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    Words about cities are not enough

    Deborah Singerman

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    Cities are back in favour at a federal level. The built environment sector enthusiastically applauded the appointment of a Minister for Cities and Built Environment, and perhaps it was even better that the exact person, Jamie Briggs, previously was assistant minister for infrastructure. This all added to the good feelings during Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull’s honeymoon period.

    In his first speech in the portfolio, Briggs at the Committee for Economic Development (CEDA), said that the government believed “now is the time for a dedicated national cities policy to address the increasing challenges facing our major urban centres and therefore our economy”. Attracting and keeping global talent, in a place in which they want to live and work, makes the new ministry unashamedly and “fundamentally an economic portfolio”, he said. This portfolio is “created to work in close collaboration with state and local governments, urban communities and the private sector to build cities that are liveable, accessible and productive.”

    The danger will be that the macro-excitement it has generated will dissipate into facets that linger in discussions about urban policy, intractable and yet as important as ever, and buzz topics, such as technological innovation and “digital disruption” favoured by Turnbull and Innovation Minister Christopher Pyne.

    Transport and infrastructure, road or rail or combinations of both, affordable housing as a crucial (but oh-so neglected) part of urban redevelopment, funding mechanisms to more likely secure private investment, and to have a “ vision” and “investment strategy” to cope with a Sydney of 8 million by 2050, as discussed by University of New South Wales Professor Sue Halliday, in her Utzon Lecture, who also interestingly raised the possibility of circular metros connecting people around a more decentralised Sydney.

    Comments at the announcement of the ministry from Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council (ASBEC) Executive Director Suzanne Toumbourou were typical of professional, political, practitioner organisations.  “Australia’s cities are engines of growth. Leadership and coordination at a Federal level is vital to delivering greater productivity, prosperity and a better standard of living”.

     “Liveable, vibrant cities are absolutely critical to our prosperity”, Prime Minister Turnbull has said. And Briggs in his CEDA speech widened the challenge. “To achieve success, the Australian Government will of course need to work in a collaborative fashion with all levels of government”, Briggs said. “But we will also need to use our levers to ensure the outcomes we want for a more prosperous Australia.

    “States and local governments should expect a very co-operative partner but one focused and willing to act to achieve outcomes.”

    David Singleton, Chair of the Infrastructure Sustainability Council, has touched on another layer that could also benefit from, and contribute to, the opportunities within this new era. “… we are going to have to move to a process that involves the community in the earliest decision making, so they have had a chance to decide whether a project investment is necessary, what kind of investment, where it should go and how it should be implemented.

    “Rather than the community getting involved in opposition, we should encourage them to get involved as a contributor to the planning process.”

    Let’s see how far this all pans out.


    Deborah Singerman runs her own writing, editing, proofing and project managing consultancy specialising in the urban built environment and community.  @deborahsingerma

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