Improving our cities will help us keep our news year’s resolutions

23 December 

Clara Cutajar - PwC Infrastructure and Urban Renewal leader. This article first appeared in The Weekend Australian (Inquirer), 23 December 2017

With Christmas approaching and another year almost gone, many of us are starting to think about a Christmas wish and a New Year’s resolution or two. Often these are to stay fit and healthy, do more of what we love, and spend more time with family and friends. But to help us stay on track with our goals we need to find more opportunities to pursue them and address some of the obstacles to achieving them. It could be that some of the challenges we face in our cities are inhibiting us. Whilst population growth has many positives, we need to plan for this growth to ensure things don’t get harder in our cities.

More people brings more opportunities, jobs and boosts our economy, but population growth also puts pressure on our infrastructure and services. Consider that by 2031, on current numbers and trends, we will see around 700,000 more cars on the road in Sydney; 935,000 in Melbourne and 500,000 in Brisbane. It also means more people accessing our schools, hospitals and amenities. For many families right now, that outlook may not look so merry. But fortunately, we have the time to plan for this growth. So here’s my list of Christmas wishes to help us improve our day to day lives.

My first wish is that we spend less time commuting to work. In 2016 across Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane people spent an average of one hour and 15 minutes commuting to and from work each day. With more people and more cars on the road, without intervention and using existing networks, by 2031 this is projected to increase to approximately two hours per day for people living in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. But with focused effort, and the right incentives for business to locate into suburban or new precinct areas, we can prevent people having to embark on long and slow commutes to work. With a precinct mentality, great amenities will be built alongside new businesses and infrastructure enabling people to live, work and play closer to their home.

We also need to think carefully about our transport network and how we pay for the changes and upgrades we need. The goal is to reduce the commute time and give people more time to do the things they love. Quite clearly this will mean some hard conversations, including whether the user pays more to reduce the amount governments pay on operating costs. But with limited funds available we need to carefully assess the value that new infrastructure creates, who benefits from it and what a fair funding mechanism might be. Where appropriately applied, value capture mechanisms can help deliver more equity across transport spending.

My second wish is that all our children have the same opportunities to reach their full potential. There is no question that across all our major cities there are some challenges relating to the capacity and standards of our schools. Looking to the future, our population growth means we’re likely to need more schools across Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. This means that we need to reimagine how our children get educated and accept that schools of today will not look like schools of tomorrow. It is imperative that we step back and consider what schools should look like and how education is best delivered in modern, denser cities.

Third is that we invest more smartly for a healthy Australia. Instead of a system that mostly treats people when they are sick, we need to find more creative ways to help people stay well. Are we prepared to make more strategic investments into preventative health? Are we confident to keep people out of hospitals and access care at home through a visiting nurse, or an online GP, rather than queing up in emergency wards and clinics? Not to mention being stuck in traffic trying to get there! Do we live in places that have the right levels of green space and amenities to enable us to remain active? Can we walk to work or social activities? Thinking about our cities from the perspective of a healthy community is critically important, especially as our population ages and healthcare costs grow.

My final wish is that housing affordability is holistically addressed. We simply must do better to provide affordable housing right across the continuum, be that owning or renting. In London, the affordable housing target is thirty five percent of any new development with a long term plan to get this up to fifty percent. In Australia we do not have a uniform target (although the Greater Sydney Commission is in the process of recommending around 5%) so we have lots of ground to make up to ensure we can provide a home for all Australians. Furthermore, we need to reimagine the Australian dream and create more options for those that do not want to, or are unable to own a house. It’s important that every Australian has the chance to make the house they are living in their home - whether they own it or not.

For our Christmas wishes and New Year’s resolutions to come true we need to work together to leverage opportunity and investment. We need clear visions for new precincts within our cities and long term, coordinated planning that helps lift our thinking above each silo or individual system.

This is not the responsibility of government alone. Whilst government has a responsibility to facilitate the frameworks for planning and investment, we all have a role to play if we truly want to make our cities better places to live, work and play.

Business, the not for profit sector and community groups must start more conversations to drive connectivity where there are new schools, roads, housing and hospitals being built. Individuals can get active, participate in consultations and talk to their service providers to share ideas and feedback. It will take the combined effort of all of us to make a difference to our day to day lives. Whilst change may be initially uncomfortable, with such significant growth ahead, it will be necessary to maintain vibrant and liveable cities.

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