Building up an evidence base for better cities

‘Cities are complex systems—‘systems of systems’ […] the creation of liveable, accessible and sustainable cities requires holistic vision and integrated development. To achieve successful development, we must envisage cities that perform for their citizens.’

If you are interested in the future of our cities, take some time and open up Building Up and Moving Out: the report released this week by the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Infrastructure, Transport and Cities. A lengthy tome, it nonetheless warrants a closer read beyond the media releases as we consider the shape of national policy in advance of the next Federal Election.

The culmination of the Committee’s Inquiry into the Australian Government’s role in the development of cities, chaired by John Alexander OAM MP, Building Up and Moving Out represents a significant step forward in establishing a comprehensive, bipartisan evidence base for a more sophisticated approach to urban policy nationally.  Kicking off in May last year the Committee was exhaustive; considering 174 submissions and evidence provided through 25 public hearings across Australia to inform 37 recommendations for action. The GBCA submitted individually and provided evidence, and was pleased to support the Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council (ASBEC) also in its submission.

The report is ambitious in its scope, navigating the political sensitivities of population growth as it impacts on services and infrastructure in both regional, urban and metropolitan contexts. The need to effectively manage urban and outer urban growth, alongside the unique demands of regional centres, through a strategic approach to settlement is a recurring theme. Naturally this points to a clear and uncontroversial recommendation for a national settlement strategy, supported by integrated master plans for states, regions and communities.

But in keeping with its systemic view of cities, the report dives deeper and identifies practical policy interventions to grapple with more granular issues at the regional, city and even project level. It is the pragmatic, often low cost, and clearly identified nature of these recommendations that deserve the attention of policy makers. For example, sensible recommendations establishing:

  • nationally consistent measureable targets to reduce waste to landfill, and incorporating waste indicators in the National Cities Performance Framework (recommendation 9);
  • nationally consistent guidelines for urban green space and establishing a clear trajectory to continued carbon emissions reductions (recommendation 10);

Recommendations like these (and there are several) are common sense, and there should be no need to delay their adoption. Alongside recommendations building stronger strategic frameworks, improved standards and data collection, the Committee has also clearly identified the opportunities to leverage the built environment for better outcomes on the ground. Existing policy and regulatory successes are targeted for potential expansion, i.e. recognising the role of buildings in delivering energy productivity and reducing our emissions:

  • completing a regulatory impact assessment on lowering the participation threshold of the Commercial Building Disclosure Program); and investigating the extension of mandatory disclosure to tenancies above 1000m2 (recommendation 14);
  • extending the Smart Cities and Suburbs Program (recommendation 17);
  • maintaining the Co-operative Research Centres (CRC) focus on urban issues (recommendation 24).

Throughout the report, the support for best practice urban design is clear with the Committee calling for fresh federal government endorsement for Creating Places for People: An Urban Design Protocol for Australian Cities, and providing financial support to maintain and promote these design principles (recommendation 24). Alongside ASBEC, the GBCA has been a proud supporter of the Urban Design Protocol since its inception, and long advocated for its continued and widespread adoption.

Australian industry leadership, nationally and globally, is well recognised, for example through Green Star which is rightly supported through recommendation 25 for ‘the broader application of rating systems, such as the Green Building Council of Australia’s Green Star program, to urban regeneration.’ There is clear recognition of the powerful market transformation and improved outcomes generated through the use of industry-led tools like Green Star.

With a specific focus on national policy opportunities, Building Up and Moving Out rightly notes the critical role of the Australian Government in driving better outcomes through tax incentives; infrastructure projects that target employment growth (recommendation 31); city deals (recommendation 29); the greater use of city commissions like the Greater Sydney Commission (recommendation 30) and delivery agencies.

Addressing the often overlooked opportunities to improve government procurement, and to deliver better value for money for the tax payer from our increasing infrastructure spend, are recommendations for a whole-of-life approach to infrastructure that considers how well it meets objectives in terms of economic, social and environmental sustainability (recommendation 33).

Expanding on this point ASBEC’s own Bang for Buck report, calling for a better approach to infrastructure business cases, was released during the Committee’s consultation period. Its recommendations are well reflected with the Committee embracing an approach to infrastructure project appraisal that includes assessment of (recommendation 36):

  • wider economic, social and environmental benefits;
  • costs and returns over the life of the infrastructure; and
  • cost of the project using a discount rate of 4 per cent.

These recommendations are not insignificant: they go to the heart of the decisions that shape the investments our governments make through infrastructure in the name of  jobs, growth, and community.  

The role of the Australian Government throughout these recommendations is unambiguous: ‘The evidence presented to the Committee indicates that most stakeholders believe the Australian Government should be taking an even larger role in the development of cities.’

These recommendations can help deliver better cities today and for the next generation. If implemented they will change how and what we build, and improve not just our built environment, but our standard of living, our health and the fabric that underpins our community.

As we approach the pre-election season, and the changes that inevitably come with any new parliament, we need to make a regular feature of Building Up and Moving Out and the solutions identified. There is nothing quite like some good, democratic, stakeholder consultation, and evidence-based policy-making to identify practically how we might deliver policy, and cities, that perform better for us all.

Jonathan Cartledge is Head of Public Affairs and Membership with the GBCA and Chair of the ASBEC Cities Task Group.