When ‘amenity’ meant backyards and beaches, Australia’s cities were the envy of the world. But the global definition of amenity has changed, and our cities must too, says Urbis national director James Tuma.

The ‘brands’ of Australia’s five largest cities may boost their international rankings, but the product no longer lives up to the promise.

That’s one of the key takeaways from a new series of reports commissioned by the Property Council in partnership with Urbis, from cities expert Professor Greg Clark. 

Clark’s report, Creating Great Australian Cities, argues that Australian cities are locked in a fierce competition with hundreds of other global cities for trade, talent and tourists, investment and institutions, services and students. But our cities are ill-equipped to meet the challenges of the ‘metropolitan century’.

“Australia has long traded on our amenity proposition – wide open spaces, great weather, beaches and jobs for everyone. And it’s been a very successful model,” says Tuma, who aside from his role with Urbis works as adjunct professor of design at Queensland University of Technology.

“The definition of amenity has changed. Amenity now means social equity, access to transport, a strong jobs market, café culture, vibrant, interesting, diverse and tolerant places.

“We still operate with the mindset that amenity means a backyard and a place for kids to play under the sprinkler. And with this mindset is a real risk that we lose our competitive advantage.”

Building a system of cities

Tuma points to Asia, notably Singapore and Hong Kong, as places that are “moving ahead in huge leaps and bounds” and which are “delivering places that are not just economically competitive, but far more liveable than they have been in the past”.

Tuma says every Australian city is “chasing the same things” – arts and culture, drawcard events, the knowledge economy, biotechnology. 

But in doing so, there is a “real risk” that Australian cities are pitching against each other, rather than collaborating in a nationally-competitive network.

Tuma points to Clark’s research on Canadian cities, which outlines how the five biggest metropolises are building distinct identities and competitive advantages. “Toronto is the business and finance capital, Montreal the cultural and creative centre, Vancouver is innovative and sustainable, Ottawa is the capital city, Calgary is a global centre for energy and related services, and Edmonton is a hub for advanced manufacturing, industry and cleantech,” the report outlines.

Tuma thinks the idea of Australian cities as a “system” has merit, with Sydney as the financial centre, Melbourne as the home of arts and culture, for example.

“This would give our cities an overwhelming sense of clarity in their economic identity. At the moment our cities are almost like adolescents, searching for what they will be when they grow up.”

Density delivers social equity

Tuma says Australia also needs to shift the conversation around growth and densification. The current narrative centres on the negative impacts of change, such as longer commute times or more expensive real estate. 

The secret to Australia’s competitive future is “understanding the opportunities of density and delivering it in a way that suits us” – one which retains our leafy suburbs by investing in highly-intense nodes of activity.

Tuma empathises with people who are struggling to adapt with growth. “When you compare the evolution of our cities to that of other world cities, like London or Paris, the changes have been radical.”

He points to the Brisbane skyline, which he overlooks each day from his office. “Most of the buildings I see weren’t around when I was a kid”.

Meanwhile, the media’s “we’re full” message is “displeasingly turning into an anti-growth sentiment” – something which Tuma says is neither astute or forward-looking.

“Part of our problem is our cities are under-populated. Australian cities are among the lowest densities in the world, and all the great cities we love are at least three to four times as dense as Sydney or Melbourne.

“To create high-performance places for the metropolitan century, we need growth. Density is in fact the greatest form of social equity as it gives more people more access to jobs, opportunities and experiences,” Tuma concludes.