Australia must build a new ‘Canberra’ every year to ease congestion and improve liveability, an urban planner has said.
Soaring property prices are pushing ordinary working Australians further and further away from the city – eating into precious agricultural land.
And rampant population growth is making it near impossible to reshape suburbs fast enough to meet people’s needs.
The answer, according to RobertsDay co-founder Mike Day, is to build eight new cities along the proposed Sydney-to-Melbourne high-speed rail-line.
Urban areas where the pedestrian reigns supreme and essential amenities are all within walking distance.
“The most important thing is this notion of rebalancing the settlement – we’ve got two mega cities of 5 million, projected to go to 9 million or 10 million,” Mr Day said.
“But what we’re not doing – we’re not laying out the urban fabric as effectively as our forebears.”
Australia’s population grew by more than 380,000 people in the 12 months to June 30, 2019.
That’s more than the entire population of the Northern Territory (245,900 people) and just a fraction below the ACT’s (426,700).
The number of people living Down Under now exceeds 25 million and is expected to rise to 49 million by 2066 – adding pressure on our ageing infrastructure.
Mr Day said Australia must build 400,000 new homes a year to keep up.
And he told The New Daily we should build new cities rather than solely building up pre-existing suburbs.
Firstly because inner-city house prices are unaffordable for large swathes of the population.
And secondly because building on the city fringe leaves residents without access to jobs, schools, hospitals, and public transport.
People living in these areas must then regularly drive into the city, driving up emissions and extending commute times.
Cars must make way
Other planners argue that we should focus on connecting these new suburbs to essential infrastructure rather than building whole new cities.
But Mr Day said we should do both.
“The problem is we’ve designed for the car,” Mr Day said.
“And by separating uses, you’ve got to drive from one use to the other, to the shopping centre and the business park, and to the residential areas.”
The new cities should be built along the proposed Sydney-Melbourne high-speed rail line to make it easier to travel into the major cities, Mr Day said, while referring to the City of Melbourne’s 20-minute neighbourhoods.
They should have strong public transport links, be medium-to-high density and walkable, and offer plenty of local jobs.
And apartments should sit beside shops and other amenities so that people can swap the car for the bike or the footpath – reducing emissions and improving our health.
“The government is spending millions of dollars now on widening freeways and building tunnels, whereas most other cities in the world are reclaiming cities for pedestrians,” Mr Day said.
“We talk about the privileged mode being walking and cycling – and from a health and wellbeing point of view, we’ve got 12 per cent of kids now walking to school, 20 or 30 years ago, it used to be 60 per cent. Apparently we’ve got more obese kids than America.”
A joint University of Oxford and University of Hong Kong study supports Mr Day’s point. It found that inner-city residents across 22 British cities had lower levels of obesity and exercised more than people living on the city fringe.
Mr Day’s firm is partnering with the private consortium Consolidated Land and Rail Australia (CLARA) on the first stage of the Sydney-Melbourne high-speed rail line, which CLARA says will cut travel time between Melbourne and Shepparton from three hours to 32 minutes.
The federal government has paid $8 million for a business case but has not yet committed to the scheme.
A Guardian Australia investigation found that CLARA has no office, has just $422,000 in start-up capital, and has suffered a series of major setbacks.
Michael Buxton, a professor at RMIT’s school of Global, Urban and Social Studies, said that while Australia’s population was more centralised than most developed countries, building entirely new cities wasn’t the best cure for its growing pains.
Transforming low-density suburbs on the urban fringe into more vibrant, connected neighbourhoods was the way to go, he said. Along with building up regional hubs such as Newcastle and Ballarat.
He said building new cities would cannibalise our pre-existing regional cities and place greater strain on our natural resources.
“It would be bottom of my list,” Professor Buxton said of the strategy.
“But if it does happen, the government should adopt the ‘Canberra’ model and compulsorily acquire the land for the future cities at rural land prices, and not allow people to profit from it, through increased value in the land, which is the model that we use everywhere else in Australia.”
Then, of course, there’s the small matter of jobs.
Most high-paying positions are service roles based in our CBDs.
Mr Day conceded that governments would have to offer employers significant incentives to set up shop away from the rich talent pools of Sydney and Melbourne.
But Professor Buxton told The New Daily these subsidies could be better spent elsewhere.
“And should we be putting large populations away from the coast, and away from the settled areas, at a time of climate change?” Professor Buxton said, referring to our already stretched fire service.
“These bushfires have shown us that our fire management services find it very difficult, if not impossible, to defend medium-sized townships.
“It’s a big worry.”