The federal election has been and gone and the Morrison Government is returned.
There will be a lot of head scratching, confusion, anger, celebration and/or relief around Australia at the result.
Putting that to one side, I’m interested in ‘what next?’ in the great cities debate.
Cities are complex beasts and undergoing constant and significant change, especially in our growing and congested capitals across Australia.
In a response prior to the election to the Australian Institute of Landscape Architects (AILA), Minister for Cities, Alan Tudge, confirmed a returned Morrison Government would continue with City Deals across Australia’s cities and regional centres, as well as significant infrastructure investments including road and some rail projects.
The Labor Party, the alternative government, submitted a comprehensive and detailed Cities Policy, which was deep and wide in impact, but alas, this will not be the national policy.
Herein lies the opportunity.
A back to basics approach and a reset of policy expectations is required. Alignment of funding and strategies is key, with an agent of realignment the potential approach, viz:
Many State Government health departments have strong policies to create healthier outcomes for the community, as well as targets and KPI’s on various measures of health in the population.
Many State Governments have strategic and project based infrastructure plans, often with Australian Government funding, which have economic and transport KPIs and outcomes. Some even have positive greening and civic outcomes as key drivers.
Many State Government environment and water departments have strategic plans for conservation, water catchments, water treatment and sewerage treatment.
Some State Governments have ambitious climate change mitigation strategies, which are designed to cascade down to local governments and projects tied to reducing climate impacts attract funding.
Most, if not all, capital city councils now have city or urban forest plans, with canopy targets to mitigate the impacts of high urban heat island impacts, to be delivered on an annual basis through asset renewals and new projects.
Suburban councils often have strategies for greening or tree canopy targets, with limited annual funding to deliver additional greening.
The federated model that governs Australia – Federal, State, Local – can work to the advantage of cities with some straightforward alignment of policy, strategy, and delivery.
Like baking a cake, cities’ policy and approaches to framing them need the right ingredients. Not enough self-raising flour and the batter doesn’t rise. Not enough sugar and it tastes off. Too many eggs? Too sloppy. Season it too much? Its too salty and you need a drink. It is a balance – the right amount of the key ingredients and the process of baking make a tasty, appetizing, visually pleasing and ultimately edible cake.
Constant vigilance and check balances are needed.
However, to coin a phrase, direct action is also required.
So, how about a panel of relevant Lord Mayors, State Ministers, Infrastructure Australia and some city boffins sit down and align all the existing strategies, policies and targets across our big cities.
Imagine the confusion and jostling at first! But once that is out of the way, the efficiencies and focus on making our cities better might be directed to the levers of each level of government that are best suited to deliver. And this might include the private sector. Even better.
Planting trees? Lets say – some alignment and acknowledgement from the Commonwealth, funding and achievement of canopy targets from the states, and implementation and maintenance by local government, meeting the needs of ratepayers and city residents, visitors and workers. Add some benefits to private developments achieving some greening targets via green walls, roofs and on ground greening. We’re on our way.
It sounds relatively straight forward, doesn’t it?
The research and evidence provides some additional clarity and potential direction.
Strategic things are great and provide us with goals and alignment and are critical to the cities debate.
The 2015 Intergenerational Report Australia 2055 (yes, a bit old now…) notes that ‘Australian Government health expenditure is projected to increase as a proportion of GDP from 4.2% in 2014/15 to 5.7% of GDP in 2054/55’ (Aust Govt, 2015).
Approximately 80% of the rise in costs to the taxpayer-funded health system relates to non-demographic factors – such as the general population seeing more doctors, having more tests, and taking more medicine. With an aging population (we are living longer), the physical and mental benefits to society of regular engagement with the natural environment are well known and documented. The time to embed the benefits must start now at a national level.
The costs of chronic disease to western society has overtaken infectious diseases as a major cause of death, and with over 60% of Australians considered overweight or obese now, this figure is expected to grow to 80% if we make no changes to how we develop our cities and regions.
What does this all mean and what can we do about it?
A national approach could appear ludicrous on face value. Ok, lets position this a bit differently. Lets posit that ‘the space between buildings’ is equal if not greater value than the floor space where most of us live, work or play. Forget for a moment where the policy sits.
The benefits of fresh air, walking, sitting, strolling, watching, enjoying, riding, playing and living in our streets, squares, parks, riverfront, harbors and gardens is a human need – and access to quality green space is a core part of democratic society. It’s also nice, healthy and enjoyable when you least expect it.
The alignment on why this matters is irrefutable. It’s all a matter of perspective.
All major projects in our cities should all aim to make happy, green and pleasant spaces for people. This in itself would help address the increasing mental health costs in society.
To do nothing and continue on our current course of contesting it or assuming ‘someone else will cover this’ is a far worse scenario for the health and well-being of Australia’s future.
The embedded costs of a more holistic integration of green infrastructure and a greener city landscape will address these issues. For example, the benefits of a greener street, more street trees, better footpaths for a more walkable suburb, creating pleasant natural outlooks, enabling more bike riding opportunities (leisure and commuting) and finally enjoying the natural environment – are simple solutions that provide more incentive for Australians to exercise and have a healthier lifestyle.
I would argue that any capital costs associated with more landscape in our cities far outweighs the short term cost savings of the common value management pressures or removing landscape from any given infrastructure project. Often seen as afterthoughts, an integrated landscape solution is everything but an afterthought.
Our cities and regions are very complex things, guided by (often) three levels of government and their associated policies, strategies, codes, election promises, community-led demands and many other conflicting requirements; let alone global issues such as health and well being, economic growth and the impacts of unmitigated climate change.
Most professionals and developers are aware of the benefits of a well-designed and integrated landscape. Our task is to continue to build the value ‘beyond the project’ to the city – to achieve carbon reduction, better shade, connected green space, food security – and to embed the benefits in government policy to ensure the societal challenges of obesity and heart attacks are removed by improving our health and well being.
It is time Australians recognised the benefits of creating better cities for people to chart a greener, healthier, happier future for us all.