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Ruining our cities to save them

By Jeremy Gilling and John Muscat - posted Monday, 3 May 2010

Latching onto Kevin Rudd’s call for “a big Australia” and forecasts that our population will grow by 60 per cent to 35 million in 2050, urban planners are ramping up their war against suburbia. In paper after paper, academics across the country have been pushing the same line. Climate change, peak oil and the financial crisis mean we can’t go on driving and borrowing for low-density housing. Choices must be narrowed to buying or renting compact homes in high-density, multi-unit developments along public transport corridors, preferably rail lines.

Underlying it all is a radical vision of suburban doom. “That is one of my themes”, said Professor Peter Newman, anti-car activist and head of Curtin University‘s Sustainable Policy Institute, “that we stop cities developing into eco enclaves surrounded by Mad Max suburbs”.

The alarming truth is that planners are blasé about prosperity, living standards and choice because they see them as second-rate issues. The point is to save us from eco-apocalypse.


And their voice grows louder by the day. The mantra of green urbanism has long been heard on ABC radio programs like Background Briefing and Future Tense, but matters reached a crescendo in January when ABC TV’s 7:30 Report rounded up the usual suspects for a four-part series on preparing our cities for the population boom. Framed by scary graphics and a menacing soundtrack, the series delivered a stream of breathless dialogue from talking heads like Newman, who declared that “if we just roll out those suburbs one after the other, making a more and more carbon intensive world in our cities, then we’re stuffed.”

This current of thought has always lurked beneath the Rudd Government’s “nation building” agenda. But last October it burst open when the prime minister announced his plans to wrest control of urban policy from the states.

Rattling off tenets of the planning ideology, Mr Rudd said “we must ensure that communities are not separated from jobs and services”, that “increasing density in cities is part of the solution to urban growth”, that “forms of development need to be fully integrated with current and future transport networks”, that “climate change requires a whole of government response”, and that “we must make long-term investments in transport networks that minimise carbon emissions.” It’s all a question of government action, if he is to be believed.

That too was the message from infrastructure minister Anthony Albanese at the recent launch of State of Australian Cities 2010. Little wonder that he appointed Newman to the board of Infrastructure Australia.

Defying urban laws of gravity

“Cities are an immense laboratory of trial and error, failure and success” said the great urbanist Jane Jacobs, but today’s planners seem to think they’re as pliable as dough. Just tweak a couple of variables, say transport modes and population densities, and everything falls into place.


As a discipline, urban planning never emerged from behind Berlin Wall of command economics, albeit with a green face. Early hopes that the financial crisis would shift public sentiment in this direction have faded, and climate change hasn’t registered as an issue for commuters and home buyers.

Despite this, planners show no sign of losing confidence in their power to abolish fundamental laws of supply and demand. They’re still apt to dream up grand schemes for zoning, development and infrastructure controls with barely a thought about the impact on land values and bid-rents, two price inputs with far-reaching implications for urban commerce.

Nor have they managed to repeal the law of unintended consequences. Year after year, the Demographia housing affordability survey confirms the link between “more prescriptive land use regulation” and high median house prices. This is elementary economics. Restricting the supply of land for development, a starting point for all green planning, combined with rising demand from population growth, will ratchet up values, with knock-on effects for the whole economy. The survey continues to rank all of our capital cities, and some of our regional centres, in the “severely unaffordable” category. No amount of “cutting-edge design” or “more imaginative” planning can counter this effect.

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This article first appeared in The New City Journal on 14 March, 2010

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About the Authors

Jeremy Gilling is a co-editor, along with John Muscat, of The New City, a web journal of urban and political affairs.

John Muscat is a co-editor, along with Jeremy Gilling, of The New City, a web journal of urban and political affairs.

Other articles by these Authors

All articles by Jeremy Gilling
All articles by John Muscat

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