by Edward Blakely

In 1800, there was only one city in the world with more than one million people: Beijing. Today we have 381 cities over one million and most of the world's population live in cities. Cities have replaced rural land-based economies. Australia's cities and national economy reflect this. Eighty per cent of Australians live in cities, with more than half in our largest capital cities. But having big cities is no assurance of being competitive in the global economy. Size matters if it is quality and not merely quantity.

The focus of our Federal Government's attention has to be on how we shape our cities and what tools we use in order to provide good healthy, safe, interesting and productive places to live. While each city can take some steps on its own, national productivity requires some form of national direction and assistance.

We are not alone in developing city or urban policy. Britain took the bold move of a city policy under the Blair government; most European countries have completed or are in the middle of shaping city enhancement policies and programs. And United States President Barack Obama has established a White House Urban Policy Office, the first of its kind in the US. Cities contain most of our national competitive capacity. Cities have most of our skilled human resources. More than 90per cent of all postgraduate degree-holders live in our cities. They hold our innovation institutions, with the vast majority of universities and research labs.

They are the gateways to the global economy, accounting for virtually all of our international visitor traffic and most of our international trade in services and value-added manufacturing, health and technology exports. And our cities are growing. Good growth can stimulate productivity, and poor growth can act as a bottleneck and reduce productivity to the point that good firms and our most talented people leave the country.

The goal of a national urban policy is to make cities the fulcrum of the nation's economy. To do this, a city must work well for its inhabitants and its visitors. In the new city era, the quality of place is essential. Our cities need to be composed of a set of communities that have a variety of housing types of different densities and distinct styles to accommodate ages and incomes across the spectrum. There needs to be an array of institutions, such as post-secondary education, research centres, government or other magnet infrastructure that attracts and builds jobs for the residents.

In this system communities are walkable, for daily needs; workable, with options to work from home; and accessible to other centres by mass transit. The gateway infrastructure must be designed to meet priorities in freight, technology, finance and communication through a nationally supported and guided infrastructure spine. Since cities are the new resource base for the national economy, coordination of federal policy and resources is essential.

Federal policy needs to be a joint strategic policy across government portfolios. The ministries of infrastructure, transport and local government, with the ministries of climate change, housing and environment, and treasury, might be formed into a national sub-cabinet committee on urban affairs. The funding streams of all these ministries and others can be merged into a common agenda with similarly targeted funding programs, such as gateway infrastructure, and priorities such as affordable housing and greening our cities.

The Council of Australian Governments is embarking on a new regional strategic framework that can be the backdrop for more clearly elaborated priorities for financing and funding urban programs across portfolios. Infrastructure Australia can play a key role in this approach.

Regional and national governance mechanisms need to be in place to ensure a long-term objective run beyond electoral cycles. Finally, gateway and high-priority magnet infrastructure needs a clear mandate and long-term funding stream with a 50-year horizon and re-authorised funding every five years, similar to the US Transportation Act.

We have the right concepts in place now to shape our urban future; we just need to put together the correct organisational and funding approach at the national level to get us there.

Edward J. Blakely, an international authority on cities and regions, is Honorary Professor of Urban Policy, United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney. This is an edited extract of the keynote speech he delivered at the Australia Davos Connection Cities Summit on March 30 in Melbourne.