Major city infrastructure struggles to cope with growth

Rebuilding the Nation – had it all, infrastructure, planning, transport, housing, urban renewal and funding and the dilemmas have not gone away

Major city infrastructure struggles to cope with growth

By Deborah Singerman

More than half the world’s population lives in them.  Of Australia’s anticipated 60 per cent surge to 36 million in 40 years, most will settle in them. Cities are the lifeblood and federally a much-needed transfusion of coordinated thought and funding is on the horizon.

With Treasury forecasts backed by the 2010 third Intergenerational Report Australia to 2050: Future Challenges highlighting population growth, one of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s responses was to propose national criteria for future strategic and transparent planning of major cities and better management of its delivery.

“This will be occurring for the first time in our country’s history,” he said in a speech last October to the Business Council of Australia. “And the Commonwealth will now consider linking all future infrastructure funding to compliance with these criteria.”

Further, a National Urban Policy is being formulated that aims to provide a national planning, sustainable development and investment framework for government and the private sector to meet the urban challenges that they and the community know only well.

Not since the inner-city regeneration envisaged by the 1990s Better Cities Program, under the stewardship of then Labor deputy prime minister Brian Howe, has a federal government shown such interest and commitment to urban policy. This “topic … dared not speak its name for most of the decade”, says Minister for Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government Anthony Albanese.

The official structure is in place. There is a Major Cities Unit within the office of Infrastructure Australia formulating the policy. Its stated aims are to “provide a more coordinated and integrated approach to the planning and infrastructure needs of major cities; and “to develop and implement specific, measurable outcomes to improve (their) environmental sustainability, liveability and productivity.”

Dorte Ekelund, former deputy director general of Western Australia (WA)’s Department of Planning and Infrastructure, heads the Unit. It has already worked on the Transforming Our Cities section of Infrastructure Australia’s May 2009 National Infrastructure Priorities, which emphasised the importance of public transport for driving urban renewal and productivity and also fed into the rail and transit projects of national significance.

Speaking at the Infrastructure Partnerships Australia (IPA) conference in August 2009 to an audience of private sector industry, financial and legal leaders and federal and state government department heads, Albanese declared, “Commonwealth’s recent exile from the urban policy area has ended.” Turning the tables, he also stressed the need to “overcome a reluctance to accept Commonwealth involvement” and to “overcome parochialism” in developing “a policy framework that will assist the Commonwealth, the states and territories and local governments create productive, liveable and sustainable cities.”

Making these words stick, of course, is the more difficult task ahead. Even the choice of facts to describe Australia’s major cities can be idiosyncratic. The Weekend Australian Financial Review 2010 Australia Day Special, Who Do We Think We Are?, compiled by Deirdre Macken, had Perth as “the fastest growing capital,” Adelaide “the least religious,” Brisbane “the most Anglo,” Canberra “the highest paid,” Melbourne “home to the small bar,” Hobart “the oldest,” Perth “home to the most full-time workers,” and Sydney “where 32% of the housing stock is apartments.”

Yet for all their different emphases and levels of integration with new and existing infrastructure, metropolitan plans and strategies (and there have been a plethora) share similar preoccupations.   Alleviate traffic congestion; balance land releases and housing affordability; create sustainable, liveable and economically viable cities with amenity, biodiversity, human diversity and density of housing tussling between various degrees of compactness and leaving things as they are.

There are also mini-city and peripheral areas mixes to consider. Melbourne @ 5 million, an update of the Melbourne 2030 blueprint, has central activities districts aside from the central business district (CBD), with employment corridors to offer alternatives to CBD developments such as Southbank and the Docklands. Planning Western Australia’s Directions 2031 Spatial Framework for Perth and Peel also proposes activity centres and sub-regional centres. New South Wales (NSW)’s Metropolitan Strategy laid out for Sydney global areas, regional cities, major centres, specialised centres and employment lands, and neighbourhoods, villages and town centres to spread the population load and help create jobs. Sustainable Sydney 2030 went further with its descriptions of cultural, creative, globally competitive, sustainable, and a city for a diverse population and also for pedestrians and cyclists. There is also a draft 30-year Plan for Greater Adelaide with the state’s biggest ever infrastructure spending program, and the revised South East Queensland Regional Plan with a thrust towards new dwellings.

The main problem to date is that these plans primarily stay as that. As Julie Bindon, NSW president of the Planning Institute of Australia, says of Sydney in particular, “We’ve had plans and plans and plans that just sit there and do nothing and keep being amended.” The lack of funding to give more certainty to these plans is often a major problem – and is one reason state and local government and industry representatives have generally welcomed the new level of federal involvement and stipulated criteria to meet to be eligible for federal infrastructure spending.

The Council of Australian Governments (COAG) agreed to the national criteria reforms at a meeting in Brisbane on 7 December 2009.  Prime Minister Rudd also called for the states to provide 30-year plans for capital cities to qualify for the infrastructure funding. Initial reports on the plans are to be completed by 2011 and from 1 January 2012 the Commonwealth will link future infrastructure funding decisions for the states and territories to meeting these criteria.

Urban Development Institute of Australia’s NSW Chief Executive Stephen Albin says, “We strongly welcome the emphasis on greater accountability for delivering on strategic planning objectives. We’ve got no shortage of plans; where we’ve struggled is on implementation.”

The criteria that the Prime Minister believes will give the Commonwealth enough confidence in the “integrity of a capital city’s strategic planning system (to) invest in it” are to:

  • be integrated and across land-use, transport planning, economic and infrastructure development, environmental assessment and urban development, and various government agencies;
  • provide a consistent hierarchy of publicly available plans from short-term detailed to long-term integrated;
  • provide for nationally significant new and upgraded economic infrastructure including transport corridors, international gateways and intermodal connections;
  • address nationally significant policy issues such as population growth and demographic change, productivity and global competitiveness, climate change, connectivity to jobs and markets, social inclusion, health and wellbeing, housing affordability and the environment;
  • consider and strengthen networks between capital cities and major regional centres, and other domestic and international connections;
  • provide for planned, sequenced and evidence-based land release and an appropriate balance of infill and greenfields development;
  • identify investment and policy priorities and provide an effective framework for private sector investment and innovation;
  • encourage world-class urban design and architecture; and
  • provide implementation arrangements and supporting mechanisms including clear accountabilities, coordination between all three levels of government and consultation with external stakeholders, experts and the wider community.

Planning ministers are meeting through the COAG Cities Infrastructure and Planning Taskforce, and department staff from some of the states Rebuilding the Nation contacted have met with Major Cities Unit staff and helped with their investigations.

The local government response was particularly positive. The Council of Capital City Lord Mayors has formed a Major City Working Group and wants to start what it calls the right conversations with the Federal Government. Deputy Chair Graeme Sawyer, lord mayor of Darwin, says, “Infrastructure funding will not flow unless we have communication between levels of government.”

Adelaide Lord Mayor Michael Harbison welcomed the Government’s approach. “This is a milestone for cities such as Adelaide which have struggled to get the necessary support for city growth and development,” he says.

Perth Lord Mayor Lisa Scaffidi says, “A cohesive capital city planning framework at federal level will be able to direct the influence of the capital cities on future strategic planning for the rest of urban and regional Australia.”

Neil Savery, chief planning executive for the ACT Planning and Land Authority adds that the framework and criteria create “a more level playing field for evidence-based planning and infrastructure priorities.”

State governments have had more reservations about the breakdown of control. A spokesperson from Premier John Brumby’s government was the most forceful. “It is important to note that the urban planning and liveability of cities is a clear responsibility of the states. No Victorian would like to see bureaucrats in Canberra having final responsibility for planning the future of Melbourne and our regional centres –  this would fundamentally undermine the accountability of the State Government to Victorians.”

But as Minister Albanese said at the IPA conference, “The issue is not autonomy – it should be taken as a given.

“Let me assure you, no Commonwealth minister wants responsibility for deciding where to lay sewerage pipes or for local development applications.  The real issue is ensuring sustainable development and proper planning and strategic investment in social and physical infrastructure.”

Although both he and the Major Cities Unit are keeping details about the forthcoming National Urban Policy close to their chests, Albanese outlined the urban challenges for deciding on policy and allocating resources at the IPA Infrastructure and Investment Conference in August 2009.

  • “Maintaining our egalitarian way of life” – whether growing up on the outer fringes of Sydney or in an inner suburb.
  • “Beating the problem of traffic congestion” – “the Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics estimates that the social cost of aggregate congestion in 2005 was $9.4 billion … and it “forecasts that without action there will be an 87 per cent increase in (metropolitan average) per capita congestion costs by 2020.” This is such a high-profile and in some states intractable problem, with routes, links to existing lines, types – for example, heavy or light rail, or metro (see box) – passenger capacity and project viability, continually under discussion. Latest ideas include bike paths and cycling networks with funding at all levels of government.
  • “City affordability” – the Demographia International Housing Affordability study placed Sydney as the second most expensive city, with Melbourne and Adelaide third and fourth least affordable – and to housing itself add car, energy and water costs. Albanese suggests the development potential of “middle suburbs” be maximised and not just “inner cities.”
  • “Housing design” –  the unsustainable “mismatch between demographic trends and housing stock” has led to 215 square metre greenfield single detached homes on the one hand and on the other, moves towards 50 square metre and smaller, eat-out, sleep-only apartments, for instance at Sydney’s inner-city CUB (Carlton United Brewery) site.
  • “Public health” – “poor air quality, heat stress, lack of quality green space and physical inactivity result(ing) in obesity, respiratory, mental and other public health problems.”

Albanese is convinced that “the best solutions will need to come from the whole community” while the Federal Government addresses the biggest problem, namely “the lack of a consistent national policy focus.”

Professor Rob Adams, director City Design at City of Melbourne, argues that different ways of thinking are needed. Suggestions for dealing with the contentious issue of housing density, for instance, by “putting your population in and around railway stations and road-based public transport research has shown that you don’t have to build anything higher than (say) five to six storeys (and) you can double the population”. Or you can do something like the Victorian Government making train and tram into the inner-city free before 7 o’clock. “They moved 2,600 people out of the peak hour. That meant they didn’t have to buy five trains so although they forewent 15 million dollars in revenue on fees for the trip into town they saved themselves 85 million dollars by not having to buy five trains.” More flexible work hours are also taking some of the pressure off infrastructure, Adams says.

If all goes well, the new national urban policy might result in a triple bottom line inevitability where, as Adams says, “everything you need to get a sustainable city you also need to make it liveable and as you make it liveable then the economic imperative comes along with that.” Whatever happens next, the re-shaping of our cities is entering a new phase of interrelating policy concerns and governmental tiers that will be at their most productive when striving for the same goals.

Box story in Major City Infrastructure:

Eastern state capitals wish for new or expanded metro and light rail systems to help them increase the capacity of their already stretched public transport systems.

Of the 50 major cities around the world, only five do not yet have a metro system. “Both Sydney and Melbourne are advanced in the planning of their metro networks,” says Infrastructure Partnerships Australia (IPA) Executive Director, Brendan Lyon, though as Rebuilding the Nation went to press the future of Sydney’s controversial CBD metro was yet-again far from certain.

“Brisbane is looking at how metros could play a role in their future transport networks. Light rail expansions are also being actively investigated in Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide, while the Gold Coast Light Rail is well under way.”

Perth Lord Mayor Lisa Scaffidi has also hinted at a possible light rail network linking the city with universities and major suburban centres.

Why choose one mode of transport over the other? “It is a case of horses for courses,” Lyon says. They do different jobs and suit different circumstances. “Light rail is typically a medium-capacity above-ground system, which can be integrated with motor vehicle traffic as in Melbourne or run on its own right-of-way as happens with the Sydney Light Rail network.

“In contrast, metros, themselves a type of heavy rail, are well integrated with other transport services but operate as an independent system, and therefore are extremely reliable – they are not disrupted by delays on other networks. Metros are often underground, and operate at such high frequencies (typically every three minutes) that timetables are not needed.

“Light rail track can theoretically provide for up to 20,000 people per hour if it is operating at peak capacity, but metros regularly provide for more than 30,000 passengers per hour. Because they often require tunnelling, metro networks are more expensive than light rail and take longer to fund, design and deliver but they provide better, faster and more reliable services over the long term and a much higher capacity.

“Metros are ideally suited to major transport corridors where future growth is expected.”