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Can urban infrastructure projects damage our democracy?

Sydney Football Stadium by Cox Architecture

Can urban infrastructure projects damage our democracy? That’s a crazy call! How could the construction of our city possibly have any impact at all on our systems of governance?

Well, let’s start by recalling a recent example. The stadium in the image above may only be 30 years old but, apparently, it’s knackered! We need to build a new one, NOW!

The official announcement and public funding commitments to do so were made ahead of the release of the business case. Unsurprisingly, the decision has not attracted bipartisan support.

How is that related to our democratic system? By “democratic system” we are referring here to the inherited systems of governance defined by individual mutual recognition and rights, universal participation, and law-based dispute resolution and exchange that have evolved over centuries. Within this system and subject to the idea of reciprocity – of not causing harm to others – we regard ourselves as being “free”. Because they are so pervasive and apparently unchanging, to the point that they are now almost invisible, we now assume these freedoms to be irreversible and permanent.

However, two recent examples caution against this kind of complacency.

The importance of strong democratic institutions

The first is a report by a US-based democracy watchdog, Freedom House, on what it perceives as an accelerating global decline in democratic institutions and behaviours. It observes that attacks by political establishments on a nation’s administrative institutions directly threatens democratic freedoms:

“A major development of 2017 was the retreat of the United States as both a champion and exemplar of democracy… the core institutions of American democracy are being battered by an administration that has treated the country’s traditional checks and balances with disdain.”

Freedom House also correlates a decline of confidence in our democratic institutions on the one hand with the rise of partial truths and “fake news” peddled by populist politicians on the other, suggesting that the crisis centres on trust. 

Loss of faith in trusted institutions

The linkage of democratic health and institutional integrity is a useful lens to review the second example.

Ongoing and recent public enquiries into hitherto trusted institutions – the finance industry and those protecting vulnerable youth – have revealed how misplaced that trust was.

The financial industry serves both its commercial self-interests and collective interests by providing stability and resources at the centre of our economy. Conceived thus, it operates with significant social license, based on broad and deep mutual trust.

Yet early revelations from public hearings are disturbing. It seems that many apparently unethical behaviours developed and flourished in some institutions simply because the perpetrators could get away with it. In some instances, evidence was presented that known misbehaviours were actively concealed.

Social contract breaches apparently extended to “independent” advisors adjusting their advice to suit the desires of their clients. If substantiated, this behaviour reprises that of some financial ratings agencies falsely certifying the integrity of securities sold by valued clients leading up to the global financial crisis.

Recalling the Freedom Institute formula, if the Royal Commission eventually finds adversely against the financial institutions and their advisers, our democracy will have been diminished.

Cities are democratic artefacts 

But how does any of this bear on urban governance?

Cities are where ever greater numbers of us enact our lives. We apply our democratic freedoms to reconcile our urban desires and needs with those of others. Though these mechanisms have delivered significant improvements in our social and material conditions over recent decades, further improvements are still urgently needed, such as addressing housing un-affordability and the challenges of climate change.

But, you press again, how does any of this bear on our urban infrastructure?

Noting that China has improved the material conditions of its populous for five years straight, the author of the Sydney Morning Herald article on the Freedom House report recounted a conversation with a Chinese colleague, who asked, “How can you keep saying that your system is better than ours if your results are worse?” 

The answer, of course, is that material improvement is not merely an endpoint but also an expression of the values that we, allegedly, hold more dear. For us, how we get things is as important as what we get.

Collective material improvement is a primary concern of much city planning. Suburbs are laid out, infrastructure is built, private developments are approved, and urban quality is all codified in regulatory and institutional frameworks that derive their fundamental power and expression from our democratic processes.  

The resultant city is therefore a physical manifestation – an artefact – of our democracy. Our collective values can be read in our cities. How we go about building cities, and what we build, are fundamental expressions of our systems of governance and how much we value those systems. 

We can read these values in the social and material devastation of rust-belt North American cities as well as in the urban quality of admired European counterparts – and in our own cities.

Material improvement or democracy?

Yet the question is not completely answered. Would we be happier if we gave up some of our democratic freedoms in return for greater material improvement?

Some might say, “Yes, I don’t want to vote but I want a bigger TV and more sports betting.”

Unfortunately, this response is not fanciful. Preconditions for the rise of authoritarian populism seen internationally are also growing within Australia. Surveys have reported that a third of those approached were “prepared to weaken democracy if it means governments can get things done for me” (emphasis added).

Fortunately, some 47 per cent were not so disposed, but the problem is that the these proportions can change. For this reason, the link drawn by Freedom House between democratic health and institutional integrity prompts concern.

Urban project examples? 

Given that a new appetite for better ethical behaviour by public institutions seems to be emerging, is there any chance that the kind of behaviours revealed in the banking Royal Commission might also be found in our urban projects?

It is now common knowledge that the introductory example featured highly partisan vested sporting interests competing for state funds against seemingly greater community priorities. Heritage advice was ignored to support the sale of housing commission properties. Debates over the merits of the Powerhouse relocation are mired in partisan interests and partial information. Normal parliamentary review of some projects is now concealed behind commercial-in-confidence structures. Genuine public consultation is “managed” – perhaps not quite “fake news” – to generate and sustain a semblance of public support. Agency-specific enthusiasms still seem to skew the selection of some publicly funded transport projects.

Many will also recall inner city road tunnels funded on toll-based “independent” consultant cost recovery projections that never materialised. It is possible this might recur for roads currently under construction. Above-ground landscaped road interchanges are being sold to the public as parklands. Some road projects are unable to dispel widespread concern at their fairness, actual transport benefit and spiralling public cost. The scope of some projects seem to increase well beyond that initially approved. Freeways are proposed through long-protected national parks.

At the very centre of all these examples are the public institutions empowered to build our cities. The impression left is that a partisan culture of “getting away with it”, alleged within the banking sector, might also infect many publicly funded city-building projects. 

It is therefore not surprising to see an increasing alignment between Australian survey respondents willing to trade democratic freedoms in order “to get things done for me” with the Chinese comment that “you [can’t] keep saying that your system is better than ours if your results are worse”.

The corrosive impact on trust in our democratic institutions is obvious and has at least two elements. 

The first is that, in contrast to banks, the state agencies undertaking urban projects are meant only to act in our collective interest and evince the highest ethical standards, including transparency. If some of those institutions act partially, opaquely, wastefully, in their own self interests, or are simply ignored, then it is clear that our broader democratic institutions will suffer from further declining support. Why should we trust them when they seem to be serving narrow partisan interests and our individual and collective circumstances have not improved?

The second is that these projects build our city, which is meant to be the home for us all, not just for those best served by the projects supported. The publicly funded rebuild of relatively new inner-city stadiums to host well remunerated sporting codes at the same time as selling social housing so that a few more can be built “out west” sends very clear messages about the fairness of our democracy.  

If we cannot rely on collective improvement in our material conditions then are we better off acting selfishly to further our own interests, irrespective of the harm that might come to others?

The fundamental point here is that the manifestation of policy in recent Australian urban projects is becoming increasingly contentious to the extent that it risks becoming a powerful generator of the kind of popular discontents that are now rattling democracies worldwide. 

Increasing numbers of us no longer trust the institutions we pay for to provide the city we value.

Time for project integrity indices? 

Though calls for greater rigour in the selection of urban projects have been met with the establishment of agencies like Infrastructure Australia and its NSW counterpart, projects continue to be funded despite failing the standards these agencies set.

Perhaps it is now time for more extensive, sustained and integrated accountability; to consider holding projects, and those who are responsible for them, to greater external review. 

One way, suggested here, is to rate urban projects across a broad spectrum of project variables, in much the same way as ratings agencies appraise stocks, shares and governments (avoiding of course the ratings distortions that contributed to the GFC).

An overall rating could thereby be developed – a project integrity index – assembled from and summarising all these variables.

The variables might include, for example, projected and actual cost; initial and final scope; degree of public consultation and support; appraisals of public benefit (including cost benefit analyses); contribution to and compliance with overall city building plans; extent of multi-partisan political support; amelioration of negative environmental, social, economic and individual impacts; non-project city-building benefits; existence and nature of failure criteria; aesthetic benefits; and degree of project transparency. 

Clearly, project integrity indices – let’s call them PIIs to align with the KPI nomenclature beloved by MBA types – should be prepared independently, not by the agencies delivering the projects (lest a GFC-like debacle ensue). Furthermore, PIIs should be dynamic, changing over time in response to new delivery factors. For example, if a project’s scope increased, its cost blew out, and community discord increased, an overall PII would decline and administrative and political responsibility could then be assigned.

Returning to the opening image, let’s speculate: what might be the current PII for the rebuild and renovation of Sydney’s stadiums? 

Mike Brown has worked in NSW local and state government in planning, urban design, and strategic roles for 15 years. He is also a graduate of the Masters of Urban Policy and Strategy at the University of NSW.

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Comments

4 Responses to “Can urban infrastructure projects damage our democracy?”

  • janet harwood says:

    Excellent, in-depth analysis Mike through a socio-economic lens and as said by H Roark a must-talk in current bread and circuses regimes. If massive public money at the federal level is being given to global billionaires to extend their environmental destruction to Australia and to accelerate the now unstoppable loss of the National Reserve System (NRS) via biodiversity collapse and climate extremes …. then Mike can you do this analysis through an ecological lens.. please? From my research titled The Future Is the Natural World – the situation for humans is as bleak as it is for all species (wildlife, vegetation and all things alive) everywhere and we humans need to look at the problem of democracy through a biological lens ie No Environment = No Economy = No Society….. Sic Transit Gloria Mundi

  • Satyajit Datar says:

    Great article, that poses many questions including “Would we be happier if we gave up some of our democratic freedoms in return for greater material improvement?” In every society, democratic or otherwise there are many “we”. So the answer depends on which “we” and “how’ things are measured and valued, and for “whom” and over “what” timeline, and whether with single bottom line or triple bottom line (or quadruple) metrics.

  • H. Roark says:

    A great starter for a discussion that Australians need to have — Panem et Circenses — Integrity is a brilliant ideal, but what independent authority will define and then measure these indices? And like polls how can the government be made to respond to them? Are there any overseas example of how this would work?

  • Chris Curtis says:

    Congratulations Mike on a great piece. Public architecture was once a celebration. Now it’s at risk of being a shrine.

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