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A tale of two cities: Which one will we choose?

This is a tale of two cities. They’re both imaginary – or are they?

Thrivetown is a sustainable city, with a high quality of life. People love to live here, and it’s easy to see why.

Their homes are cheap to run, with high energy performance as a standard so there’s plenty of light and thermal comfort. In this city, there’s a variety of housing available for every household size and stage of life.

Thrivetown’s happy citizens can access transport as easily as they can breathe the clean air in the green spaces where they enjoy their leisure. Services like schools, shops and hospitals are so easy to get to. As a result, their health is great, they have more money, and their greenhouse gas emissions are getting lower all the time.

Then there’s Mistakeville. Poor, poor Mistakeville. In this dystopian city, governments didn’t manage growth, instead letting housing sprawl out of reach of transport options, services and education.

People here are cranky, losing precious family time breathing in fumes as they sit in traffic on the way home to their expensive, poorly designed homes, where they’ll spend yet another dark evening fiddling with that energy-guzzling heating or cooling system.

There’s infrastructure here alright: the monorail glints in the distance, and that bridge to nowhere is well known on the internet for all the wrong reasons.

These projects certainly cost a lot, but they didn’t really deliver the joined up outcomes that would have made life better over the long term. It’s easy to see why Mistakeville has just won the “least liveable city” award for the third year running.

In fact, this is a tale of more than two cities. It’s a tale of every city in Australia, because we need to choose whether we create Mistakeville or Thrivetown over the coming years.

That’s why the Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council has released Thriving Cities, a new policy platform that shows the way to the best of all possible cities.

We Australians love our cities. More and more of us live in them, and they are growing at unprecedented rates.

But with growth comes challenges; and to meet challenges we need leadership. Over recent years we’ve seen encouraging signs that our federal representatives are taking the lead on creating sustainable cities.

They’ve appointed a Minister for Cities, released a National Cities Performance Framework and launched City Deals across Australia, where local councils work with state and federal governments to fund and deliver much-needed infrastructure. 

Recently the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Infrastructure, Transport and Cities delivered a new report called Building Up & Moving Out, which includes 37 recommendations addressing the need for a national plan of settlement patterns, sustainable urban form and the role of government.

This report provides a comprehensive, multi-partisan evidence base for a more sophisticated approach to urban policy nationally.

There are four main policy areas

These are encouraging signs. ASBEC’s new policy has four main policy areas where we could act now to ensure the best cities in the future.

A National Settlement Strategy would set out a clear vision for how our cities grow, informed by data on how they perform in a variety of areas.

Until now, many business cases for infrastructure have been assessed from a narrow point of view. Instead, we should use business cases that assess the full impact of a spend, including social, health and environmental outcomes, ensuring that we get the most bang for every buck we put into it.

We also need to improve procurement, taking into account outcomes like sustainability and long term maintenance.

Government must be the best possible buyer, which means in-house expertise, not just a rush to outsource to the cheapest bidder. A “model client” policy could help government model best practice and ensure best outcomes.

Housing is a huge area where we can improve. We know Australians value what sustainable homes deliver.

Who doesn’t like to be comfortable and healthy? But the minimum standards for housing energy performance contained in the National Construction Code haven’t been updated for almost a decade, even as technology storms ahead.

Affordability shouldn’t come at the cost of excellent design and technology. For ASBEC, affordability means diverse housing choices that suit our needs at different life stages – without blowing the budget.

Housing must also be affordable to run. There is much debate about the real cost of more energy efficient homes – with historical arguments that it can be done at little-to-no extra cost and others claiming it will add $10k.

Even at the highest estimate, when spread over 30 years as part of a mortgage the extra is negligible when compared with the potential savings in running costs over this time (ASBEC’s Bottom Line report estimates savings of between $300-$1300 per year).

Housing supply targets would help to ensure enough stock is built, but no amount of houses is enough to make a city. Sustainable housing means housing that is in the right place to access transport, jobs, education and services.

The Building Up and Moving Out also recommends that we should adopt nationally consistent guidelines for urban green space, a clear trajectory to reducing emissions, well excellent design principles set out in Creating Places for People: An Urban Design Protocol for Australian Cities; and infrastructure project appraisal that takes economic, social and environmental benefits into consideration.

With federal leadership and excellent policy on offer, it’s time to decide: do we want the best of cities or the worst of cities?

Suzanne Toumbourou is executive director of the Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council.


Spinifex is an opinion column open to all, so called because it’s at the “spiky” end of sustainability. If you would like to contribute, we require 700+ words. For a more detailed brief and style guide please email editorial@thefifthestate.com.au

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