Henry Ergas recent outline of the traditional Australian capital cities urban structure and his conceding of urban sprawl (The Weekend Australian 25-26January), gives a clear outline of the organic growth of Australian cities, their formative and exemplary role of the c1900’s modern city and how city core to suburbs model has been integral to land economics that need a stable base. He concedes however the public’s growing preference for ‘look & feel’ urban forms, of inner city living is acknowledged, but we are cautioned ‘that this should only come about tempered by market demand’, not planning regulation.
The underlining proposition that ‘business as usual’ – allowing the urban sprawl to continue, flies in the face of the growing body of thinking among modern urban planners.
We are reminded of our cities being at the forefront of urbanization in the world , turn of the 20th century (generating belts of suburbia,) followed by an “ever widening suburban belt surrounding the urban core “. The model ‘stand-alone’ family homes is still good we are told, with its tax incentives and with the peak traffic it generates, lack of congestion charges on heavy traffic roads, suggesting that restricting the suburban sprawl at the peripheries of our cities would “a planners curse far worse than the cure”. Mr Egras argues, “high rise, urban infill/densification artificially inflate the price of land”, and disproportionately raise housing costs for low-income families, whilst an (endlessly) expanding suburban fringe (ever more distant from an urban core), preserves a ‘steady state of land and house values.
In the current perspective the proposition, that our cities should continue to expand by freely accommodating ‘stand-alone’ homes to sustain a long standing economic model, is not enough to condone ‘business as usual’. It is precisely because the cities have outgrown their earlier ‘city modern’ model, a business and industry centre to be escaped into the comparative idyll of garden residential estates, that a change is needed – on economic grounds. The cost of infrastructure, every increasing distance of travel from home to work, economic and health cost of pollution, energy consumption and sheer inconvenience need also be part of that economic equation of cost of land and cost of houses.
Cities are very complex entities made of inter dependent processes generating complex economic outcomes. On economic terms a city planning model should be based on statistical analysis and performance modelling of all cost elements, not just land and house values. We will find densification makes sense economically. It is not economic mathematics or idealistic planners that stand in the way of needed adaptation that will produce less pollution, more free time and beyond ‘look and feel’ urban forms urban spaces that create integrated living communities. Type of communities that predate 19th century birth of modern city then predicated on access to cheap labour and the post WW2 model of the nuclear family. Both models have lost their original currency.
Mr Ergas recognition that for Australians, wealth traditionally held by most in urban real estate, should remain in a ‘steady state’ economic environment, should be supported. But should the price of land and the price of houses be the sole arbiter of value? The dream to ultimate human happiness, is it not what the quarter acre block was meant to stand for, in the idea of the city? That dream, and where our cities are heading, need to be redefined in a greater vision.