Leading our Nation through our Cities: A National Urban Policy for Australia

by Edward Blakely

In 1800 there was only one city in the world with more than 1 million people, Bejing, China. 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. It is a nation’s human capital in cities, not it lands or animal resources. Australia’s cities and national economy reflect this. Eighty percent of Australians live in cities with over half in our largest capital cities.

We are a very densely settled urban place. Our cities are growing from a combination of internal birth rates 40+% and immigration. Having big cities or dense cities is no assurance of being competitive in the global economy. Our cities are important because they produce the vast majority portion, nearly 80%, of our nation’s Gross Domestic Product.

Big is not necessarily good. Dense cannot be equated with better living standards. Size matters if it is quality and not merely quantity. So, the focus of our national government attention has to be on how we shape our city sizes and what tools we use to get to where we need to be 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. This is not a new concept. When Australia was predominantly rural and agricultural national rail and other transportation networks were essential to insure enhanced productivity and competitiveness.

When we grew an industrial base national policies from wages to roads were developed to insure the industrial base could compete locally and globally. So, as we develop a new innovation and technological base the infrastructure and the places that are necessary to create the future must be provided both guidance and resources from the national government. The question for the national government then is not whether to have a policy but what policies and what programs and what roles to play in crafting the national agenda.

We are not alone in developing city or urban policy. Great 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, President Obama has established a White House Urban Policy Office, the first of its kind in the United States.

Why a National City Policy?

Cities contain most of our national competitive capacity. Cities have most of our skilled human resources. Over 90% of all post Bachelors degree holders reside in our cities. They hold our innovation institutions with the vase 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.

We have to protect and enhance these resources. Finally, our cities are growing. Good growth can stimulate productivity and poor growth can act as bottlenecks and reduce productivity to the point that good firms and our most talented people leave the country. In essence, if we fail to do well with our cities, we can get bigger without getting better.

What are we aiming at?

The goal of our 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 of choice. Each of our metropolitan –city areas must be a collection of distinct urban forms with character, accessibility and livability.

These communities of choice need to be part of a hierarchy of community units that have a variety of housing types of different densities and distinct styles to accommodate ages and incomes across the spectrum. In each of the places of choice there needs to be an array of institutional forms such as post secondary education, research centres, government or other magnet infrastructure that attracts and builds jobs for the residents. Not all residents will choose to work in a community or shop in it but the choice needs to be there.

Each major community in the hierarchy needs to be connected with the other centres nearby and suburbs and not merely or exclusively to the core city. In this system of choice, communities are walkable for daily needs such as schools and shopping; workable with options to work from home or near home; accessible to other centres and the central city by mass transit that is clean, convenient, safe and reliable.

Finally, the gateway infrastructure for the metropolitan area is well designed and developed to meet national priorities in freight, technology, finance and communication through a nationally supported and guided infrastructure spine.

What is the Role of the National Government in City Policy?

Since cities are the new resource base for the national economy national coordination of federal policy and resources is essential. Federal policy needs to be a joint strategic policy across several government portfolios. The Ministries of Infrastructure, Transportation 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 similar funding programs aimed at both places—such as gateway infrastructure and priorities such as affordable housing and greening our cities.

COAG 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 insure long term objective run beyond electoral cycles.

Finally, Gateway and high priority magnet infrastructure like ports, educational institutions, research centres and related globally pathways need a clear mandate and long term funding streams with a 50 year horizon and re-authorised funding every 5 years similar to the US Transportation Act.

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


Edward J Blakely Honorary Professor of Urban Policy United States Study Centre at the University of Sydney

Professor Blakely is an international authority on cities and regions. He was the Chair of the Metropolitan Strategy Reference Panel in Sydney from 2003-2005 and has worked on regional strategies in the United States, China, Japan, and in several European nations.