Transforming Australia’s cities

They must change to cope with population growth and climate change or face social unrest and urban decay

Australia circa 2050, population 35 million, climate change induced rising sea levels have flooded the Gold Coast resort region, apartment blocks are now used to grow food and people commute in monorail pods above the sea.

In another city, Australians live on floating island pods with apartments both below and above sea level, the population has shifted from land to the sea because of the sky-rocketing value of disappearing arable land.

Climate change has also forced many Australians to move inland and create new cities in the outback, relying on solar power to exist in the inhospitable interior.

These are just a few urban scenarios by some of Australia’s leading architects shortlisted for ‘Ideas for Australian Cities 2050+’ to be staged at this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale.

While these images may sound like science fiction, many architects and demographers say that Australian cities must radically transform to cope with the pressures of population growth and climate change or face social unrest and urban decay.

‘If we don’t get this right . . . all hell breaks loose, or our cities break down, there’s not enough water, there’s not enough power,’ said one of Australia’s leading demographers, Bernard Salt.

Australia survived the global financial crisis, due largely to China buying its resources; and while resource exports will continue to bolster its economy for decades, future prosperity may be threatened by a growing, ageing population, according to an Australian government report released in February. The report said that Australia’s population was set to rise by 60 per cent to 35 million by 2050, mainly through migration, yet cities are already groaning under the present population.

‘One of the major frontier issues for Australia over the next decade will be the future of our cities,’ said Heather Ridout, chief executive of the Australian Industry Group, which is calling for major infrastructure investment in cities. Among the beneficiaries of such development would be property firms such as Lend Lease, Stockland and Mirvac Group, building material groups Boral Ltd and CSR, Australia’s top engineering contractor Leighton Holding Ltd, and the country’s biggest private hospital operator, Ramsay Health.

But demographers warn that Australian cities need to not only expand infrastructure, but ensure that future residents have equal access to city facilities. Racial riots at Sydney’s Cronulla beach in 2005 and a series of attacks on Indian students in the past year are signs of growing social tension in Australian cities, said demographers.

‘If we have a rising population, we need to make sure that we have appropriate infrastructure, so that we don’t lose the social cohesion that we take for granted,’ said Larissa Brown from the Centre for Sustainable Leadership. ‘We need affordable access to housing, to transport, to health care.’

While Australia is double the size of Europe, three-quarters of the country is sparsely populated countryside or harsh outback, leaving the bulk of the population to inhabit a thin strip down the south-east coast. In fact, around 50 per cent of the population live in the three largest cities – Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane – on a combined land area that is about the size of Brunei or Trinidad & Tobago.

‘We’re at risk of seeing increasingly dysfunctional cities . . . we’re starting to see sort of fragmentation and breakdown of the transport systems and increasing frustration for the residents of those cities trying to get around,’ said Jago Dodson, urban researcher at Griffth University.

A State of Cities 2010 report released in March said that Australia’s major cities contribute neary 80 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP), but warned that worsening urban congestion would have a serious negative impact on economic growth if not addressed.

The Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics estimates the cost of road congestion for the Australian cities was about A$9.4 billion (S$12 billion) for 2005. Left unchecked, this is projected to rise to A$20 billion by 2020.

‘Urban congestion contributes to traffic delays, increased greenhouse gas emissions, higher vehicle running costs and more accidents,’ said Infrastructure Minister Anthony Albanese. ‘It is a tragedy that many parents spend more time travelling to and from work, than at home with their kids. Relieve urban congestion and we improve our quality of life as well as our productivity,’ he added.

In February, a 10-year, A$50 billion transport blueprint was announced for Sydney which will see a new heavy rail network, 1,000 new buses and possibly a fast train linking Sydney with the port city of Newcastle, to its north. Sydney, Australia’s biggest city, is gridlocked daily, forcing a motorist who travels 22 km a day to spend three days stuck in traffic each year.

Private transport currently accounts for about 90 per cent of urban journeys in Australia. Transurban Group, which operates the nation’s major tollways, believes that car usage will continue to rise, despite a move to public transport.

‘Despite concern about climate change, road use in our cities is predicted to grow significantly in the next 20 to 30 years,’ said Transurban in a 2009 sustainability report. ‘New road projects will increasingly be part of integrated transport solutions for entire cities or transport corridors.’

But the company warned that future road projects will cost more to build and develop due to climate change, with Australia’s government seeking to introduce a carbon emissions trading scheme and pre-approval analysis of climate impacts of new projects.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s government plans to invest A$36 billion in transport infrastructure in the next five years. Improving efficiency in energy and transport infrastructure could increase GDP by nearly 2 per cent, or the equivalent of A$75 billion, said Australia’s Productivity Commission.

Australia has one of the world’s highest home ownership rates, but the generational dream of a suburban home and garden looks set to be shattered. Over the next few decades, more Australians will be living in high- density housing, what some demographers call the ‘Manhattanisation’ of cities.

A new Sydney urban plan released in February calls for 700,000 new dwellings by 2036, with 70 per cent of development to occur within existing suburbs and only 30 per cent in new suburbs. If Sydney does not consolidate, the city would need to expand 1.5 times in size to accommodate its growing population and would run out of available land within 30 years, said the New South Wales (NSW) state government plan.

Demographer Mr Salt questions whether Australians will give up the Neighbours dream, citing the worldwide TV hit about life in a suburban Australian street. ‘Neighbours … is absolutely integral to the Australian psyche,’ said Mr Salt, a partner at KPMG.

Whether Sydney adopts a Manhattan or low-rise European urban plan, a rising population will put more pressure on housing stock. Australia already has one of the most expensive house prices in the world, and housing affordability is falling.

The Commonwealth Bank’s CommSec forecasts that housing prices, which rose 12 per cent in 2009, will rise by 8-10 per cent in 2010 due to a rising population and a lack of stock.

‘For investors, rising rents and home prices is an attractive combination,’ said CommSec’s chief economist James Craig. Leightons forecasts annual growth in residential construction of 6 per cent till to 2014. Mirvac, one of the country’s top apartment construction firms, also forecasts growth, citing A$759 million worth of exchanged contracts, focusing on large-scale projects which are transforming old industrial sites in Sydney.

Australia has an inhospitable interior forcing more than a quarter of its 20 million people to live in the south-east corner, where the two biggest cities and jobs are located. The projected population increase will impact heavily on Australia’s fragile environment, and require urban planning to ensure that future cities are environmentally sustainable.

Australians have the biggest houses in the worlds, nicknamed McMansions, and demographers said that homes may need to be retro-fitted with water tanks and solar panels to make cities more sustainable and reduce their environmental footprint.

Between 1998 and 2004 Sydney’s environmental footprint grew from 6.67 to 7.21 ha per person, but some Australians warn that there is a limit to the country’s population carrying capacity. ‘A bigger Australia doesn’t mean deeper soils, it doesn’t mean larger river flows, it doesn’t mean more rainfall. We’re only bigger in one sense – the increase in the total number of humans crammed into the narrow coastal strip,’ said Bob Carr, former New South Wales state premier.

Source : Business Times – 16 Mar 2010

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