Tony Abbott wants to be known as the ‘Infrastructure PM’. Since his election there has been a commendable emphasis on improving national productivity. All good. However, there has been less focus on the unheralded main driver of our economy – the performance of our cities. I sometimes worry that by ‘infrastructure’ the Feds mean the roads between cities not vital infrastructure projects in cities.
Though the G20 finance ministers’ meeting in Sydney focused on national performance, global challenges and the prospects for business, productivity today is a largely urban phenomenon. It has to do with how we manage our cities as much as how we manage our enterprises. Cities, through their density, capacity to attract talent and ability to promote collaboration and knowledge spill-overs, play a dominant economic role. This role will grow stronger as activity shifts from resources and manufacturing to the knowledge economy.
Despite cities vital wealth-creating role they are orphans of national policy. A recent study called them ‘Australia’s Unintended Cities’. It’s time to stand up for them and say out-loud: cities create most Australian GDP, productivity and innovation. Investing in the infrastructure which promotes their economic performance is a national priority, particularly as the commodities boom moderates.
Greater Sydney produces a quarter of Australian wealth. Sydney CBD’s financial and professional services alone produce much more wealth than the Nation’s mining and agriculture sectors combined.
This is not about local pride though a Sydney First focus for scarce national infrastructure funding is rational at this moment when the NSW economy is leading the Nation forward. Getting behind Sydney’s momentum is in the national interest. But all our key cities are big drivers of productivity and innovation. Their contribution needs to be supported in national policy and investment.
This is why I ask our national government: what is your vision for Australian cities? What priority will you give them in policy and investment? And how will you collaborate with state governments to align resources behind the right infrastructure projects and to fully exploit opportunities? Such collaboration is vital. Our capital cities are too important for their futures to be determined by one tier of government alone.
No-one’s asking for free money. Investing in Sydney will deliver more bang for the public buck than anywhere else. And the Feds can demand reforms in return. Sydney may be Australia’s Global City but with over 40 councils – Auckland like Brisbane has one – it is not currently run like one. How about governance reform as a condition for the cash? That really would be productive.
A new emphasis for urban regeneration specialists, economists and other nerd-like herd-like creatures such as ourselves is the increasing identification of cities with innovation.
I wanted to add a thought about how recent house price inflation is increasing the wealth gap between London and the rest – and how London benefited from the global crisis it helped to cause .
I have just caught up with the Smith Institute research on the Great House Price Divide. It shows what many had suspected but not proven: from the crisis to now house prices have gone up dramatically in London and down catastrophically in the most of the rest of the UK. A comparison of two places I know well will clarify. In Hackney where I lived for 20 years to 2010 prices have gone up 35.6% since 2007. In Rhondda Cynon Taff , where I am from, they have gone down 21%. Indeed, up the road in Blaenau Gwent they went down 47.7% where homeowners lost over 40k of value on homes now costing on average a pitiable 47k. At the same time the average homeowner in London has grown 40k wealthier. As Prime Minister David Cameron so eloquently put it: ‘we’re all in this together’.
It’s official. The Australian Bureau of Statistics confirms what the Committee for Sydney has been highlighting for a while: sometime between as early as 2030 and no later than 2053 Melbourne overtakes Sydney as the biggest city in Australia. That’s right. ‘Australia’s only Global City’ will be smaller than that township on the Yarra. The NSW Government may want our state to be ‘No.1 again’ but on current trends our capital city will be number 2. If we are to stay No. 1 – and I assume Tele readers share the view that it must – we have to find something which has been in short supply since the Olympics: ambition.
I’ve been reading again. One thing I’ve been reading is a Harvard research paper from their ongoing ‘Equality of Opportunity Project’(published in July) .The second is a book of essays about urban development and housing in Australia, entitled (tellingly and accurately) ‘Australia’s Unintended Cities’(edited by R. Tomlinson, CSIRO Publishing ,2012). Both should be read by urbanists everywhere. And both explain why governments need to intervene to shape the development of cities to ensure they deliver their potential in terms of both productivity and equity. The final thing I’ve been reading , as I suspect have most of you , is the latest edition of the Economist on why many of the most failing former industrial heartlands of the UK need to be abandoned as they have become poverty traps for their people. The Economist editorial should act as a corrective for any optimists left and remind us that spatial inequality is not just a problem within cities: the gap in performance between cities – and thus the differential life chances of the communities in those cities – is as much a challenge ,and arguably in the UK, now the biggest question for public policy.
On Wednesday I launched ‘We the City: collaborating to compete in the digital era’. I wrote it with Martin Stewart-Weeks of Cisco on behalf of the Committee for Sydney. Although written to promote new public policy around digital engagement and innovation in Sydney, it has a range of case studies from a dozen global cities. It attempts to link the importance of the new online and digital tools for community and business engagement, the ‘internet of things’ such as sensors in infrastructure or GPS currently producing Big Data and Big City management. It is about the democratisation of data and how effective cities are collaborating to use these new tools of social innovation to compete economically. This is the speech I made to introduce the launch. A link to the report is provided below.
Please note that we also launched with the report a new Committee for Sydney/Cisco Global Cities Online Dialogue which included presentations by Steven Koonin of New York Mayor Bloomberg’s initiative called the Centre for Urban Science and Progress. Steven discussed the work of CUSP which is essentially helping to link on the one hand the Big Data becoming available from digital media, sensors, the ‘internet of everything’ whether from government bodies, the private sector, universities or the community with on the other hand the task of improving the management of New York as a city. We also heard from Chris Vein of the World Bank but previously instrumental in creating San Francisco’s impressive municipal-community-business digital framework. Innovation is now social and urban: discuss!
Hard cases make bad law. The adage might also guide us in relation to the political and policy implications of the recent ,appalling, Philpott manslaughter case – the guy who set fire to his house and killed a bunch of his children. Both Left and Right rushed to exploit the case and to generalise with both conforming to type in so doing, though I suspect the Government is more in touch with Labour voters on this one than the Opposition.
Countries in a good shape have little to fear from a national Census usually undertaken every five or ten years. Infamously both the Soviet Union and China deferred their Census’ after catastrophic policies resulted in the deaths of millions from famine and purges. Wales must be wishing that the results of the 2011 Census could have been buried somewhere. This is because they speak of a nation facing an existential crisis.
I am rarely uplifted by news from the UK but my current visit to Blighty has warmed the cockles of my heart (wherever and whatever a cockle is). To be specific, my experience of Cornwall gave me a boost. This was most unexpected (a) because the economy has been as badly affected in that region as anywhere in the UK and wasn’t robust even in the boom years and (b) I had at best a mixed experience down there when running an Urban Regeneration Company in the ex-mining heartlands of Cornwall, around Camborne Pool and Redruth – more my fault than anyone else’s – and hadn’t anticipated seeing the area bring a smile to my face. I was mistaken.
I’ve been reading again. This time it’s the latest edition of The State of Australian Cities, published last week. Published annually, it’s always been useful and full of insights and not just for those interested in Australia. All those involved in city planning, urban regeneration and economic development anywhere should have a look at it. It’s got transferable methodologies as well as a compelling evidence base. Don’t leave home without it.