The Stats Guy: Rebuilding our cities requires a long-term vision

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The pandemic has permanently altered our cities while long-term trends such as population growth and climate change have continued to shape the urban environment.

Over the past few decades, Australian cities have grown at a breakneck pace. In the 15 years before the pandemic, Melbourne alone grew by Adelaide’s population (1.4 million). Unfortunately, the city has failed to add the infrastructure of an Adelaide in the meantime. Unfortunately, this isn’t just a Melburnian problem…

Over the past two years, population growth has shifted from capital cities to regional Australia for the first time in history. By sheer demographic luck, the great millennial generation entered the family formation phase of the life cycle just now. Millennials could not afford family-sized homes in the city center and instead moved to the urban periphery and regional Australia. The regions were surprised by the sudden increase in population; prices have risen and, again, infrastructure growth has not kept pace.

The pandemic halted overseas migration and urban growth came to a halt for some time. During the pandemic, Australia lost its population overseas for the first time since World War I. Have we used this rare period of low population growth wisely (the country has nevertheless grown a little because there have been more births than deaths)?

To protect the population from the virus, strong social distancing measures have been announced. The sight of empty streets and offices leads some commentators to predict the death of the city.

I strongly disagree with this assessment. In our knowledge economy, the city is far from dead even though many of us can work from home, but we need to rethink our cities. We need a big change in the way we plan and think about our cities – a Haussmannian scale change you might say.

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In the 19th century, overcrowded and densely populated Paris suffered a terrible cholera pandemic. The existing urban form was not suited to the new realities facing the city. Comes Georges-Eugene Baron Haussmann.

The famous technocrat was chosen by Emperor Napoleon III to carry out a vast program of urban renewal in the French capital. The “Haussmannian renovation of Paris” is responsible for the modern appearance of the city with its boulevards, parks and other public works.

Our Australian cities need a reimagining on a similar scale. Haussmann was a difficult figure, and I’m not saying we should model our cities on a 150-year-old vision of Paris.

We need to prepare our cities for larger populations, increasingly warm weather conditions, and we need to do it in a socially responsible way. Major changes are needed to ensure that our cities remain livable, safe and equitable places.

Tackling the three most pressing urban issues of our time requires a long-term perspective.

Greener, cooler cities start one building at a time. Photo: Getty

Let’s start with climate change. All efforts to counter global warming are welcome in my book, but I think it’s even more important to prepare our cities for the inevitable warmer weather conditions we are sure to encounter.

Too many of our new residential developments are too hot. We build concrete-covered heat islands with too little green space and too little tree cover (even taking into account that these trees are very young). The boxes we put our new residents into are nowhere near energy efficient enough, and there is no room left for gardens and courtyards to cool the area in the summer.

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Building standards need to catch up with the realities of a warmer climate. Yes, I’m asking for more paperwork here. Think of me as a party animal for a greener, cooler city. This includes a focus on active transportation for local communities and leads to the second issue we need to address: population growth.

Just like climate change, you can hope that nothing will happen, but you can be fairly sure that it will. So, let’s prepare for massive population growth in our major cities and regional hubs in the coming decades.

Investments in infrastructure must be depoliticized. We cannot afford to waste time and money signing and then canceling infrastructure programs every time we elect new leaders. Give more power to an organization like Infrastructure Australia. The government sets the budget and an independent committee decides what is built by whom.

Part of the infrastructure revolution is the focus on active transportation (walking and cycling). As our capitals transition to the 20-minute city model (all essential functions are available within a 20-minute radius of your home), active transportation will become a major issue. Get ready for endless stories of motorists vs. cyclists in your local news.

Focusing heavily on bicycles when redesigning our cities and planning new developments enables an efficient and healthy city. Bikes don’t pollute, they fight our ever-increasing waistlines, and they’re an incredibly efficient way to get around, as shown in the graph below (allegedly Steve Jobs’ favorite data visualization).

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Source: Scientific American 1973; Article on the origin and impact of the bicycle by Wilson.

As population flows into regional Australia, connectivity within each state needs to be improved. Victoria and New South Wales in particular need to invest in a rail network linking their capitals to their satellites.

I think the region best prepared to build effective infrastructure is South East Queensland (Brisbane, Gold Coast, Sunshine Coast, Toowoomba). The 2032 Brisbane Olympics have the power to focus an entire region’s efforts on something a decade from now. I worry that other big cities have a harder time delivering transformative infrastructure projects.

The third problem is the increasing polarization of society between high and low incomes combined with the chronicle the reluctance of the political system to lower real estate prices. As a result, home ownership will forever be out of reach for low-income workers.

To solve the problem of housing affordability for disadvantaged Australians, we need to invest heavily in social housing. The government must act as a housing developer and provide low-cost housing for low-income people. This is another truly transformative idea. Take the stress out of housing for millions of Australians while creating much-needed middle-class jobs.

While I’m at it, I might as well call for a universally free TAFE education to make sure we have enough workers available to build all the things I’ve asked for in this column.

There is a lot of work ahead of us, but I am confident that we can tackle these tasks.

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