I’ll start this with a confession. In the late 1990s, as one of a number of leaders of the industry lobby The Property Council, I was an active proponent of building a national agenda for revisiting an urban renewal agenda. At the time, our cities were looking tired. Infrastructure deficits were widening. If cities were to be the engines of the new economy, those engines needed some major surgery to keep Australia competitive.
What followed was a minor flood of industry-driven policy initiatives focussed on rebuilding the cubic capacity of our city engine rooms. And mainly, that meant a focus on the inner cities of our major centres. Industry policy fell into step with public policy and the re-birth of a nation-wide “urban renewal agenda” – led first by former Labor Minister Brian Howe (of ‘Better Cities’ fame in the early 1990s) and later supported by Prime Minister Keating. The case for ‘Building Better Cities’ found renewed support in almost every major urban centre, to a greater or lesser degree.
In some centres, particularly Brisbane and Perth, the urban renewal agenda became a driver of planning policy, and other cities later followed. Brisbane’s then Mayor Jim Soorley was a particularly efficient advocate, and his appointment of former Lend Lease executive Trevor Reddacliff to the role of leading an Urban Renewal Task Force, funded under the Building Better Cities program, saw a massive inner city transformation begin to take place. Without those early initiatives in Brisbane and elsewhere and without subsequent bi-partisan public policy support from Liberals and Labor alike - Australia’s inner city areas would be nothing like they are today.
It all made economic sense. It was good public policy (with some notable failings – particularly the idea that urban renewal would lead to more affordable housing for working people, when it actually led to the opposite) and it was good politics too.
Fast forward to today. In almost every capital, there are a multitude of projects and even more planned, which are building further on the urban renewal agenda. Many are transformational, exciting and even overdue. But the price tag for these projects is becoming increasingly daunting, and the relatively few beneficiaries are becoming – to me at least - increasingly obvious. In short, there seem now to be no shortage of publicly funded initiatives focused on delivering a better quality of urban existence within a five kilometre ring of the CBD, and too few focused on the hard and soft infrastructure deficits that our suburban areas are still living with.
Take the Sydney light rail extension for example. The cost has now blown out by an extra $600 million to $2.2 billion. Oops. That’s billion with a ‘b’. And the length? Just 12.2 kilometres. This project is almost entirely about improving circulation in and around the Sydney CBD, where the highest paying jobs are. That’s something like $180 million per kilometre for NSW taxpayers. Lovely stuff if you’re a resident within shooting distance of the light rail (in which case your home is probably worth millions) or a CBD worker likely to make use of it (in which case the evidence says you’re probably earning at least 50% more than your suburban counterparts). Even though you could quite probably afford a higher priced ticket to ride than the average punter, you won’t be asked to do so because public policy somehow now presumes that all public transport – even where it benefits a privileged few – should be massively subsidised by the taxpayer.
So just this one transit initiative will cost NSW taxpayers $2.2 billion to build (not including the operational losses it will also need taxpayers to cover) but will only benefit a small number of relatively privileged passengers who won’t even be asked to pay an economically justifiable fare. "People are agog that they have managed to get away with it," one source said in a recent news article. I’ll bet they are.
I could point to a number of other examples of bike ways, pedestrian bridges, parks and transport initiatives which will largely benefit residents and businesses within a 5 klm ring of our major CBDs. Some don’t stand close scrutiny in terms of ‘cost-benefit’ analysis. It’s as if it’s become accepted wisdom that spending tax payer dollars on the inner city is a good thing. Minimal justification required. Minimal public objection likely.
My problem isn’t with investing in our cities, or even with inner cities. It’s been a transformational period and what we have achieved in terms of urban renewal has been world best practice. My question is now whether we haven’t forgotten the importance of supporting and nurturing our suburban economies and our suburban communities: have we become preoccupied with cutting yet more ribbons on projects of inner city fiscal largesse?
There are three reasons we could think about returning some focus to the suburbs:
1. It’s where nearly all of us live. You can take all the column centimetres written about ‘inner city café lifestyle’ and the ‘inner city apartment boom’ and put them all in a pile and it would mean nothing compared with the raw statistics of where we actually live. Forget the hype and agenda-based marketing spiel; we remain a suburban nation and the overwhelming majority of us live not just in a handful of major cities, but also in the suburbs of those cities.
2. It’s where most of us actually work. I have written before about the suburban nature of our economy, and where the jobs actually are. Across our major metro areas, only between 10% to 15% of jobs are in the inner cities. 85% to 90% are in suburban locations. Fact.
3. It’s where we mainly play. Inner cities are logical locations for major cultural facilities because they’re central, but for most Australians, weekend recreation involves backyard BBQs, or visits to a local suburban park, or (increasingly it seems) mixing recreation and retail at a suburban shopping centre. There are large proportions of our suburban community who have no interest in travelling into our inner city areas and dealing with congestion and exorbitant parking prices in exchange for the privilege. On special occasions (fireworks seem a big drawcard) they will come in droves but to suggest that continued investment in inner city recreational facilities benefits people who live 10 or 20 or 30 kilometres away, is stretching things.
So have I re-canted earlier views on the importance of cities to our economy? No. But I also equally believe that there are many worthy projects and initiatives, capable of better economic and social justification in suburban locations – projects and locations which maybe just aren’t getting the policy or financial attention they deserve.
Urban renewal has been a fine and worthwhile policy pursuit and our city centres are better for it. But there are only so many taxpayer dollars available and we need to ask if we’re now at risk of imbalance. Has the time for suburban renewal come?
More on this subject throughout the year.