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Nation building and a national urban strategy

By Ross Elliott - posted Tuesday, 15 May 2001


Australia is the most urbanised nation in the world. Just let that statement sink in for a moment. We are more urbanised than the Americas, than Europe, than Asia. We are also in a region - Asia - which is urbanising at a frenetic pace. In Asia each week, a city the size of Perth is created.

Against these quaint statistics rests the reality that the global economy is increasingly one of services and knowledge - of high value added - and that these economies are exclusively gravitating to cities that have the most to offer in terms of urban amenity, infrastructure and general funkiness.

Cities are the foreseeable future, full stop. So you would think Australia - the most urbanised of nations - would have a strategy for the development of its urban regions, right? Wrong!

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In a dismal display of short-sightedness, the nation's leadership has only focussed on the complaints of disaffected regions. We have rural and regional policies galore, and it is appropriate to do so. But to not have any strategy for the engine rooms of the economy, which will provide our children with their jobs, is plain silly.

The Property Council, a leading national lobby group representing the property and development industry, has been advocating the need for a national urban strategy for some time. We are concerned that our economic competitiveness is eroding along with the rusting 19th century infrastructure of most of our cities. We watch key centres - such as Sydney - grow almost in spite of themselves while other cities languish in a global world which doesn't much care what the place used to be, only what it can become.

It is a turnaround for an industry lobby such as the Property Council to express concerns about the decline in urban amenity and to advocate improvements in urban design, city governance, urban ecology and related issues, but our concerns stem from a fundamental understanding that without a more strategic, integrated and thoughtful approach to the future development of our cities, we allow ourselves and our futures to be accidents - and just hope for the best.

This isn't good enough. We have advocated at the very least a summit whereby the Prime Minister engages with leading city mayors and discusses the issues of ageing infrastructure and federal relationships with city government. We have suggested to the Mayors that they form a League of Cities to lobby for a better deal. We have brought some of the best minds from around the world to stimulate debate and discussion about what a national urban strategy might look like and how it would operate.

Sadly, that advocacy in the Australian context has fallen on deaf federal ears.

At a recent conference, the very likeable Federal Minister for Local Government and Regional Services, Ian MacDonald, explained just why the listening isn't happening - much to the annoyance of many delegates.

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The Government views its commitment to urban development as taking place via the GST funding packages to the States. In summary, it has become a state issue, he argues.

At the same time, the Federal Government happily talks about the billions it spends on national roads programs, or the Federation Fund, as evidence that it is doing something.

So while it doesn't want to take direct responsibility for urban development, it wants to retain a role for itself in allocating major national infrastructure projects.

Our point is that the two are the same thing - that national infrastructure decisions made without a strategy in mind or which are made in isolation from the concerns expressed by state and local governments, is squandering scarce resources and short-changing the community.

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About the Author

Ross Elliott has more than 20 years experience in property and public policy. His past roles have included stints in urban economics, national and state roles with the Property Council, and in destination marketing. He has written extensively on a range of public policy issues centering around urban issues, and continues to maintain his recreational interest in public policy through ongoing contributions such as this or via his monthly blog The Pulse. (http://thefingeronthepulse.blogspot.com/)

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