According to a recent National Australia Bank survey, 99 per cent of Australians think their country is a great place to live and raise a family.

Any national poll which has 99 per cent of the respondents agreeing is bound to be of interest to politicians, especially in an election year. Perhaps most interesting facet of the survey was the more detailed responses where the people were asked to rate the areas they see as important factors that contribute to liveability. Unsurprisingly general safety, the Australian lifestyle and health were rated the top three areas. The 2016 Defence White Paper is an example of how these areas are likely to feature as issues in 2016 election campaign.

It was the next three areas where there seems to be a disconnect between public opinion and government action. Access to open spaces/beaches/parks (ranked third), climate (fourth) and the environment/unique natural features (fifth) rated higher than education (10th), employment (13th), housing affordability (14th) and transport and infrastructure (16th).

Government priorities typically reflect broader community sentiment, but in this instance has the Federal government been slow to act? Announcements by the Turnbull government in recent months suggest there may be a shift in focus.

On January 19, the Hon. Greg Hunt MP, Minister for the Environment (and at the time the interim Minister for Cities), made a speech to Sydney Chamber of Business. The speech was widely reported in the media as it announced “liveability” and green cities as government imperatives.

In his speech, Hunt referenced the high liveability rating that many Australian cities have received but noted that “despite the strong position of our cities, they are facing a number of challenges that we must respond to if they are to remain highly liveable, accessible and productive places.”

The Turnbull government sees part of the solution is greening our cities.

“We need more than housing and transport infrastructure – we need sustainable, green cities with improved amenity for a more liveable environment,” Hunt said. “Green cities—cities with high levels of trees, foliage and green spaces—provide enormous benefits to their residents.  They can improve the quality of air in our cities by absorbing some types of airborne pollutants, reduce soil erosion, minimise water run-off and limiting the amount of particulate matter entering our waterways; and increase urban amenity.”

In the weeks following the speech, more than 90 people from more than 50 organisations gathered in Canberra for a Living Cities Workshop. Hosted by the Australian Institute of Landscape Architects (AILA) at parliament house, the aim of the event was “to facilitate organisations active in this space to work together, leverage information and develop united policies to inform the government.”

The workshop started with presentations from the major political parties.

The Hon. Paul Fletcher MP, Minister for Major Project Territories and Local Government provided the first of a series of speeches from the three main political parties. He noted that Australia’s capital cities contributed $854 billion to the economy in 2011, adding that we need “sustainable, green cities with improved amenity for a more liveable environment.”

Increased urban tree cover was once again noted as an area for action. His speech also outlined a renewed focus on value capture as part of federal government funding for major infrastructure projects.

The Hon. Adam Bandt MP outlined the Australian Greens position on liveability, pointing to the importance of housing affordability, clean energy, public transport, active transport, medium density housing, community facilities and public spaces.

The final address was by the Hon. Anthony Albanese MP, Shadow minister for Infrastructure and Transport, Cities and Tourism. He also noted the benefits living cities provide in the areas of health, resilience and climate change. He expressed a preference for the Minister for Cities to be located in the infrastructure portfolio and not the environment.

What emerged from the morning of presentations was consensus about the positive impacts of greening cities including; reducing health costs, reducing energy costs, increased retail, increased sense of community and social equity and the significant environmental benefits. There appears to bipartisan pride in the high rating of cities on global ratings along with support for the federal government to take an increased role in cities.

The afternoon provided a chance for delegates to discuss current challenges and emerging issues. It was a chance to share ideas and find areas of common interest. Discussions ranged from optimism (all levels of government seem renewed by the increased federal government focus on cities) to the political (to what degree does it matter that it is an election year?) and cynicism (does this signal another round of submissions to government on topics previously canvassed?)

By late afternoon, areas of common interest were starting to emerge.  “Joined up thinking”, “political leadership” and “strong governance” attracted 86 per cent% of delegate votes as the three key areas to successfully advance living cities.

A key outcome of the workshop was the formation of the Living Cities Alliance. The Alliance is intended to be place for industry to discuss and agree on innovative options for government to consider as they develop new polices as opposed to a lobby group. Some of the opportunities already identified by the alliance include:

  • a National Green Streets pilot program to support economic, social and environmental development in our urban and suburban centres
  • accelerating green roof installation using incentives such as the creation and trading of stormwater retention credits
  • a national Grey to Green retrofit investment fund to help leverage private sector investment for enhancing 
green spaces in our urban centres
  • piloting creative financing mechanisms for precinct-scale green infrastructure investment, such as the Green Benefit Districts launched in the City of San Francisco.

Since the Living Cities Workshop, the Turnbull government has moved the cities portfolio from the Department of Environment to the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. To some, the move was seen as demotion, whilst others saw it as being elevated or more strategically placed within cabinet.

The absence of green infrastructure in the 2016 Australian Infrastructure Plan was either a lost opportunity for the Turnbull government or a sign that the way forward on cities and liveability will include its own policies and action plans.

Liveability is an issue relevant to all Australians, regardless of where they live. From inner urban areas in our main capital cities to suburbs and regional communities, there is a need for a coordinated approach by the public and private sector to create liveable spaces and places – places for people. Good policy in this area has the potential to resonate with people (who are also voters) across marginal seats.

Over the coming months, we will see if liveability continues to be elevated as a government priority to better reflect broader community values, and ultimately, better policy and delivery on the ground.