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Australian cities: the things we donít talk about

By John Mant - posted Tuesday, 21 December 2010

The Commonwealth government has just released another discussion paper on Australian Cities, State of Australian Cities 2010.

The latest city paper is replete with all those clichéd hopes that have peppered urban policy papers for decades - integrated infrastructure planning and programming, innovative urban design, consideration of place impacts of development, healthier cities, sustainable cities, affordable housing, less car dependent, shorter trips, access to a wide range of services and facilities …

One gets a warm glow from these documents. They don’t disappoint by explaining what we really would have to do to achieve their lofty aims. To explain would be to expose the hollowness of the analysis and the solutions.


The truth is inconvenient because it is to be found within government and the way it operates. Rather than face up to it, much better to wrap the clichés around some pictures of happy citizens and pretend you are across the issues.

Integrate land use and transport planning

Every planning report I have read in my long life in the field has called for greater integration of transport and land use planning. Never has it happened on a permanent basis.

It goes to the heart of the failure of urban governance.

Guild dominated organisations

The 19th century structures of state governments do not allow for integration of professionals. Each department is the province of some particular professional grouping or guild. Land use planners will not lie down with transport planners. They are different breeds and the manner we employ them accentuates these differences.

I was once consulted on how we might integrate land use planners and transport planners when, for a moment, a group of each found themselves employed by the one minister and one head of department. Threatened by the higher gradings of the transport planners and their numeracy skills, the planners insisted on there being “planning work” which was to be the sole responsibility of those with a planning qualification. This of course killed any opportunity to create teams in which the members and the leaders could be from any profession. The experiment in integration came to a quick and inevitable end.


Each guild will fight to retain its hold over its organisational structure. Planners pretentiously consider themselves to be the only urban generalists and consequently they think they should be on top. None of the other urban professional organisations agree.

Certainly, there are some excellent “planners” who have a wide knowledge and understanding of complex urban systems and are skilled at causing things to happen, but, generally, the professionals are not selected and trained for this. Most spend their time drafting control documents or assessing how well individual developments comply with those controls. These can be highly skilled tasks, but they have little to do with managing a city.

Ask planners what they are doing and usually they say are “implementing the Planning Act”. Planning Acts are development control legislation. Administering, then, does not amount to managing a city. Planners are not able to do what is needed because, in a guild structured government such as a state or local council where every guild claims a monopoly over some specialist input and output, nobody is allow to be responsible for a complex outcome such as a city or a place.

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About the Author

John Mant is a retired urban planner and lawyer from Sydney.

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