The State of Australian Cities 2012 was released this week by the Federal Government. This is the third such report produced to monitor key indicators of our nation’s cities, recognising cities as major population and economic centres generating the most significant environmental impacts. Infrastructure Minister Anthony Albanese is reported by The Australian as highlighting the growing commuter distances for suburban residents due to the changing structure of cities and the disjoint between places of residence and employment. He is calling on urban planners to make narrowing the distance between where people live and work their No 1 focus. I suspect it’s not planners but regulatory systems and decision makers that are the blockage here. Planners might need a bit more power in the equation to heed the Minister’s call.
Take my bugbear, the former QUT Carseldine campus, which has been refitted to act as a public service hub to accommodate Department of Main Roads and Transport staff. This is perhaps a step in the right direction – just as the university provided study and work opportunities in a suburban context – it continues to be a place of employment for those public servants. In fact, this does address that call from the Minister. However, let’s also consider the lost opportunities of approaching that proposition in that singular way rather than adopting a diversified approach to relocalising work and reconnecting lives by including a range of facilities that support teleworking, coworking, shared enterprise spaces, smart work centres and the like, accessible by bus, rail and active transport options. That sort of approach doesn’t just close the distance between where people work and live, it develops a smart local ecology.
The other side of the equation is, of course, housing supply and affordability balanced against transport costs. The SEQ Affordability Calculator developed by the SEQ Council of Mayors and Federal Government reveals the following about Aspley’s real cost of housing and transport (the lower the figure, the more affordable it is to live in a suburb):
- The SEQ Affordability Calculator Index for ASPLEY is 97.2.
- In 2011, the average unit price was $355,500 and the average house price was $488,000.
- The average weekly travel and time costs for a home in ASPLEY are $232.
- Combined, the average cost of housing choice for a household in ASPLEY is $867. This is about $5 less than the average household in the Local Government Area.
Chermside’s real cost of housing and transport is as follows:
- The SEQ Affordability Calculator Index for CHERMSIDE is 90.5.
- In 2011, the average unit price was $395,000 and the average house price was $488,500.
- The average weekly travel and time costs for a home in CHERMSIDE are $164.
- Combined, the average cost of housing choice for a household in CHERMSIDE is $800. This is about $72 less than the average household in the Local Government Area.
New Farm’s real cost of housing and transport is as follows:
- The SEQ Affordability Calculator Index for NEW FARM is 187.7.
- In 2011, the average unit price was $494,500 and the average house price was $1,137,500.
- The average weekly travel and time costs for a home in NEW FARM are $153.
- Combined, the average cost of housing choice for a household in NEW FARM is $1,634. This is about $762 more than the average household in the Local Government Area.
Caboolture’s real cost of housing and transport is as follows:
- The SEQ Affordability Calculator Index for CABOOLTURE is 74.9.
- In 2011, the average unit price was $231,500 and the average house price was $320,000.
- The average weekly travel and time costs for a home in CABOOLTURE are $263.
- Combined, the average cost of housing choice for a household in CABOOLTURE is $679. This is about $13 less than the average household in the Local Government Area.
The dynamic here is interesting. While proximity to the CBD as the major centre comes at a premium, proximity to this regional activity centres is more affordable – both New Farm and Chermside have also seen significant redevelopment activity and urban planning. Note that on average people living in Aspley commute about 9kms for work while Chermside residents commute about 11km New Farm residents commute about 5km and Caboolture residents commute almost 19km. These figures indicate that living further away from the CBD is more affordable, with regional activity centres providing an affordability dividend, perhaps due to their housing, employment and transport diversity; perhaps because recent planning has begun to imprint some regard for complexity in those centres. Bear in mind, however, that Caboolture is a town; it is another kind of regional activity centre.
For sure, I would much rather be spending the half hour commute from home walking to or from the city, as I used to when I lived in New Farm, than sitting on a bus crawling through peak hour traffic then dodging the traffic to get across the highway after dismounting. While the busway has provided some modest gains for longer distance commuters, we are still ensnared in the inevitable Chermside bottleneck that sees traffic inching along Gympie Road through to Bracken Ridge.
As the Minister points out, transport is a vital dimension of urban systems. However, what’s disturbing is the view that public transport needs a better cost recovery model. I question whether cost recovery for private transport is effective given the cost of roads, tunnels and the like (though will need to research this). Sometimes the numbers don’t seem to add up: government revenues subsidise roads but not public transport and the expectation is that public transport users pay for transport? There’s probably no argument that users should contribute to public transport, yet the costs of private vehicle use, despite is adverse impact on environmental and social indicators, remains highly subsidised through government revenue raising and disbursements.
In an earlier post I considered public transport as a ‘common use’ or ‘common pool’ good, rather than, say, as a public good. In essence the same could be said of roads. We are all entitled to use this infrastructure in some way even though use may be sometimes competitive. One of the ways public transport pays for itself is in gains in environmental performance – reduced greenhouse emissions, improved urban development and more efficient land use. The ‘transport, housing, jobs’ mantra is not the whole picture or urban complexity or a virtuous cycle especially as governments cry poor and make strange decisions about austerity and subsidy. As Dimitri Zenghelis argues, “The question … becomes not where are we going or what does a social environmentally sustainable economy look like, but what is the pathway? How do we manage the transition to that inevitable end-state?”
I read, this morning, a rather pointed comment about economic development this morning. In calling for a new economic narrative (for the UK), Neil McInroy states “As an economic development policy professional, I am maddened by the boomgoggling and stifling orthodoxies that pervade economic development.” In my recent exposure to regional and economic development ‘professionals’, who seem to beat their chests about being ‘regional developers’ or ‘economic developers’ as if it means something, I can’t help but agree and perceive a formulaic staidness in the approaches that define this practice. It’s a frustration I began to express in my recent report on Robert Costanza’s presentation on ecosystem services. [Postscript: In an economic development group on Linkedin, someone asks “Is the economic development profession leading the country in a race to the bottom?” so clearly I am not the only person who feels there are problems with siloed professionals who believe they have THE answers.] At the LSE Electric City Symposium, several speakers bemoaned the notion of the Smart City – identifying it as too technology oriented, too administrative or managerial, too surveillance oriented – calling for a more grassroots, senseable and people oriented approach to city making. Smartness, as Saskia Sassen said, needs to be ingrained in the people, not in the technology. It needs to be part of governance, social and self-organising networks.
I find Louis Albrechts’ (Creativity as a Drive for Change, Planning Theory 2005 4: 247) posing of four questions about creativity and planning particularly useful to instigate some initial thinking:
- What kind of planning embeds the challenges of creativity and innovation in its approach?
- What ‘techniques’ enable structural change in terms of creating possible and desirable futures?
- What type of governance has the capacity to strengthen creativity?
- What does this mean for planners in terms of attitudes and skills?
The disconnect between practitioner, policy maker and researcher translates into poor practices, rather than a serious engagement with next practice to address wicked problems: there is a need to distinguish between the vision, strategy and tool. That is, to meet the vision for a resilient transport network (or even something more aspirational than that), a strategy of diversification and integration will be adopted, using methods or approaches such as active transport, integrated land use and transport planning etc. McInroy’s appeal applies to a range of development, urban and planning professions that have also failed to engage the complexity of our urban systems and recognise integrated approaches to change, including the somewhat perplexing view that some ‘commons use’ infrastructure must pay for itself while others do not especially when prevailing subsidies and planning practices affirm suburban expansion, concentrating economic centres and private car use.