British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli once said a great city embodies a great idea.

“Rome represents conquest; faith hovers over the towers of Jerusalem; and Athens embodies the pre-eminent quality of the antique world, art,” he noted.

When he wrote those words, Australia was nothing more than a collection of colonies. Today, we have some of the fastest growing cities in the OECD.

In just 15 years, our four biggest cities – Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth – will almost double in size as our population swells to 30.5 million people.

There can be no doubt our nation is experiencing accelerated growth. What is up for debate is how we tackle the challenges and opportunity that this growth brings.

Speaking at a Green Building Council of Australia event in Sydney at the end of November, Federal Shadow Minister for Cities Anthony Albanese argued that the way we design and build our cities must change as we look to accommodate more people while also maintaining our prized quality of life and also addressing climate change.

Pointing to the Infrastructure Australia report released earlier this year, Albanese said the cost of congestion by 2031 will be some $53 billion in lost productivity alone.

Albanese talked about the “30-minute city,” in which work, recreation, health and education are all half an hour away by public or active transport.

“There’s no doubt that we need to take opportunities to create jobs closer to where people live,” he said. “In a city of eight million people, you can’t have just one CBD. You need centres of economic activity – not just housing.”

The other speaker on the floor, NSW Minister for Planning Rob Stokes, agreed.

“Sydney is reaching its geographic limits to growth – so we’ve got to be more thoughtful about how we use our land area,” he said. “We have no shortage of land; what we haven’t been is thoughtful and conscious.”

Stokes said that “great cities are sites of inspiration” and that the building blocks for Sydney were “beauty, brashness and blend.”

The Planning Minister is a fan of the ‘poly-centric city’ – a city with multiple centres – and believes centres like Parramatta and Liverpool can accommodate much of Sydney’s growth.

But good quality development is essential.

“I haven’t heard anyone complain about One Central Park,” Albanese said, referring to Frasers’ award-winning Green Star apartment in Sydney.

Albanese referred to a “Stalinist-era residential block” in his electorate which he said was “like an ad saying ‘don’t go up.’”

“Development like this is an abomination – and it alienates the entire community.”

Stokes concurred, saying the development industry must “strive for excellence in design – because otherwise we’ll have resistant communities and it will be harder to sell the benefits of growth.”

“When you get planning wrong, you can thwart economic growth for generations,” Stokes added.

While having a big-picture view of planning is important, and so is quality, one of the other secrets to a great city is its inclusiveness.

“Equity is at the heart of what makes a city function and buzz,” Albanese said. “If you can see a person’s income by their postcode then that’s not a great city”.

The Grattan Institute’s Mapping Australia’s Economy report has found that restrictive residential patterns and transport systems mean that employers in our CBDs “have access to only a limited proportion of workers in metropolitan areas.” This is leading to entrenched social inequity and economic stagnation.

While there’s no silver bullet solution, we do know that all tiers of government must embrace a coordinated and collaborative approach to make our cities liveable, accessible, productive and ultimately sustainable.

Albanese and Stokes agreed that many of the policies needed aren’t partisan.

“It’s not an ideological battleground and that election cycles shouldn’t matter,” was how Albanese put it.

Putting politics aside, we need to conceive of our cities less as machines and more as living organisms. As Stokes said, “cities aren’t just sites of buildings, but places for people.”