Australia’s worsening housing affordability problem is a largely self-inflicted: we first restrict and then tax the supply of new land needed to accommodate people, while at the same time accelerating population growth and then compounding the problem by applauding as most of that growth is focussed on just two or three cities. There are official policies in many States that encourage a concentration of both jobs and housing in finite inner city areas – which can only exacerbate an already chronic problem.
It’s not just housing affordability that is the problem, although this gets much of the attention. The entire point of inner urban renewal in the first place – dating back to the Better Cities program of the Hawke-Keating Government – was to harness spare capacity in inner urban areas through selective infrastructure upgrades. We wanted to avoid the ‘donut effect’ common in US cities at the time, where inner urban areas were hollowed out leaving behind empty schools and other underutilized community assets. The opposite is now the reality: urban infrastructure is not keeping pace with population growth. We are in the throes of committing tens of billions more of taxpayer dollars to invest in inner urban infrastructure from schools to public transport in the Sisyphean belief that this can be fixed, while we continue to pump yet more people into limited spaces.
You wonder why we are so slow to identify problems and grasp solutions in this country. As Donald Horne wryly observed way back in 1964, “'Australia is a lucky country, run by second-rate people who share its luck." Those second rate people are still there driving public policy but our luck may be running out in terms of housing affordability and urban infrastructure unless there is some change of direction.
Part of the answer is, as always, under our noses even if we refuse to acknowledge it. The Springfield master planned community in South East Queensland this year celebrates a 25 year anniversary since its first humble housing lots were released. Occupying over 7,000 acres (2,860 hectares) it has clocked up some $13.6 billion in project investment to date, from housing for some 34,000 residents to education (including a University) to health (including a new hospital) to recreation, shops, aged care, industrial, offices, private and public transport connections. That $13.6 billion investment to date is predicted to reach $85 billion on completion, by which stage there will be over 2 million square metres of mixed use space in its town centre and a population of 138,000 people.
Of critical importance is that the $13.6 billion investment to date is a multiple of many times the amount of Government support the project has received. In an era where ‘nation building’ or ‘city transforming’ infrastructure projects struggle to achieve much better than a 1:1 cost benefit ratio (and where massive leaps of faith in expert predictions are usually required to get them there) the Springfield example needs no such empirical gymnastics. The evidence in this project is that every dollar of government support spent there generates many multiples in private investment, and builds a complete community in the process. This is not just a dormitory development, but one which aims at generating its own employment from trades to highly skilled technical workers and everything in between.
Springfield is also a model of community development that has been quietly (and sometimes publicly) derided by advocates of increasing inner urban concentration. It fits what some would pejoratively denounce as ‘sprawl’. Everything here is new. Though obviously very popular with residents (otherwise they wouldn’t be living here) it doesn’t conform with the approved group-think which attaches great virtue to old world urban models reliant on foreign cities like Copenhagen or Paris for their inspiration – many of them first laid out in the medieval period. Being new and suburban is heresy to much of the new urbanist and smart growth faiths that seek to recycle established communities into ever higher density communities.
Density for some has become the end in itself, not the means to an end. Despite the mounting evidence of worsening affordability, increasing congestion, a growing wealth divide between inner urban residents and the rest, the problems of lagging and prohibitively expensive infrastructure to support higher inner urban densities, mounting lists of projects which struggle to achieve even a marginally credible 1:1 cost benefit ratio – proponents continue to defy the evidence in pursuit of their faith.
Yet Springfield offers more than a solution to our emerging urban crisis: it also offers the business model. The experience gained in developing this community to this stage should, logically, be embraced by policy makers the country over. We should apply our minds to how this was achieved with only equivocal public policy support (at the time) and limited public funds, and imagine what could be achieved with just a little more of both. Interpreting, studying and then applying this model of urban development as part of a solution designed to alleviate excess pressure on just a few urban centres isn’t just an idea, it’s a hugely compelling one.
Much of what has been achieved in the name of “urban renewal” in Australia has been exemplary but increasingly the signs are that excessive concentrations of employment and housing in narrowly demarcated inner city areas are counterproductive. The opportunity to use the Springfield model of urban development to house an increasingly bigger Australia is one that deserves to be explored, and sites identified for many more Springfields to emerge in the future. The peripheries of those cities where worsening affordability and excessive congestion are just two painfully obvious signs of policy and market lag are the places to start looking.