Our metropolises must evolve but let’s preserve their strengths

In The Australian today
“Australians are ambivalent about their cities. From AD Hope’s Australia – with its denunciation of “her five cities, like five teeming sores,/ … Where second-hand Europeans pullulate/ Timidly on the edge of alien shores” – to Barry Humphries’ Gladiola Duchy of Moonee Ponds, the metropolis has been where Australians live, not where they dream. The result is a society profoundly uncertain as to what it wants its cities to do, and even more uncertain as to how they should do it. “

About Henry Ergas

Henry Ergas is a columnist for The Australian newspaper and the inaugural Professor of Infrastructure Economics at the SMART Infrastructure Facility at the University of Wollongong. The SMART Infrastructure Facility is a $61.8 million world-class research and training centre concerned with integrated infrastructure solutions for the future. Henry is also Senior Economic Adviser to Deloitte Australia. Prior to these concurrent roles Henry worked as a consultant economist at NECG, CRA International and Concept Economics. Henry's previous career was as an economist at the OECD in Paris, where amongst other roles he headed the Secretary-General’s Task Force on Structural Adjustment and was Counsellor for Structural Policy in the Economics Department.
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26 Responses to Our metropolises must evolve but let’s preserve their strengths

  1. Blogstrop

    Love that 19th century pictorial map of Sydney. Where can I get one? The bigger the better.
    There you see a bustling, working harbour. The mix of steam and sail, the anchorages adjacent to the city CBD, and in the distance the swing span Pyrmont Bridge. No high rise, lots of parklands.

    Back to your article, Henry. A meandering line of thought, not sure in the end which bits you want preserved. Plenty of Federation homes took up much of their close-in suburban land with structure. The restriction of land sizes and the enlargement of homes combines to do that again now. It’s almost as if OH&S has deemed outdoor games dangerous and in the information age unnecessary. Return serve with your phone and have a chance to win a commuter car with which to join the throng of non-public transport users who are that because public transport no longer has the zeal it had in the 1930s, when so much of Sydney’s train system was built, along with the 1920s vintage Harbour Bridge.
    The NSW indolent Labor governments of the past x years put off so much rail development to the two main growth corridors that there’s a big backlog for the present LNP one to tackel. It may yield driverless trains. The rail system like the car industry has been bogged down with union featherbedding for a long time.
    Land releases around Sydney have some unltimate geographical constraints to the west, east and north. The south will have to do. The good burghers of Burradoo may one day see their fair subset of Bowral become just a far flung suburb of Sydney. Cambden, Picton and Thirlmere may end up feeling more like Campbelltown.

  2. Blogstrop

    Decentralisation should not be a dirty word, a degraded concept, a politician’s promise signifying nothing. Perhaps it needs to be looked at in the context of improving regional infrastructure as part of the push towards efficient movement of exports to the ports or points of departure. Building this improved infrastructure could absorb those displaced workers who can no longer be supported by the manufacturing industries – some of which have been sunk by high wages, others by idiotic energy policy.
    Having jobs for those not “educated”, or otherwise prepared by academe for a life in the left stream of society, remains pushed to one side like suburban rail under Labor. Large numbers of fairly useless graduates can be given jobs as political apparatchiks, quango drones or various forms of public servant. That’s for as long as Labor remains in control of the now trashed budget.
    But eventually a conservative government worth its salt must look at putting people back to work on useful things. There’s only so much nation building you can do in the financial precinct, the towers of commerce. The remaining challenge is to build export industries which will pay for all those imports we now suck in. We are going to remain a quarry and a farm, so let’s do those things well.
    Dccentralisation has been held back by a lack of vision re what to do with decentralised bodies. Hmmm. How about some public servants move to Orange? Yep, done that.
    How about a grand scheme of transport hubs to help the quarries and farms? For all the snide remarks we get here about rail, it remains a very eficient way to move bulk goods. Fresh produce needs fast shipping, so air is part of the mix, but regular rail of an organise nature through regional centres would be one area that deserves another look before we write off the inland and stay locked imto large road freight to the exclusion of all else.

  3. Petros

    We’re ambivalent about our cities because they are nothing special, unless you can afford waterfront Sydney property. Melbourne seems to be improving nicely. They still don’t seem to capture the buzz that many of the large cities in Europe have. Population density and decent public transport are no doubt major factors. Great places to raise a family, however, and that is more important in the end.

  4. Petros

    Blogstrop, I think NSW is the great failure in decentralisation. Qld has done a much better job. Townsville is close to 200,000 people now. Not bad. NSW is so under-utilised. It’s the problem of a primate city (at a state level) deciding that everything should be placed in Sydney. Sad really. Open it up, Barry!

  5. Tel

    The result is a society profoundly uncertain as to what it wants its cities to do, and even more uncertain as to how they should do it.

    Errr, why should I be certain about what I want “my” city to do? I mean, it isn’t really my city, no more than getting a receipt for “MyTrain” entitles me to a train.

    Oh wait, now I get it, you were talking about what society wants, not what I want… sorry got confused. Hmmm, while you were out there talking to “society” I’m curious about how you asked “society” a question in the first place, and how did “society” answer you?

  6. ChrisPer

    Who cares about those people’s opinions? They are so old school. Dame Edna has spent 40 years since her joke was fresh just getting old. In that time my city has tripled in size and one or two things that matter have happened.

  7. Noddy

    There is a problem with BIG cities… how do you feed the masses?
    With a complete lock-down of transport the supermarket shelves would be empty in two weeks and there would be no food and only inedible Chinese junk remaining.
    Then the masses will start eating one another!

  8. Mayan

    Perhaps a conscious decision to move the state capitals out of their current host cities might help. Random idea: move the capital every 25 years.

  9. duncanm

    Henry,

    great article … much to think about.

    The apparent incongruity between the explosion of internet businesses and their concentration in the inner cities shows that business (especially dynamic ones) rely on face to face contact. The interwebs and tele commuting don’t cut it.

    … current trends in North America are any indication, they will evolve towards a jumble of commingled housing types and mixed-use buildings with an easily identifiable town centre that provides a distinctly urban “buzz”.

    Yup. I think that’s the next step in our urban centres. As the CBD of places like Sydney and Melbourne become increasingly hostile to the urbanites (drunks, lockouts, transport), the urban centres must evolve to provide local entertainment beyond the mall.

  10. Tas

    Blogstrop ……… agree re your point on decentralisation.

    It can work when done correctly ….. Orange is the perfect example.
    A strong regional made stronger by thoughtful addition of more public service positions.

  11. Tas

    sorry ” strong region”

  12. johanna

    It is perhaps a bit simplistic to talk about large cities like Sydney as though they are just a CBD and a bunch of ever-spreading suburbs.

    Parramatta (from which I have just returned) is a city, and apart from not having a pretty harbour, is much more pleasant, vibrant and generally desirable than the Sydney CBD. There are very few reasons – apart from work – for western Sydney residents to visit the CBD, and many of them rarely, if ever, go there. It is a very large employment hub, has first class medical and commercial services, and apart from a decent university provides almost everything that the CBD does.

    This may be the pattern of the future. Penrith is evolving in the same way.

    A lot of people have an emotional attachment to the concept of forced decentralisation, as in using government fiat and taxpayer money to shift populations to places that they prima facie don’t want to live in. As well as being authoritarian in principle, as Henry points out these policies simply don’t work without inducing massive inefficiencies. The only successful attempt in our history is the creation of Canberra – need I say more?

  13. duncanm

    Johanna, I agree completely.

    But think where Parramatta was 10 years ago before the main strip became a foodie hub. The council spent many years trying to get something going, but the street mall remained a stalwart of derros, druggies and $2 shops for a long time.

  14. rickw

    “The result is a society profoundly uncertain as to what it wants its cities to do, and even more uncertain as to how they should do it.”

    Sounds like left wing tosser.

    How about we just get rid of all the planning restrictions and overlays and other regulatory BS and then we’ll see what Australians want to do with their cities?

    Currently what happens in our cities is dictated by low-grade council officials enforcing volumeous regulations without respect for land ownership, and sweetheart deals with big developers. Sometimes I get confused about whether I’m living in a free country or some grey satellite of the Soviet Union.

    I am very clear what I want to do with MY land in the city! The council on the otherhand are horrified. (For crying out loud, streetscape consistency for 70′s brick veneers?, their only redeeming feature was that people could afford them!)

  15. Tom

    Thank you, Henry. Some thoughts:

    1. Most Australians don’t actually live in Australia. Their daily experience is of cities that are increasingly homogenous like those on the rest of the planet. Decentralisation is a dream, but a high-cost, artificial construction that won’t be achieved until the cost comes down.
    2. The new interconnected world of the Web and advanced telephony no longer requires people and non-retail businesses to be located in metropolises.
    3. If Australia starts decentralising, it will need more airport capacity, which advantages Victoria and Queensland and disadvantages New South Wales, as a succession of state and federal governments has been too frightened by NIMBYs to authorises new airports in the Sydney basin, especially after the airport noise protests of the 1990s. Since airport capacity is one of the key conduits of economic activity, Sydneyites will collectively have to change their thinking if they are to avoid becoming an economic backwater.
    4. Abbott is a decentraliser and dreams of great new northern agricultural development projects. As a farmer’s son, something has stuck with me since I first visited the Ord project 30 years ago: crop yields in the red dust around the Ord River are the same as those of the alluvial soils of north Queensland — just add water. Agricultural technology is unrecognisable from what it was 50 years ago. So much more is now feasible.

    However, through unelected state and federal bureaucracies, Australia has awarded veto powers to the anti-civilisationists of the Green Left and cannot develop as a nation until that anti-democratic veto is removed.

  16. Tom

    I forgot to add: the biggest change in life on earth in the next century will be demographic. By 2100 A.D., the average life expectancy of both Australian men and women will exceed 100 years, which alone will change the nature and possibilities of work.

  17. duncanm

    2. The new interconnected world of the Web and advanced telephony no longer requires people and non-retail businesses to be located in metropolises.

    Yes.. with a but.

    Small businesses that rely on the interwebs have learnt pretty quickly that they still need to go out and press the flesh. In addition, the infrastructure comes to the metropolis first.

  18. Tel

    By 2100 A.D., the average life expectancy of both Australian men and women will exceed 100 years, which alone will change the nature and possibilities of work.

    I’d like to make a bet with you on that one, but I doubt I’d live long enough to collect.

  19. Tel

    Parramatta (from which I have just returned) is a city, and apart from not having a pretty harbour, is much more pleasant, vibrant and generally desirable than the Sydney CBD.

    It has a river front, which is very pretty in places, and could be pretty in a lot more places if a bit of work was done. I presume they are working around to sell that land for premium housing, and I’m sure it’s going to happen, just a question of when.

  20. johanna

    Duncan, the vibrant part of Parramatta is the restaurant/bar strip where cars are still allowed. The horrible bit is the mall where traffic was closed off. That’s where the thugs and junkies hang out, and where businesses are struggling.

    True to form, the greenie elements are now trying to close off the healthy part to traffic.

    No matter how many times, and how obviously, the car-haters’ prescriptions have failed, they just keep going on with the mantra. The agenda is clearly that they just hate cars and successful businesses, and bugger the costs.

    The other interesting thing is that the Puritans’ usually successful efforts to ban smoking anywhere, anytime in the entertainment precinct have been at least postponed by vigorous lobbying from business. Smoking is banned indoors everywhere, thanks to the State government. But some restaurants/bars have outdoor smoking areas, others don’t. Result – smokers spending their money and livening the place up instead of staying at home. People who don’t want to be around smoking have alternatives.

    However, I suspect that it is only a matter of time before the “we know what’s best” brigade win out.

  21. brc

    The heart and soul of australia have always been beyond e city boundary. Weekend cricket, days at the beach, camping , fishing, road trips, vineyards…..the iconography of Australia is not farmers markets and lattes on a child’s stool in an awkward cafe.

    City plots and houses are imbued with the wishes that the resident was actually outside the city. Verandas and big yards are just yearnings for wide open spaces. Th celebrated Queenslander is just an urban farmhouse.

  22. stackja

    Sydney was ruled by Sussex Street until recently.

  23. James B

    Why do the statists want to coop us up in tiny apartments?

    Fuck that shit makes me angry.

  24. Leo G

    NSW is so under-utilised. It’s the problem of a primate city (at a state level) deciding that everything should be placed in Sydney. Sad really.

    Sydney was a planned city, not built to the plan.

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