really what is a few hundred metres of each other.
The Council of Capital City Lord Mayors observed that ‘agglomeration benefits of linked clustered development have long been recognised overseas as generating significant productivity benefits to cities’, but that ‘in Australia there has been virtually no spatial innovation policy which results in reduced productivity outcomes for Federal and State/Territory governments from Australian cities’. It stated that ‘there is a clear leadership role the Australian government could take that achieves significant economic gains both locally and nationally’.
Both the Regional Australia Institute and the City of Ballarat argued that regional development and agglomeration were compatible. The Regional Australia Institute stated:
Australia’s economy, like other developed economies, is becoming services focused with the growth of jobs concentrating in new economy industries. It is assumed that regional cities are inevitably being left behind in this trend as significant airtime is given to the benefits of agglomeration and the recent concentration of growth in our metro capital CBDs. However an examination of the data shows that regional cities are in fact making the transition. Regional cities are already producing more output in new economy industries (finance, education, health and professional services) than old industries (agriculture, mining and manufacturing). With all cities growing their new economy industries over the last decade and old industries shrinking, it’s time to focus on how to nurture this transition over the next decade.
The City of Ballarat observed that ‘in many regions, regional capitals play a very similar role to major metropolitan cities’. It regarded decentralisation of government services as the key to developing agglomeration benefits in regional areas, stating:
We believe that decentralising corporate Commonwealth entities to regional Australia can provide many advantages, both for the Commonwealth government and for the communities where entities are relocated to. Of the regional areas in Australia, we believe that Ballarat would greatly benefit from the relocation of services and can also provide several benefits for entities that are relocated to the area.
The tension between agglomeration and decentralisation was highlighted by SGS Economics and Planning. SGS observed that ‘the idea of decentralisation is premised on the assertion that the metropolitan areas have reached capacity constraints. That is, their productivity is being eroded by congestion, high housing prices and stretched human services infrastructure.’ It argued that ‘the evidence does not seem to support this position’:
On the contrary, it appears that the cities provide indispensable specialised services which the non-metro areas simply cannot provide. The level of specialisation in knowledge based services—which are critical to the productivity of all economic activity whether it occurs in the city or the country—is made possible by the scale and agglomeration economies offered by the major metros.
Congestion in metropolitan areas is indeed a problem. But it is also a sign of success. The fact that investment in specialised enterprises continues to occur in the major cities despite the congestion shows that these locations offer more than compensating benefits in access to skills, a diverse supply chain and a creative environment for business. It would assist city and country alike if these agglomeration benefits were better understood and supported in policy making.
Others disputed this, arguing that the benefits of agglomeration could be made more widely available, but only with improvements in connectivity. Professor Peter Newton argued for integrating cities and regions through high speed rail. He stated:
Until the federal government undertakes a comprehensive nation-building planning study of high speed ( >370kph) rail (HSR) options in relation to its capacity to re-shape significant parts of the national settlement system, especially focused on the two largest cities of Sydney and Melbourne, decentralisation will remain elusive. Traditional 20th century policies focused on attempts to create new basic industries or relocate federal or state government offices will not succeed. 21st century agglomeration economies favour large cities and will continue to do so until provincial cities become part of a functional mega-metropolitan region centred on a major capital city connected via high speed rail (HSR) that converts their CBD travel times to 30 minutes (the Marchetti constant)—equivalent to an average metropolitan work commute.
In its submission, MacroPlan Dimasi stated that ‘connectivity between economic centres is crucial to achieving the agglomeration benefits’. One of the scenarios it described for managing population and urban growth was the Gateway Cities Network, which would apply to the entire south-east of Australia:
This scenario uses the population critical mass potential of 25-30 million people that could be generated by linking Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne (and potentially Adelaide). It integrates future growth and development potential in intervening regional areas to create a new social, environmental and economic outcome that could transform the concept of urban living nationally and globally. This model seeks to leverage capital city competitive economic advantage into regional Australia, beginning with the key gateway capital cities.
The Gateway Cities network model would create’ a distributed network of environments with sufficient capital city/CBD critical mass to generate a foundation for globally connected tradeable services’. It would ‘shift global thinking from the garden city model of “liveable cities” to “creative networks” and “cohesive communities”’. The key objective ‘is to attract the world’s best talent to live in the safest and best environments in the world, not just focus on the single aim of high residential density’. The model would ‘require the NBN and a high-speed rail network to connect the expected population of around 30 million by 2060’. MacroPlan Dimasi noted that ‘the primary foundation of the concept is access to many environments using the world’s best fast rail and bus network’.
Alongside agglomeration, and tied to it, another key component of urban planning is densification. CSIRO noted that ‘there is strong evidence that compact urban growth not only delivers better environmental and social outcomes than low density development’, it also ‘makes good economic sense through reduced infrastructure costs and increased efficiencies’.
Referring to Grattan Institute research, RMIT noted that ‘new low density greenfield communities are heavily dependent on motor vehicles due to a shortage of public transport’ and typically ‘also lack social infrastructure such that “meeting the demand for childcare, school places, recreation and social services remains a major challenge in growth areas”’. Research highlighted a strong preference by residents of outer suburbs for access to transport and services, and a significant requirement for additional infrastructure investment ‘to meet shortfalls in infrastructure requirements in growth areas’. RMIT observed that:
A major contributing factor to the shortage of public transport and the lack of social infrastructure on the urban fringe of cities is the prevailing level of low density housing in greenfield areas. Detached family housing still predominates greenfield developments: 88 percent of homes in rapidly growing new growth areas are detached compared with 76 per cent nationally. Delivering local public transport and social infrastructure in low density is challenging because the housing is spread over a wide area, and the population is too low to make mixed use planning and public transport viable. Low density housing development discourages active forms of transport including local walking and cycling, and requires more time being spent driving.
RMIT believed ‘higher density, mixed use development pedestrian and cycling friendly development well connected to employment with good public transport, is likely to produce a range of co-benefits including lower levels of driving, reduced traffic congestion, improved air quality and lower greenhouse gas emissions’. It stated:
In our recent paper published in The Lancet, we identified the need for integrated planning of all the urban policies required to create liveable cities (i.e., transport, land use and urban design, social and health services, education, employment and economic development, housing, public open space and recreation and public safety) with the aim of ensuring the delivery of urban and transport planning and design interventions that encourage active modes of transport. These include good regional planning that ensures access to employment by high quality public transport, the equitable (re-)distribution of employment across cities to reduce commuting times; and demand management (i.e., controlling the cost and amount of parking, and congestion charging). It also includes local urban design that encourages local walking: connected street networks (rather than curvilinear design); higher density development, reduced distances to transit, the diversity of land use mixes and housing types; and the desirability of an area (aesthetics and real and perceived safety).
RMIT found that ‘dwelling density is therefore a critical factor to deliver healthy liveable communities, as it underpins the delivery of three other ‘D’s (i.e., distance to transit, diversity and destination accessibility) and is related to another ‘D’ (i.e., neighbourhood design)’. It concluded:
Both the Australian Government, and many State Governments, including the Victorian State Government, are promoting the 30 or 20-minute city (respectively). However, if this aspiration is to be achieved, more attention needs to be given to the density of housing being built in our rapidly growing Australian cities. While high density housing attracts both attention in the media and in the general community, low density development is equally problematic with poor access to public transport and amenity, promoting car dependency and discouraging active forms of travel.
Speaking to the RMIT submission, Professor Billie Giles-Corti observed that it was ‘important to get the density right’. She noted that ‘the evidence says that if it’s too high a density it can be detrimental to mental health’, and that ‘if it’s located on a busy road and it’s noisy, it’s detrimental to mental health’. Lack of public open space for children would be ‘clearly detrimental to the mental health of the parents’. She stated that ‘there are design issues that need to be taken into account, and it also depends on where it’s located in terms of the geography and local amenities’. Professor Giles-Corti also observed that ‘higher density does not need to be high rise’:
On higher density, the sorts of results we’ve found are that, if you get up to 25 or 35 dwellings per hectare, that’s enough to encourage people to walk, cycle or use public transport and be less likely to drive. At those sorts of levels of density you could have a mixture of different types of diversity of housing. You could have cottage lots, which would get your point about people being able to have a small garden; you could have townhouses; you could have single residential homes; and you could have three- to four-storey-high development on the fringe. That would actually create the sort of diversity that’s necessary to get the densities up, especially if the higher density was around the town centres and the mixed-use areas.
Professor Giles-Corti also highlighted the link between housing affordability and urban sprawl:
One thing I want to mention is that we often hear that people get the neighbourhoods they want, that people prefer to live in these places. We’ve done a number of studies now that show that a large number of people who live on the fringe are living there because of housing affordability issues. They don’t live there because they haven’t got access. If we ask them where they would rather live, they would rather be living next to public transport and infrastructure, and that is consistent across work that we’ve done in Western Australia and also work that we’ve done in Brisbane. So I think it’s really important that we don’t just believe people are living there because they want to. They’re living there because they can afford to, but there is certainly, on the fringe, a real need to deliver better infrastructure. We believe that unless we put the policy frameworks in place, even around the way we’re designing our cities, we’re not going to be able to deliver on that.
Master Builders Australia (MBA) noted that the ‘combination of high urbanisation rates and low city density has a significant impact on house prices, and therefore living costs, in Australia’ and that ‘Australia’s two city structure imposes population pressure on these dominant urban hubs, creating scarcity and pushing up the price of well-located land’. MBA continued:
The impact of our highly urbanised but low density city structures was examined in a Reserve Bank report; City Sizes, Housing Costs, and Wealth (2001). The report found “that dwelling prices tend to be higher in large cities than in small ones. Therefore, the expensive cities in Australia drag up the average level of dwelling prices more than in other countries.”
In doing so the paper finds that the spatial aspects of demography are important for the level of non-financial wealth and house prices, in much the same way as demographic factors of the labour market and population.
In a separate submission, the Centre for Urban Research at RMIT highlighted the impact of urban sprawl, noting that ‘Australian cities, especially the large metropolitan capital cities of Sydney and Melbourne, are experiencing significant stresses that are impacting on standards of living, widening socio-economic inequality, and environmental degradation’. This was evident in
increasing journey to work times
inequality in the distribution and availability of meaningful employment to different social groups
traffic congestion and extensive public transport deficits
declining housing affordability
poorer health outcomes for outer suburban residents
reduced access to social infrastructure on the fringe due to lags in provision.
The Centre for Urban Research observed that ‘many of these stresses are associated with continuing low density suburban development on the fringe. These stresses bring considerable economic, environmental and social impacts.’
The Green Building Council of Australia (GBCA) emphasised that densification did not necessarily mean 50-storey towers. Ms Romilly Madew, CEO of the GBCA, noted that ‘there’s a lot of work that’s been done by the City of Melbourne around densification that could be three to five storeys, for instance, that fits really neatly and you still get some great uplift in population growth’. She emphasised the importance of the location of density—around transport hubs:
That is what I think you see in Paris, you see that in Hong Kong and you see that in those cities where it's most sophisticated. You have that densification around the transport hub and then it flows down to the lower density where it flows away from the transport hub and it really goes up close to the density—North Sydney, transport hub; Chatswood, transport hub; Parramatta, transport hub—and it really flows around where that transport is intensified.
Ms Megan Motto, CEO of Consult Australia, stated that densification also meant ‘housing affordability closer to where the jobs are in the major centres’. She indicated that we also need ‘to think about job distribution and how we can utilise technology to have a more distributive model for our jobs’, and ‘about public transport systems and making public transport systems more efficient, more affordable and more accessible to those in the community that need them’. She suggested that ‘there’s no one silver bullet solution. It’s a combination of all those things.’
A similar perspective was offered by the Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council (ASBEC). It argued that ‘to support affordable living outcomes, housing policy must promote the provision of diverse dwellings to cater for needs at all stages of life, and encourage density in the right places, with improved access to jobs and services’. This required:
Long term alignment between population growth and housing supply, with periodic targets integrated into adopted planning policy.
Strategic planning for accessible centres to link residential concentrations with jobs and services, reducing the costs of transport and vulnerability to social exclusion.
Cost effective and timely delivery of urban infrastructure integrated with strategic planning, including: public transport, roads, community facilities and utilities for greenfield and urban infill areas.
The adoption of best practice design principles to functionally enhance the sustainability and resilience of the built environment, with high quality urban design ensuring creating a sense of place.
Improved sustainability of buildings, including minimum standards for the energy performance of new and existing buildings, which recognise whole of life costs.
Continuous reform of land use planning and processes, to encourage supply of diverse housing where it ensures equivalent incentives for detached dwellings and a diversity of medium density housing types that promote design quality and sustainability.
Ensuring the market operates efficiently to supply housing for all market segments, including the availability of housing stock that meets the needs of very low to moderate income earners.
Regulatory frameworks that encourage innovation and efficiencies in the housing supply chain, such as modular construction, pre-fabrication and bringing new products to market more cost efficiently.
The City of Sydney also emphasised the link between connectivity and densification, observing that ‘the type of densification occurring in the City of Sydney, and other urban centres within the Sydney metropolitan areas is unsustainable without sufficient and appropriate public transport, freight and general roads supply’. The City of Sydney noted that ‘transport infrastructure is fundamental in helping to shape the form, density and function of a metropolitan area (and regional areas as well)’; and that ‘transport is a form of integrated network infrastructure and makes little sense when seen as a series of isolated elements or businesses’. It suggested that:
As a priority, the inquiry should consider options for well-planned, efficient public transport systems that support the sustainable development of cities. Access to a constrained road network must be prioritised for mass transport solutions and the movement of goods and services to support the economy and community.
Sustainable Population Australia (SPA) issued a caution on the limits of densification, stating that while ‘the current town planning response to suburban sprawl is to (a) develop on brownfield sites and (b) increase density in the inner and middle suburbs’, there was ‘a limit to which brownfield sites can address rapid population growth’. Citing the example of the Fisherman’s Bend urban renewal project in Melbourne, SPA noted that the project ‘will take decades from inception to completion, yet it will only absorb 10 months’ worth of Melbourne’s population growth’. SPA was also concerned that much high density development was developer driven, citing research which criticised the ‘current high rise paradigm’:
Reasons include that most new apartments are being built to accommodate specific demographic groups (e.g. too small to house families) and that they are geared towards investors. A downside of this is that new apartments are rarely built to last. Melbourne City Council planner Leanne Hodyl released a 2015 report that said high-rise developments were being built at a rate four times higher than that of some of the world’s highest density cities, and the current Victoria state Planning Minister has admitted that many Melbourne apartments are too small, too dark and badly ventilated. The business model driving their construction is clearly not one intended to enhance urban liveability and quality of life. It is one which aims to force residents to accept the style of housing most profitable to developers.
Polycentricity, the creation of cities with more than one centre—a city of cities—was another concept proposed as a solution to the pattern of settlement. The importance of polycentricity was emphasised by MacroPlan Dimasi. It observed that:
Sydney has grown rapidly in recent years—together with greater traffic congestion, a lack of employment, and poor levels of social and physical infrastructure in outer suburban areas, this has meant the relative value and price of housing in inner and middle ring suburbs has increased significantly.
It noted that ‘true polycentricity’ might ‘help alleviate these pressures’, that a ‘polycentric Sydney presents the opportunity to’:
Reduce infrastructure expenditure by replacing and integrating substantial elements of public transport with autonomous vehicles, replacing ‘owned’ cars with ‘shared’ cars;
Increase employment through the growth of microbusinesses, contractors and SMEs which do not require CBD type locations; and
Increase residential density by providing affordable dwellings in a range of locations which allow access to a range of experiences and employment opportunities.
The polycentric city would ‘increase affordability by increasing local employment, reducing traffic congestion and commuting time, and increasing residential density’.
Professor Sue Holliday labelled the concept the ‘city of cities’. She noted that ‘sprawling cities, as Sydney and Melbourne have become, are the most highly unsustainable cities that we have’. Creating a more sustainable urban form required looking at ‘the way people actually use our cities’. She noted that:
For most people in the cities, with the exception of journey to work, they live within a subregion of the city in which they live. They might come into the city for the occasional artistic or cultural event and go to certain bars and things, but basically they live in their region. So there is the idea of actually restructuring public transport around the idea that people need to access their subregion on a regular basis and then have fast linkages between the other cities so that they can access their journey to work more easily as well. That would apply to most people, with the exception of tradies, who need their utes in order to go over the whole city every day.
Tim Williams, CEO of the Committee for Sydney, also observed this tension between agglomeration and distribution. Looking at what is happening ‘in this era of greater digital integration’, he noted that what ‘we’ve seen knowledge jobs agglomerate. The reason seems to be that if knowledge is the value, you need to be alongside people with knowledge. So this is feeding on itself.’ In terms of place making, the value was in places where people clustered ‘to discuss ideas … You need to enable that clustering’. This was in contrast to the dispersed pattern of settlement within our cities. Mr Williams noted that ‘if you look at Sydney—two-thirds of residential development west of Parramatta, but two-thirds of jobs and knowledge jobs east of Parramatta … we are dispersing residential development just as we probably need to agglomerate it to suit the economy that we are actually going to have, which is a knowledge economy … It is an actually an agglomerated economy.’ The solution to the questions posed by agglomeration, according to Mr Williams, was polycentricity:
I think there isn’t just one place in a city. There could be lots of places; they are calling them ‘innovation districts’—mixed-use places with good connectivity. Also, even in regional areas, regional centres are where people will go. It is not a contradiction, in a way. With the NBN, for example, I did a lot of work on a strategy for Coffs Harbour. Coffs strikes me as the kind of place that can create this kind of amenity that people want to be around, but it has a strong fibre network.
The need for such reform was highlighted by Penrith City Council, which pointed to the disparate jobs densities between Sydney’s inner and out suburbs, and the impact this had on employment opportunities:
Penrith City has a high participation in the workforce but much of Penrith’s workforce has no choice but to travel for work. Penrith’s unemployment rate (3.98%) is lower than Greater Sydney (4.86%), NSW (5.20%) and Australia (5.90%). However, our employment capacity is low, meaning there are less jobs in the area than employed residents and our proximity to other centres of low jobs density (Hawkesbury and Blue Mountains) places further demand on available jobs.
As of June 2015 there were 100,543 Penrith City residents employed and only 71,933 local jobs available. In the Committee for Sydney’s report Adding to the Dividend, Ending the Divide #3, areas west of Parramatta are well below average in terms of effective job density. Effective job density is highest in Sydney’s CBD and North Sydney, remaining steady in areas leading up to Parramatta which is above average. The effective job density drops rapidly beyond Parramatta, with Penrith reporting one of the lowest figures.
Not everyone agreed with the concept of polycentricity, however. Citing the example of Melbourne, Mr Ben Rimmer, Chief Executive Officer of the City of Melbourne, stated that
… in Melbourne for many years people have tried to encourage activity centres or significant developments—for example, in the Dandenongs or in Craigieburn Broad Meadows or around Werribee—and it has been less successful in Melbourne than it has been in Sydney, really because of the different economic geography. So, in Melbourne what we see is that the growth in jobs and growth in investment is happening more right in the centre.
He noted that ‘the incredible advantage that Melbourne has, not necessarily in respect to Sydney but in respect to other cities, is that there is land so close to the centre that is available for development’. He cautioned, however, that achieving the benefits of agglomeration within the CBD would require careful planning and appropriate investment:
… it will only work for development if there is investment and the right kind of strategic planning in getting that to happen in a way that enhances our productivity and that does not cause congestion. That is the tension for Melbourne. There is a lot more upside in growth potential in the city over the next period of time, but we need to plan for it more effectively. We need to have the right investment ahead of the growth and do that very well.
Urban planning needs to incorporate a range of ideals and realities, some of which are in conflict with each other. One of the tensions is the centralising tendencies of agglomeration. Mr Brian Haratsis highlighted the fact that ‘technology is creating increased centralisation’, that ‘highly specialised larger scale globally orientated industries, … will only function within three, four or five kilometres of the CBD, as we currently know it’. [Mr Brian Haratsis, Chairman, MacroPlan Dimasi, Committee Hansard, 5 December 2017, p. 7] He argued that Australia needed to ‘reset its urban agenda’ as ‘the trajectories of Australian cities are poorly understood’.
The evidence presented to the Committee demonstrates that the creation of liveable, accessible and sustainable cities—at any scale—requires holistic vision and integrated development. Cities are complex systems—‘systems of systems’. They require vertical and horizontal coordination of their planning and development.
To achieve successful development, we must envisage cities that perform for their citizens. They must be accessible and liveable, promoting heath and quality of life. They must be economically, socially and environmentally sustainable. They must incorporate high quality natural and built environments. They must promote access to employment. They must also target a more compact urban form. Ideally, they should conform to the concept of the ‘30-minute city’. These issues will be dealt with in more detail in Part 2 of the report.
This chapter has highlighted some of the essential ingredients of urban design and spatial planning. These include:
The need for integrated urban planning which provides for accessibility, liveability, and economic social and environmental sustainability.
The impact of agglomeration and the need to address the spatial distribution of population, employment and services through densification.
The need for diversity in housing types and the need to fully integrate housing into the planning of space, infrastructure, employment and services.
The need for polycentricity.
The Committee is aware of the need for greater sophistication in the way we plan cities. Access and use of a wide range of data is essential to effective planning. Targets need to be set, monitored and reviewed to ensure positive outcomes. Modelling and scenario testing is available at increasing levels of complexity and granularity. It is essential that urban planning take advantage of this. Indeed, this is one aspect where government can enlist the expertise and sophistication of the private sector. The Committee was also impressed with the concept of backcasting—setting targets and goals and working back from those to plan what needs to be done to achieve them.
Agglomeration is a reality of the modern economy. It is an essential aspect of knowledge based industries and a driver of productivity and innovation. The urban and regional form must adapt to agglomeration. Part of this adaptation is densification, making the urban form tighter and more accessible. Densification has the additional benefit of reducing the environmental and spatial footprint of cities and is essential to the economical and efficient delivery of services. Without densification, cities will suffer from increasing sprawl, with the attendant economic, social and environmental costs.
Another aspect of adapting to agglomeration is connectivity. Greater connectivity ensures greater accessibility, meaning the benefits of agglomeration are accessible to more people. Improved connectivity is an essential element of maintaining economic productivity and social well-being.
The growth of cities and increasing populations means that within the urban environment there must be an increasing reliance on mass transit to move people to and from employment and services. There is no realistic alternative to this development. Building more roads for more cars is not a viable solution. Setting aside the environmental cost, eventually there will be no more space to expand roads. Achieving the benefits of agglomeration without the problems of crowding, congestion, and lack of access (physical and financial) demands a more compact urban form and greater connectivity—ideally the 30-minute city.
Finally, there is the development of the polycentric urban from, which allows concentrations of knowledge based industries in a wider range of locations, further increasing their accessibility. However, the polycentric cities and regions can only be achieved through careful planning and high levels of connectivity in terms of both information technology and transport. In short, we can only achieve sustainable cities and regions by reimagining them, and planning for their future.
The Committee recommends that the Australian Government, in conjunction with State and Territory Governments, pursues a system of urban planning which promotes:
accessibility and liveability, promoting heath and quality of life
economic, social and environmental sustainability
high quality natural and built environments
a more compact urban form
the concept of the 30-minute city.
This planning must incorporate the reality of agglomeration and the need for connectivity and densification, with a focus on the development of polycentric urban forms. Further, the Committee recommends that the Australian Government, in conjunction with State and Territory Governments, promotes a system of planning that is focussed on targets and goals, underpinned by a long-term broad-scale vision (the national plan of settlement), informed by comprehensive data collection, modelling and scenario testing.