Australians might like to think we are defined by Outback heroes like Crocodile Dundee and the Man from Snowy River, but in reality we’re among the most urbanised people in the world.

With more than two thirds of Australians living in a major capital city, and our cities growing rapidly, we need to take urban policy very seriously.

Most of us are familiar with the obvious problems caused by poor urban design: traffic gridlock, air pollution, impossible commutes, a lack of green space and sedentary lifestyles leading to poor health. But there is also a huge economic cost for poor urban policy and design, with Australia sitting on a $53 billion per year cost of congestion time bomb.

Economically, Australia’s cities are the jobs powerhouses of the nation, generating more than 80 per cent of our GDP. Population growth means we’re over 200,000 houses short of accommodating everyone, not to mention all the infrastructure required. This is good news for the construction industry, but it’s important that we build in measures to ensure that our cities deliver the best possible places for all of us.

This is not just a matter of being energy efficient and housing our growing population. Studies also show that our health is affected by the environment in which we live. The term ‘obesogenic’ means an environment that makes it hard to exercise, leading to weight gain and associated health issues. Poor urban design can also make it harder for communities to connect, increasing social isolation.

It’s obvious that investing in cities delivers economic, environmental, social and health benefits. Last week, the Australian Government released the State of Australian Cities report, highlighting the importance of data collection and research to underpin better planning and policy.

ASBEC’s newly released Investing in Cities: Prioritising a Cities and Urban Policy Framework for productivity, prosperity and a better standard of living outlines four major recommendations for how we can achieve this:

  1. Leverage roles and responsibilities. This means all parties playing to their strengths, with the federal government leading on policy and research via a Minister for Cities; state government delivering the funds and measuring success; and local government engaging with communities to determine their needs. Industry can provide the expertise to identify best practice and then implement it on the ground.
  2. Measure and report success. We need to use consistent indicators to demonstrate the performance of our cities across the country, and make sure this data is accessible.
  3. Better infrastructure planning and new investment. Governments and the private sector need to work together collaboratively to deliver a 30-year Infrastructure Plan, providing a blueprint for our cities as they grow.
  4. Best practice design. Creating Places for People is an urban design protocol that identifies 12 major factors of good urban design. These include engaging and connecting people with each other, and increasing liveability with vibrant spaces that feel safe and are easy to walk and cycle around. In addition, good design should provide leadership and good governance to the urban design process.

Who benefits from great cities? With so many Australians, and so much of our health, economy and communities dependent on our cities, who doesn’t?