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A word from Rom - What makes a city great?

Within 10 kilometres of Australia’s CBDs, there are eight jobs per resident.

But in the middle suburbs of our cities – between 10 and 30 kilometres – this falls to four jobs per resident. And in the outer suburbs there are just three.

These staggering statistics underscore why Jamie Briggs, our first Minister for Cities and the Built Environment, says creating cities that are liveable and sustainable is an “economic issue”.

As Briggs says, “the jobs have centralised, but our housing has sprawled, which is making our lifestyles more challenging. It is creating intergenerational inequity, where young people can't get access to housing where they need.”

The next generation of Australians, Briggs points out, don’t necessarily want the big house – but they want a big lifestyle. And they aren’t going to get that sitting in traffic for two hours each day.

Deloitte Access Economics forecasts that by 2020 congestion could cost $7 billion a year in Sydney, $5.5 billion in Melbourne, $3 billion in Brisbane, $1.5 billion in Perth and $1 billion in Adelaide. Getting people from A to B in our cities is not just a drain on our quality of life – it’s a drain on productivity.

The Grattan Institute, in its Mapping Australia’s Economy report, has found that residential patterns and transport systems mean that employers in our CBDs “have access to only a limited proportion of workers in metropolitan areas”.

Our Shadow Minister for Cities, Anthony Albanese, says it’s crucial that we tackle the phenomenon of "drive in-drive out" suburbs.

“For the first time in decades, population and jobs growth are not geographically aligned,” he has said, adding that allowing this trend to continue is a “recipe for entrenched inequity and economic stagnation.”

The 2013 State of Australian Cities Report, which was driven by Albanese, identified strong population growth in the middle and outer rings of our cities, but the decline in manufacturing and rise of knowledge-intensive industries meant jobs growth was in and near central business districts.

In fact, by 2023 some 80 per cent of the national workforce is expected to be employed in the ‘knowledge economy’ – compared with 16 per cent in manufacturing and just four per cent in primary industry.

And knowledge-intensive industries tend to benefit from the clustering effect known as ‘agglomeration’. This means the productivity of knowledge workers rises exponentially the closer they are to others in their field. Their interaction stimulates innovation, ideas and opportunities – which is why the three million denizens of the Silicon Valley have an economy larger than the 90 million living in Vietnam.

As economist Professor Edward Glaeser says in his book Triumph of the City, “ideas cross corridors and streets more easily than continents and seas.”

Speaking at the Parliamentary Friendship Group for Better Cities in Canberra recently, Infrastructure Australia’s CEO, Philip Davies said we need to “lift our game” if we are to tackle population growth which will see our four largest cities – Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth – grow by 46 per cent over the next 15 years. 

Davies says we need to plan for growth and “measure our outcomes if we are to be successful”. The need for metrics is something the COAG Reform Council’s Review of capital city strategic planning systems identified some years ago. 

Should we be focused on the transport systems needed to bring people to the city? Or should we be doing a better job of agglomerating jobs in decentralised hubs?

NSW Planning Minister Rob Stokes, while recently unveiling plans to release enough land for the construction of 35,000 new homes south of Campbelltown in Sydney’s west, declared that “urban sprawl is over”.

“Instead greenfield releases are going to be focused on supplying that infrastructure and those jobs locally so people won't be locked into vast commutes over vast areas. Sydney is too big to allow commuting to continue – what we need to do is provide the jobs closer to where homes are,” he said.

While there’s no silver bullet solution, we do know that all tiers of government must embrace what Briggs calls a “much more coordinated and collaborative approach” to make our cities liveable, accessible, productive and ultimately sustainable. And they must do it quickly.

On Friday 27 November, we’ll be bringing together the Shadow Minister for Cities, Anthony Albanese and the NSW Planning Minister, Rob Stokes, to explore the question: “what makes a city great?”

I have my own ideas – but how about you? Book your ticket online and join the conversation.