Could the federal government finally ‘get’ cities?


Submitted by Chris Isles: Australian Planner of the Year and International Executive Director for Planning.

 For most average Australians the focus of last week would have been Anzac Day and remembering and respecting all those who made the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom and country. For city and urban planning tragics like myself, whilst Anzac Day was very special, Friday’s Cities Summit and launch of a Federal Government led Cities policy was certainly an additional highlight for the week which has been much anticipated after the PM rejuvenated the cities agenda in 2015.

So it was with much interest that I followed the announcement last week, and have since taken the opportunity of our long weekend here in Queensland to read the strategy from front to back. It didn’t take long! So whilst we could do with some more detail and specifics, it is a first step - and good one.

The importance, (if only symbolic through the policy document at this time), is the reinjection of our Federal Government into the Cities and Urban Development space. Long neglected federally, cities and a national agenda or strategy for them has been a gaping void in 21st-century Australian public policy landscape. It has been more than 30 years since we have both major political parties commit to a cities portfolio within the CommonwealthAnd arguably, no Prime Minister has been better equipped to do something about the state of our cities than Malcolm Turnbull. He opts for trains over government limos, or on some occasions, to walk the three or so kilometres into the city of Sydney. I understand that he even caught a tram on the way to the cities launch in Melbourne. But tokenistic as some of this may seem, I am sure Malcom hasn’t had any issue with housing affordability for many decades. But one of his greatest attributes in this cities space, is also being married to Lucy Turnbull AO, someone with intimate experience in local cities planning and operations, and also someone who is now tasked with one of the biggest planning projects in our Country’s history for the Greater Sydney Commission.

So it's a welcome change for the residents of Australia's big and rapidly growing cities to have a Federal government wanting to take a coherent view of their housing, employment, transport, communications and other needs and move away from cheque book politics and policies, linked to infrastructure projects in the vain hope of luring voters.

The release of a cities agenda and strategy is significant for a number of reasons, firstly, as noted above, we have a Prime Minister interested in our cities again, which is important because of both the opportunities and challenges cities pose for our future and whilst our cities are ‘mini’ in comparison to the worlds mega cities such as Shanghai and Tokyo, we have nowhere near the same infrastructure or structure that would even let us get close to being cities of those sizes.

In the Prime Minister’s own words, “To succeed in the 21st Century economy our cities need to be productive and accessible, but they also need to be liveable. Great cities attract talent and investment - they encourage innovation and create jobs and growth.”

The most interesting aspect of this announcement and content - or lack of it from the report - was the following comment made by the Prime Minister at the launch on Friday. “While we genuinely need to invest in more infrastructure to support our cities, Infrastructure Australia recently reported…that throwing more money at the problem won’t solve it. Change can only be delivered by addressing the policy and regulatory settings through which cities and infrastructure are governed, planned, funded, constructed and operated” he said.


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Big Picture
At the heart of the document is a blueprint to transform Australian cities into "30 Minute Cities," where "no matter where you live, you can easily access the places you need to visit on a daily basis." A worthy concept, but one that personally, I think is a gimmick to attach the average person too. The answers to what a ’30 Minute City’ looks like could be many, but putting a time measure, rather than quality or amenity measure to it, probably suggests that it has a transport, cars and infrastructure emphasis to it.

What we need is a strategy that links more coherently than in the past, which links jobs, housing choice and housing affordability with infrastructure and liveability. After all, we can’t forget about our liveability. It is probably the one thing that people from mega cities around the world would willingly swap with us, if they could have it. Maybe we should be aiming for the ‘happy city’ rather than the ‘30 Minute’ city.

First Impressions
After my first reading of the strategy, it appears to have a very heavy emphasis on infrastructure, funding and decision making relating to infrastructure. Building infrastructure alone is unlikely to improve how our cities function. However, I guess the fiscal lever is the only real lever that our federal governments have to pull, so it is probably not unexpected that this document would have a very heavy infrastructure and expenditure tone to it. But it isn’t singularly infrastructure and funding focused policy, the strategy, has ‘Smart Technology’ as one of its three key pillars; alongside ‘smart investment’ and ‘smart policy’.

For those who have been following me and my long running ‘data obsession’, or seen me speak, especially most recently in China on an Australian Government Trade missions with the Prime Minister talking about Smart Cities, you can probably guess, I am a little bit pumped about the possibility that our federal government and then Australia as a whole might finally be getting on-board the smart cities band wagon.

Key to me and something that hints that the Prime Minister will be on the right strategy is the recognition of key concepts of data collection and analysis, open data and digital disruption. “We will embrace new technology with the potential to revolutionise how cities are planned, function, and how our economy grows. Disruptive new technology in transport, communications and energy efficiency are becoming a reality—we will position our cities to take full advantage. We will leverage real time open data driven solutions and support investment in sectors commercialising new innovations to grow Australian’s economy.”

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Smart Cities
The potential for Australia to embrace open data and an open government to a data nerd like me is palpably exciting. But to do this, one of the first tasks required will be the development of people and civic data analytics; and policy capacity in the federal public service to best identify key city metrics and the data required to assess performance. The strategy notes that the achievement of productive, accessible and liveable cities fundamentally lies in unambiguous targets, accountabilities and timeframes for city-level reforms, and our ability to understand if we are heading in the right direction.

The strategy openly recognises the inherent lack of existing data to use as the baseline for future measurement of cities success or failures, but there is nothing we can really do about that. However, if this strategy leads to a determined and conscious effort on the part of all levels of government to collect, store and analyse cities and people data, then we will be well onto our way to actually deliver truly ‘smart cities’.

Governments at all levels hold a vast amount of valuable and unique data and getting them to free this up and make it accessible will be key. There is work to be done across state and local governments to encourage greater access and use of anonymised, machine readable data that will help make government more citizen-focused and stimulate innovation in service delivery.

This to me is the key between a ‘cities strategy’ and ‘smart cities’ strategy, because I believe that data is the unseen infrastructure of the emerging digital economy. Data is & will be as important as any road.

The strategy talks about sharing anonymised data from our cities, making urban problems and solutions more contestable—an essential platform for innovation. This in itself will be an interesting step, given our country’s historic and cultural extraordinary privacy laws and expectations. Whilst personally, I fully believe we need throw caution to the wind, get over ownership and value of data and just let it loose to as many people as possible. From personal experience, I can tell you, getting local governments to the point of them being willing to do this, won’t be without its resistance.

Final Thoughts
In my view, cities, local and state governments will find that if they open their policies, plans, and datasets to include this “new way of doing business,” the end result will ultimately be better communities that effectively meet the needs of the people living in them. Open data will become the raw material for economic growth. It will support the creation of new products, businesses and jobs.

So a big week, and in reality we need a lot more detail for those of us on the ground to actually grab the cities baton being talked about by the Federal Government and run with it. It is worth also throwing in, that we can’t forget that cities are for people and we cannot forget to look and prioritise how we will live in the cities, not just how cities will work around us. We need to use technology & smart city thinking to create the cities we want as residents, rather than letting the cities agenda be driven by technology.


Submitted by:

Chris Isles / Director for Planning / Place Design Group

As International Executive Director for Planning at Place Design Group, Chris Isles is a trusted advisor to the Australian government at all levels and private developers alike, and leads Urban Planning internationally across 10 offices throughout Australia, China and South East Asia. His focus is guided by the global imperative for the planning profession to respond, and keep ahead of the global urbanisation trend to ensure that the future of cities for people is not lost during rapid urbanisation.


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