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Leadership and the city form

By Stephen Smith - posted Monday, 24 October 2011

I was asked to put some thoughts together about urbanism and leadership particularly the policy and political kind. The questions some will say is why should I care. That's a good question because if you are reading this most likely 9 out of the 10 readers will be living in an urban environment surrounded by those things which make those urban environments possible – reticulated water, sewer, electricity, shops parks and at least for some a decent public transport system. Most of us are urban dwellers and will be increasingly so into the future.

In that case shouldn't we all care about the nature and quality of the place we live in and be responsible for ensuring the quality of our urban places is maintained or at least improved?

After all, neither the water, the sewer or the bus would have been there without significant public investment and government intervention to make it happen.


Leadership by Government is critical to the very function of our cities and never more so than now with a number of major challenges ahead. This is but a taste for some.

With the introduction of a carbon price the notion of energy both - its use and generation - now become important elements in the discussion of the form and nature of development

In a recent report the London-based International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) looked at 11 major cities on four continents, including London, Tokyo, New York and Rio de Janeiro.

It found per capita greenhouse gas emissions for a Londoner in 2004 were the equivalent of 6.2 tonnes of CO2, compared with 11.19 for the UK average.

In the US, New Yorkers register footprints of 7.1 tonnes each, less than a third of the US average of 23.92 tonnes.

The use of public transport and denser housing are two of the reasons for urbanites' comparatively low carbon footprints, the authors said, adding that the design of cities significantly affects their residents' emissions.


The debate on density is being fought vigorously in Sydney and to a lesser extent, but still very noticeably, in Brisbane and Melbourne.

Elizabeth Farrelly in the Sydney Morning Herald writes "in all this, density is key. Last year's Metropolitan Plan for Sydney 2036 recommended relatively high densities of 25-60 dwellings per hectare. This laudable objective, however, did nothing to stop density being wielded as an instrument of political torture (viz Ku-ring-gai) and won't stop Barry O'Farrell's lawyer-led planning review morphing into Ku-ring-gai's revenge."

Density it seems is a dirty word and being seen to oppose it curry's favour with the populous. Simply opposing density is to promote the continuing sprawl of our cities which is a policy that is doomed to failure.

What we need is our leadership to engage in debate about issues of density, place making, character and liveability and not simply deny that growth is happening and believe the city fringe is an exhaustible resource that can soak up growth like a sponge.

Which brings us to growth as a broader regional question in Australian cities. If density is not achievable politically, or economically, or even technically, given the infrastructure limitations, then dealing with growth becomes a broader debate that needs to include regional development as a tool.

None of our major cities can grow and densify indefinitely. Sydney in particular groans under the weight of its growth, its sheer size and having to provide infrastructure to its extremities. At some stage, the growth of Sydney must include a back story of regionalism, about what does Sydney mean in relation to its near regional cities of Newcastle, Wollongong and for that matter Canberra.

Surely the growth of Sydney should be inextricably linked with these centres. In a low carbon economy the value of a fast train connection with these centres becomes not only a provable business case but a case that can be won on the basis of promotion of regional development and sustainable growth. Add energy to the equation and a fast train connection from Sydney to Melbourne via Canberra sits in the realm of the bleeding obvious.

Melbourne has run and won this very argument with strong rail connections to Geelong, Shepparton and Bendigo which allows these centres to participate in, and directly benefit from, the growth and development of Melbourne.

Now more than ever as cities grow, we need leadership by our public representatives on the nature, form and shape of our cities and suburbs where 9 out of 10 of us live work and raise a family. This requires all of us however to engage the debate.

Sleepers wake – the future of your neighbourhood is at stake.

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About the Author

Stephen Smith is an associate director of Deicke Richards. He is a qualified town planner and urban designer with experience in Australia and the UK.

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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