The Australian cities agenda: a primer

The following started as a piece I was asked to contribute to the online UK magazine, New Start published by the Centre for Local Economic Studies, and run by the charismatic Neil McInroy. The brief was to map out the broad ‘architecture’ of Australia’s urban policy over recent years. The article ran over the word count and was (appropriately) abridged here. What follows below is the slightly fuller version.

In Australia there is renewed national interest in cities, in better planning and infrastructure, after years of neglect.

Could there be a better line to introduce some critical perspectives on Australian urbanism than with a quote from Mike Rann – Premier of South Australia from 2002-2011 and newly appointed Australian High Commissioner to London?

And he’s right – a series of key moves over the last 5 years reaffirmed the importance of cities as a priority in Australian policy making.

Arguably the reframing of interest started in 2007 with the release by the Australian Treasury of an Intergenerational report highlighting the trends in demography and immigration – suggesting the size and age profile of Australia’s population was changing. Rapidly. And with impact. Treasury – the same dour class of boffins known the world over – identified that an ageing population had the potential to slow economic growth. Over 55’s were forecast to grow by around 50%.

Treasury intergen 2007

Not long after, an update of the report kick-started a national conversation on the rate of growth anticipated, posing questions for our capacity to house, feed and employ a fast growing, diverse population. Australia’s Bureau of Statistics forecast population to grow from 23 million to around 36 million by 2050. Reports, reviews and audits followed. One in particular revealed that a business as usual approach couldn’t accommodate that number whether we liked it or not. Not when the forecast was for a rising number of dwellings due to a falling household size. It’s interesting, subsequently, that the actual population increase hasn’t quite matched the forecasts. But still, the whole housing model needs change. The Grattan Institute’s Getting the Housing we Want shut the gate on that one. More smaller, centrally located housing close to shops, public transport and services. Less free standing 3 bedroom homes remote from support and services. But with a market geared to low density housing models, and a largely analogue planning system with no structural incentives for design or construction innovation we couldn’t build fast enough, green enough or cheap enough.

Housing for the 21st C?

There’s no firm evidence for it but it’s tempting to draw a line from this as the ‘identification of the problem’ to a major milestone in 2009 that represents Australia’s first step back after the ‘years of neglect’.

So Australia’s a Federation, right? This means we share a state-based model of government which sits between local councils and the national government. Co-ordinating the priorities of national and state governments occurs at the Council of Australian Governments (COAG); a regular meeting of all state Premiers, Territory Chief Ministers and the Prime Minister (and – often unreported – the President of the Australian Local Govt Assoc). In December 2009, COAG agreed a National Criteria for Future Strategic Planning of Capital Cities. The criteria was impressive and diverse, including  that Capital city strategic planning systems should be integrated across government agencies; be publicly accessible and be clear in their hierarchy, address nationally-significant policy issues including: population growth and demographic change, productivity and global competitiveness, but also social inclusion, health, liveability, and community wellbeing, housing affordability, they should strengthen the networks between capital cities and major regional centres, provide for planned, sequenced and evidence-based land release including a balance of infill and greenfields development;  provide an effective framework for private sector investment, innovation and implementation. And for the first time, to encourage world-class urban design and architecture.

With this, cities were back on the agenda. Criteria were agreed and states required to develop 30 year strategic plans for their capital cities to determine how infrastructure spending would be allocated. The Australian Government moved to publish a National Urban Policy and supported this with an Urban Design Protocol for Australian Cities (itself a collaboration with an editorial board of around 35 practitioners inside and outside of government).

The protocol recommends investing up front in quality, integrated processes which include:

  • Consult relevant stakeholders and communities at appropriate stages
  • Develop a vision for, and specify, the outcomes that the project seeks to achieve
  • Write a detailed and balanced brief, setting out performance criteria
  • Undertake thorough analysis of site and context
  • Develop a variety of realistic and varied options (potentially through an enquiry by design process) that meet the brief
  • Evaluate options against performance criteria and Urban Design Protocol principles and attributes
  • Develop the preferred option through an iterative design process, and document decision making
  • Document the preferred option
  • Select the procurement method, ensuring that procurement processes do not reduce design quality and monitor throughout the implementation of the project to ensure outcomes are achieved
  • Evaluate outcomes with reference to the Urban Design Protocol principles, and document areas for improvement or future rectification

Importantly, to underpin all of these, the Protocol calls for ways to foster a culture which critically assesses urban design, celebrates its best examples to build design literacy and reward design excellence.

South Australia’s response to COAG’s criteria was fast out of the blocks, and the most genuinely ambitious of any state. A 30 Year Plan for Greater Adelaide identified a polycentric urban form framed around 14 transit oriented developments. Renewable energy, environmental, transport, water and social targets were embedded in the plan. The Plan is framed around a recurring theme – of a ‘new urban form’ shifting from fringe development, to focus on infill in established and well serviced communities. Over the next 30 years 70% of all development is to be infill, not greenfield. Why? Well, as Mike Rann put it;

We want the vast majority of new dwellings to be within walking distance of public transport. To achieve this we will collocate medium and high density residential housing, major retail and service outlets and major employers around railway and tram stations and bus interchanges. This approach will revitalise 14 urban areas, maintain the integrity of existing communities and provide the critical mass of population needed to make the upgrading of infrastructure cost effective over the life of the Plan.

The government of the time also knew this was not a planning exercise alone but that a symbiotic link existed between design as a means of imagining a more sustainable urban future, and governance as the mechanism to implement. Here, design is understood as a tool for problem solving and generating solutions for the delivery of public services; the design of process and policies to support great ‘product’; whether it’s regional infrastructure, great public space or the housing we really need.

How do you give this new interest in the design of the built environment prominence? By creating a small agency that serves to underline a commitment with licence. Enter the Integrated Design Commission. The Commission attracted interest from interstate and overseas for its unique remit to bring design-based methods to problem solving across portfolios.

Among a number of initiatives, the Commissions’ flagship project has been the Integrated Design Strategy for Inner Adelaide – Australia’s only capital city strategic planning process conceived as a partnership between the Australian Government, key state ministries and local councils. Its chief aim is to develop a new, design-led model for city shaping in Australia. It’s shown how to connect COAG’s nine criteria, to state government objectives and local council targets. Not separate and competing, but interdependent and mutually reinforcing. The project got its working title from the central city postcode, 5000. Hence

5000+ is about prototyping a new way to dynamically engage people in ideas for their communities. We called it ‘intelligent engagement by design’ where the research and ideation of the design process is merged with what is so often separated out as a specific window of ‘consultation’ on policy development. Some see parallels with the Enquiry by Design process and there are – but boosted by a capacity to impact the regulatory and cultural processes that traditionally sit outside a design-based approach. Central to this is design leadership from built environment professionals, researchers and thinkers, creatives and others operating from a published and accessible evidence base. It operates on a principle that our collective vision for a place should be the basis for a new set of rules based on new information, in preference to todays cities where yesterdays rules tend to limit the scope and potential for change.

Critically, any success in the 5000+ project can be attributed to the collaborative partnerships it promoted. Along the way, we engaged with around 1000 experts from sociology, education, climate and environment, design, planning, development, government and more. An almost open-source approach means video and web has led the sharing of research and events resulting in around 51,000 video views. And in just 12 months we saw over 262,000 online interactions.  This along with night time talks to town halls and resident groups, student competitions and work on government work groups.

As Mike Rann puts it, 5000+ is asking people to see their city not as it is but how it could be. Significantly the overwhelming response was that people want more integrated decision making, explained better at the start. Something universally applicable, I suspect.

Mike Rann signs an MoU between the IDC and UK's Design Council
Mike Rann signs an MoU between the IDC and UK’s Design Council

Mike Rann’s interest in design might have come late in his tenure, but was paired with an impressive determination to make change part of his third term agenda. He’s  an inspired choice to represent Australia in London. Anyone interested in knowing more about his own interest in cities should check out his lecture on ‘Revitalising Cities’ given in Auckland just days before his appointment. You can find it at

Australia’s model is far from perfect and there are some signs of weakening resolve just as capital city plans are beginning to form. Passing COAG’s nine criteria to the Standing Council on Transport and Infrastructure (SCOTI) preceded a rush of spending on roads (SCOTI is a federation of Transport Commissions and Dept of Main Roads from around Australia. The skillset on the officials committee gives you a good idea). Not a great leap forward. Any process of change needs multiple drivers to combine in order to create the momentum for sustained energy and impact. Let’s hope we stay the course.

One fear has been the tendency for political change to result in a winding back of interest in urban centres as an economic and social priority. But Opposition spokesman on Climate Action, Heritage and Environment (and son of a Victorian Planning Minister), Greg Hunt MP has confirmed a Liberal/National government would support the COAG agenda on cities, and goes further to call for Integrated Planning Commissions in each state to supervise the development of long term infrastructure plans for major cities. There’s more detail here. The Greens support for a more sustainable urban form is long standing with some really positive noises emerging for policy platforms for the 2013 Federal election.

Non partisan interest in cities remains; through groups like the Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council (ASBEC), the Green Building Council of Australia (GBCA), and peak bodies like those represented in the BEMP partnership. The COAG criteria is the best foundation for a sustained and evolving interest in cities and here’s hoping it doesn’t lose support or momentum in the year ahead.


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