National Times

by Edward Blakely

While nations came to no significant collective agreements at the Copenhagen climate conference late last year, there remains an impetus to change energy use, reduce carbon production and make better more efficient cities. We are in the post-Copenhagen era.

Despite a lack of deep support and little understanding of issues such as carbon trading, there is a strong mood to make Australian cities better and more resilient. One illustration of this is the broad acceptance of the plan in NSW for a more robust approach to transport. The Sydney Morning Herald weighed in on this issue with its own independent report.

The real agenda is to help our cities become more efficient so that we can create more and better jobs. Our national and local long-term climate change target is to position Australia's cities as model incubators for new and better jobs in sustainable technologies.

Building a new rail infrastructure for Sydney presents an opportunity that building the harbour bridge, the Snowy River scheme and the Opera House did in opening new frontiers for Australia as a modern nation with smart exports. If the world is going to use less coal, own fewer cars and use less water, someone has to create new industries to build the urban forms and systems or to or re-create systems.

Australians have profited from the high energy-using global economy. It is our mineral wealth that is driving the rapid Chinese city growth. It is our raw materials exports that are allowing the expansion of manufacturing in India and much of the Asia-Pacific. Cutting energy consumption in the short term doesn't benefit Australia since we export coal. We have to see this new thrust in sustainable and resilient living as a challenge and opportunity, not as a loss.

Australia can create new jobs with a new focus of exporting material and technologies that build climate-change resilient and sustainable cities. Some of our minerals can be transformed, with smart engineering, into better building products for city building.

Since our cities are already increasingly knowledge-based, they must be competitive places for people to come and build their ideas into global, sustainable and economically competitive products and services.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd wrotein the Sydney Morning Herald, "We need world class infrastructure to move Australia to a more diverse, competitive and sustainable economic and environmental benefits in the long term".

He is right. To reach this goal we must have great cities housing innovative knowledge-producing environmental and design industries. Although the nation's export wealth flows through the cities, its real enduring future is in the human resources stock in the cities.

For the first time in human history, most people live in urban locations. The cities, especially in the developing world, are expanding an alarming rate. China will build more than 100 new cities in the coming decades, each of more than 1 million people. Throughout Africa, Latin America and the Middle East, cities are being built or re-built to match the needs of the influx of people leaving farms. We have to make these places more liveable and sustainable for a stable world. Australia is remarkably well positioned to provide solutions for better communities across the world.

Australia (in coastal cities) is one of the most densely settled nations in the world. Our capital cities are among the top 25 liveable places on the planet. We have an enviable record in diversity and equity. So, we start the process to rebuild the nation's urban infrastructure with a good base. We need to look at our resource base for city building. First, we have every weather type and condition. Second, city building is a mature industry in Australia, with world's best practice design engineering and construction firms. We have generated most of this base since World War II and in the boom immigration years from 1970-2000.

Third, we have the world's most advanced and largest securitised real estate market. Australian real estate, engineering and architecture firms are in an unusual position to export city-building technologies and techniques to our neighbours and around the world. Fourth, Australia is home to many world-class development, design, engineering and finance firms.

Australians are becoming world leaders in new materials, products and processes. So, as we build and re-new our cities we must use this as the opportunity to create new firms and new products that can compete globally.

To meet the challenge of converting this diverse array of organisations and enterprises into a new export sector we have to nurture these firms and give them a platform to expand their global opportunities. This calls for continuing leadership in Austrade to increase the outreach of our international, sustainable and disaster industries.

We should follow the lead of our European competitors to make trading in sustainability a national endeavour, with funding, national competitions for best firms and tax breaks for export firms in this new arena. Why shouldn't Australia award the equivalent to the Global Sustainability City Prize every year? This would put a spotlight of the world on us for what we do in the world and what best practices are around the world.

We have another advantage in the global sustainability — competition. We don't have immediate competitors among our global regional neighbours. This is a time, as was the Great Depression, when re-building the nation is an opportunity to re-position the economy for a new era.

Post-Copenhagen is the new era;. Let's view the re-building of our rails, roads and suburbs not as a crisis but as an opportunity to build new jobs and a better future for all Australians.

Professor Edward Blakely is an Honorary Professor in Urban Policy at the United States Studies Centre. He is an international expert on urban planning and development and most recently head of recovery in New Orleans. He also chaired the Sydney Metropolitan Plan Reference Panel from 2003-2004.