Are we creating a liveable city?

Author: Professor Peter Newman is NSW Sustainability Commissioner

I cannot talk about liveability in a city without referring to sustainability. It is no longer possible to build housing, transport and other urban services without seriously considering its consequences.

Thus sustainability for a city I have defined as reducing the ecological footprint (water, energy, land, materials, waste) whilst simultaneously improving the quality of life (health, housing, urban design, community...) within the capacity limits of the city. In the past we have traded off ecological footprint for each step forward in living standards. This is not possible anymore and it does impinge directly on liveability if we don't have the water or electricity or oil or natural ecosystem services to make the city work properly.

In NSW I have developed a set of criteria for examining urban development from a sustainability perspective. The handout has my letter explaining how I have applied these criteria to the New Land Release Areas which are the first tranche of the Metropolitan Strategy. They are built on the core objectives of the Strategy. The work that has been done in DIPNR on these new areas is I believe close to world best practice at creating a liveable city that also reduces ecological footprint. For example it will be recycling sewage 100% into the surrounding agricultural areas which are being established as fixed rural areas where no further urban development will occur. The Development Corporation model will ensure that infrastructure and services will be applied early into the development process and such things as buying areas of high biodiversity and building a rail link to the system, will all be done - not just talked about.

This Development Corporation model is a powerful example of how state governments can intervene constructively to make the market work better for liveability and sustainability. The levy of around $50,000 per block that enables this to occur is quite astonishing in Australian urban history and facilitates a broader government focus such as a co-ordinated provision of schools and affordable housing components. And this is for a population of 200,000 people so it is not a small achievement.

This is for the so-called 30% of urban development that now occurs on the fringe. What about the 70% which needs to be accommodated back into the city? How will we be able to ensure this occurs in a way that creates liveability and sustainability?

Let me say three things:

1. It is important to see that this development is an opportunity to improve our city and is not a threat. Cities have to constantly be renewed and revitalised. Many older industrial areas and inner area sites have now been renewed and most people can see that they are better. The option of just allowing areas to decline, even gently decline, is to deny the possibility of new opportunities for younger people, and new infrastructure and services. I have lived in a declining city (Fremantle) and one that has then revitalised and the latter is distinctly better. Loss of services such as schools, shops and job opportunities for younger people does not make a liveable city. And this included a train service being terminated because of the decline as well. We just have to make sure that when development and growth are available that we turn them to full value for the long term.

2. At this stage in Sydney's history there is a clear need to focus this new development in centres (and along some corridors that need revitalising). Centres provide amenity and services and jobs, especially new knowledge economy jobs. Many centres in Sydney have rapidly grown like Parramatta into a genuinely urban centre with a full range of services. However many centres are inadequate, they do not have the population and jobs to make them a viable provider of amenity. Thus to direct development to centres will create many advantages. And there is a strong acceptance of the need for increased concentrations of activity in these centres by local governments. Partly this is in response to the need for change and better services in the centres and also in the need to avoid too much change in suburban areas. This means that the development focus for much of this new development is high density. And on the fringe it is essentially low density. This is the Sydney growth phase that we are in. Personally I hope that there is plenty of opportunity for medium density as well - perhaps along the Middle Suburb revitalisation corridors - as this is a speciality of Sydney with areas such as Paddington being world class examples of how to build such areas.

3. Infrastructure has not kept pace with the redevelopment of areas in the past decade. The pressure to move back into the city and centres is driven by the market as explained by the Marchetti Principle which shows that people do not like to spend more than one hour a day travelling - anywhere. Relocation to shorten travel times has been a feature of Sydney which is at the Marchetti limit in many areas. Not all infrastructure is stretched, eg community services in the arts are all better off after such development. But trains and buses and roads are all at capacity. So I want to end this contribution by asking what can we do about this situation?

From my perspective the transport problem is due to a lack of a visionary framework and a funding model. This is not the problem in road planning where they have a very clear visionary framework of what they see is needed and a very clear funding model developed over the past decade into a situation where they earn money for the government with each project. Such a combination is unstoppable. Thus we have had a decade of tollways and tunnels with $10 billion of investment in increasing the speed of traffic. It has worked. For a while.

The road system will always very rapidly fill up again after about 5 to 10 years and reduce traffic speeds to what they were. This is because of induced traffic - people move away from other modes and travel further if the option available is faster. The M4 had an induced traffic component of around 20%. The other reason is due to the sheer physical capacity. A lane of roadway can carry around 2,500 people per hour. A busway can carry about double that at 5000 people per hour - a level now reached and exceeded on the CBD busways. A Light Rail can carry 7 to 10,000 people per hour which is why this must eventually replace the congested bus services along many corridors. While a Heavy Rail line can carry 50,000 people per hour (20 times a roadway) and thus explains why most major cities have a rail system at its base, eg the 200,000 people a day coming into Sydney by train would need 65 freeway lanes and 782ha of car parks ie equivalent to 520 car parks the size of the MCG, or 1042 floors of large multi-storey car park. This also explains why many larger car-based cities in the US are all going for new rail systems. They are justified on the basis of their ability to improve liveability in cities dominated by traffic. In every city the bus lobby says what it says here: everything a train can do a bus can do better and cheaper. And everywhere the people have a vote on it they disagree and build a train. Cities across the US are committed to a new vision of transit-oriented development. The reason this is happening in around 100 US cities is not just their visionary framework but their funding model.

In the US the Federal Government have a huge stake in building infrastructure in their cities, especially transport infrastructure. It would be inconceivable for them to say that it was just a state issue. Their model is to provide a substantial base funding from the Federal TEA fund but only after the project has been approved by Metropolitan Planning Units who need to demonstrate priorities based on analysis and public support. Mostly the public support comes from a referendum which is used to generate a sales tax in that Metropolitan Region. Denver voted last November to build an A$8million train system of 6 lines, two of which are light rail. The T.E.A. act was recently reauthorised with bipartisan support. A US organisation called The Free Congress Foundation (from the right of politics) produced a paper called 'Ten Reasons why conservatives should support new TEA legislation'. Is this a new socialism or a new partnership across former political boundaries which is deemed to help us make more sustainable cities?

We in Australia cant seem to get beyond the rhetoric of seeing cities as essentially wasteful places that eat up the resources created by the regions.

We need a decade of rail building in Sydney. And in other Australian cities. We seem however to be stuck in our thinking about what is needed and what is a relevant funding model. I have seen Perth stuck in its thinking and in the process of getting itself unstuck through political processes, rail has become the government's number one success story. However it was all funded from state revenue.

A new funding model in Sydney could include two new mechanisms:

1. One would be based on tollway funding for fast heavy rail. There is a real opportunity to draw people out of cars if you provide a service faster than cars. People will pay for this and at the centres that it links development will concentrate as we want. This is the attraction of the Western Fast Rail - it has suggested a new funding mechanism that so far has only been seen to be relevant to Tollways. And it links the three main centres. A coastal fast rail is also needed at sometime in the future to help shape that sprawling growth.

2. The other funding mechanism would be based on land development value capture along corridors served by light rail. This can make rail pay.

A decade of rail development in Sydney is not a soft option it is the only alternative if we are to make a liveable and sustainable city. It is essential if we are to direct growth into centres, it is essential to make corridor revitalisation work, it is critical to making the CBD work as a genuinely global centre.

I remain hopeful that the Metropolitan Strategy can deliver on this.