“If we don’t, not only will we have pretty awful cities in the future, but I believe we will never get the large cities that are being discussed, because they will be too dysfunctional and people will move away,” said Professor Newman from Curtin University’s Sustainability Policy Institute. “It’s a scenario not that far off now.”
Since Wayne Swan’s speech in October that confirmed the soon-to-be-published third Intergenerational Report projects Australia’s population to reach 35 million by 2049 from its current 22 million, the shape of the nation’s big cities has been much discussed.
Treasury secretary Ken Henry told a business leader’s forum in Queensland in March the anticipated population expansion had “a host of implications for the Australian economy and society, and it raises a number of profound issues for economic policy”.
“Where will these 13 million people live? In our current major cities and regional centres or in cities we haven’t yet even started to build?” Mr Henry asked.
“How will Sydney cope with a 54 per cent increase in population, Melbourne a 74 per cent increase and Brisbane a 106 per cent increase? Surely not by continuing to expand their geographic footprints at the same rate as in the past several decades. Surely not by loading more cars and trucks on to road networks that can’t cope with today’s traffic.”
The issue has engaged Kevin Rudd, who has not only met at least twice with capital-city lord mayors, but also demanded states and territories develop capital city strategic plans by 2012 that adhere to national criteria for transport, urban development and sustainability or risk future commonwealth infrastructure funding.
Professor Newman, who is a board member of Infrastructure Australia, said the lack of public transport in new suburbs on the outskirts of major cities was “rapidly becoming a major social justice issue”.
“The outer suburbs are less and less rail based and more and more car based, and as petrol goes up this hurts less well-off people most,” he said. “We’ve been building our cities around the car and it’s now catching up with us.”
Professor Newman said, despite the continuing expansion of the big cities, “a lot of people’s preference would be to live in smaller houses more centrally located”.
“But the options that are rolled out by developers continue to assume the market is for bigger and bigger houses on suburban blocks,” Professor Newman said.
However, Bob Stimson, professor of geographical sciences and planning at the University of Queensland, says we “shouldn’t be scared of sprawl”.
“There’s no shortage of land. Fringe housing developments create more affordable housing particularly for first-home buyers, and it creates the sort of housing that is still the preference for families,” Professor Stimson says.
“One of the consequences of restricting sprawl and pushing more medium-density housing closer to the city centre is that it is socially discriminating. It pushes up the per-unit cost of housing and makes it less affordable for lower-income households.”
While Professor Stimsonagrees with Professor Newman that urban rail transport is important, he says it shouldn’t be the sole focus. “So can a good freeway system. It’s not a matter of either/or, but both,” he said.
Jane-Frances Kelly, program director for cities at the Grattan Institute, warned families buying into car-dependent outer suburbs might be basing their purchase on incorrect financial assumptions.
“In these suburbs people have made the trade-off of affordability in terms of space, size of backyards etc against the lack of public transport, but that equation will change completely as the price of oil rises,” Ms Kelly says.
Professor Newman said finding a solution was not a lost cause, with Perth’s public transport system a template for how things could work. “From 1992 until now, Perth has gone from seven million passengers a year to 115 million a year on rail. With the right processes you can generate change.”