Sydney Morning Herald

By Andrew West

Popular preferences and economics are changing urban life.

JOHN NORQUIST has learnt how to stop worrying and love congestion. ''It's like cholesterol,'' says the former mayor of Milwaukee, the northern US city made famous by radical politics, beer and the '70s sitcom Happy Days. ''There's good congestion and bad congestion.''

Everyone knows about bad congestion. It's the type you encounter on arterial roads - such as Parramatta Road, Victoria Road and the suburban motorways during peak hour - when you sit, white-knuckled with frustration, in stalled traffic, the car spewing greenhouse gases.

The federal government's Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics estimates this congestion will cost Australia $20.4 billion by 2020.

''You don't want cars sitting there, burning energy,'' Norquist says. ''Nor do you want trucks going through the centre of town and not stopping to do business. There's no economic benefit.''

Norquist - a progressive Democrat, who, after 16 years as mayor, retired to head the organisation Congress for the New Urbanism in Chicago - says motorways should be ring roads around the edges of metropolitan areas, leaving streets free to clog up occasionally with buses, walkers, cyclists, train commuters and, yes, local cars carrying people who patronise businesses.

''That's the good congestion,'' he says, ''when you generate traffic and passing trade that keeps a neighbourhood vibrant.''

Norquist was in Australia this week, along with scholars and top transport and urban officials from the Obama administration, for a conference in Brisbane called City of the Future, sponsored by the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney and the Global Change Institute at the University of Queensland.

As mayor, Norquist tore up more than a kilometre of freeway through Milwaukee, liberating 10.5 hectares of prime land for mixed-use development, with an estimated value of more than $US250 million.

He told the conference that urban freeways rarely relieve congestion, and, when they do, it is at a huge cost, scarring streetscapes, razing neighbourhoods and diverting income from main streets to malls and business parks. ''Building roads so cars do not have to slow down does not work.''

The Century Freeway in Los Angeles, for example, is 20 lanes at its widest. ''But it still grinds to a halt in rush hour,'' Norquist says. ''Building freeways in cities is like loosening your belt to deal with obesity.''

So the city of the future can be a dystopia of rumbling, choked motorways, main street stores abandoned for shopping centres, gated estates for the wealthy, and where blackouts from coal-fired power are increasingly common.

Or it can be a compact, if occasionally chaotic, place with lots of public transport, short streets on a grid pattern, corner shops, flats and townhouses, markets and even Middle Eastern-style souks.

The likelihood is that it will be something in between the two, as Australians gradually accept the need to live closer together, travel more by train and bus, and shop more frequently but in smaller volumes, while trying to cling to some of our suburban heritage. What is certain is that Australian and American cities will begin to look very similar, as government policies converge.

''We are the two most heavily urbanised countries in the world,'' says Professor Robert Yaro, an urban planner and a co-chairman of America 2050, a coalition of groups trying to stem urban sprawl and retrofit dozens of big economic zones, or ''mega-regions'', with public transport and higher-density housing.

''Eighty per cent of the population lives in metropolitan centres - higher than just about any other place. And we actually have fairly high population densities, even though a lot of people choose to live in suburbs.

''It belies the self-image of both places: that we are rugged individualists, that we have a lot of cowboys out there, that we drive around in Range Rovers all the time.''

Australia and the US, he says, are also the only two industrialised countries experiencing rapid population growth due to a combination of immigration and a higher fertility than the rest of the developed world.

On both sides of the Pacific, housing patterns and living habits are also changing radically. The global financial crisis, and the housing crash that provoked it, has swallowed the dreams of many baby boomers, who had moved into big family homes - often leaving little by way of garden or yard - in the ''ex-urbs'', those areas beyond even the suburbs. ''The trend had been towards all those things but it's changing,'' Yaro says.

US banks have been foreclosing on the mortgages over many of those homes, which are now worth less than the amount owners originally paid for them - so-called ''underwater mortgages''.

''In these ex-urban McMansions, people have walked away and there's just not a lot demand for them any more,'' he says.

In the US and Australia there have also been big changes in household structure. According to the 2000 US Census, the number of families without children under 18 was projected to have increased by 28 per cent, from 36 million to 46 million, by this year. (The US government is now compiling this year's census data.)

''Two major factors contribute to these declines in average household and family sizes,'' the census concluded. ''Increases in households and families with no children under 18, and increases in persons living alone.''

It's a similar story in Australia. The Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute has found ''social trends, such as the move towards smaller households, and an ageing population will continue to drive demand for new housing and will contribute to keeping demand high''.

''Thirty, forty years ago, the average household had mum and dad and two kids and it looked like a TV sitcom,'' Yaro says. ''The standard approach to life in New York, for example, used to be that you would be young and hip and single and you'd live in Manhattan, hang around the bars, get married and move to the 'burbs. But it's not happening any more.

''The millennials [the generation born between 1980 and 1995] don't want any part of what their parents wanted and they're choosing to be in urban settings. They want the bright lights and the ability to walk everywhere. They would rather not sit in the middle of nowhere surrounded by an acre of lawn.''

But the McMansions, even though abandoned across much of America, still stand.

In another example of converging policy between the US and Australia, these houses could be transformed into multi-unit dwellings, Yaro says. In a recent edition of the design magazine Take 7, the Sydney architect Rod Simpson, who has worked on the NSW government's metropolitan strategy, suggested turning typical four- and five-bedroom two-storey houses into two flats.

''It's really easy,'' Yaro agrees, ''because a lot of these places could become the retirement homes for ageing boomers. In the US, they often have five bedrooms, six baths, industrial-strength kitchens, four-car garages, some even elevators.

''They could become shared housing, with several unrelated people in their 70s and 80s living in a place, sometimes with assistance.''

Polly Trottenberg, the Assistant Secretary for Transport in the Obama administration, who also attended the conference, says US and Australian governments are in lockstep in their policies to support an expansion of public transport. Just as Sydney and the Gold Coast are extending or building light rail, US cities such as Houston, Dallas, Phoenix and Denver - all of them traditionally car-based and most conservative in their politics - are adding more lines to their streetcar networks.

As the Gillard government examines plans for a high-speed rail line between Newcastle and Melbourne, via Sydney and Canberra, the Obama administration is funding initial work on nine high-speed intercity rail systems in America.

''Peoples' preferences are changing,'' Trottenberg insists. ''We are not forcing it.''

Accommodating, rather than coercing, change in commuting and living styles is an ethos vital to the city of the future, says Norquist, the former Milwaukee mayor.

US anti-public transport groups, often funded by the oil and car industries, and Australian anti-medium density groups, usually clustered in wealthy suburbs, say the new urbanist movement is trying to impose a new way of life. But economics - including oil prices forecast by the US Energy Department to rise 5 per cent a year for the next 10 years - will do part of the job. Changing preferences will do the rest.

Other than providing good public transport and changing building codes to allow more mixed residential, retail and business development - typically a building with shops on the ground floor, flats above, and a station below - the movement is ''anti-utopian'', Norquist says.

''Traditionally, government intrusion has been counterproductive and anti-urban in nature, pushing highway financing schemes and lending policies that discriminate against traditional main street developments that mix stores and apartments.''

The city of the future, Norquist, Yaro and Trottenberg say, will still have garden suburbs and highways but also more choice for those wanting busier, more compact, less car-dependent neighbourhoods.