Australia needs another city if our population and living standards are to continue to rise in tandem.
One of the dirty secrets of the population debate is that Sydney and Melbourne can carry many more residents within their existing postcodes.
The problem is that no government, federal or state, wants to put their name to a strategy that sees every spare piece of inner-city land converted to high-rise apartments. Better to send lower-income families to some new housing estate than keep them close to the services that the rest of the nation takes from granted.
So the discussion jumps to the dream of turning a town into a city. Tony Burke suggested Townsville. There may, in fact, be more than one area that explodes over the next 20 years.
George Megalogenis, “Populate in the right places,” Meganomics, July 5, 2010
Megalogenis has some points to make about urban planning and state-federal relations, all of which are quite worthwhile, but what really captured my fancy about this post was finally seeing someone else talk about my pipe dream of building new Australian cities.
As an avid consumer of cityporn, I’ve spent a long time being disappointed by the meagre quantity of genuinely urban Australian centres. Despite the fact that our population lives overwhelmingly in cities, the primacy of our cities and our small population results in us having only having a handful of places worthy of getting excited about. Considering that Newcastle is the sixth largest city in the country (and does not feel citylike in the slightest), Australia is left with five proper cities, the five with a metropolitan population over five million people: Adelaide, Perth, Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne. (And out of those, Adelaide’s pretty useless.) I don’t like this because I think cities are exciting and I think it’s a fun thing if a country has a Whitman’s sampler of different cities to pore over and enjoy, but it’s also stultifying creatively and economically, as well. Mark Coultan discussed this in the Herald back in 2007:
Quick quiz: How many major Australian companies have their headquarters outside of a capital city? For that matter, how many have their headquarters outside of Sydney or Melbourne?
By comparison, America’s greatest companies are dotted all over the map. Coca-Cola in Atlanta (PepsiCo is in the aptly named Purchase, New York), Microsoft on the outskirts of Seattle (along with Amazon and Starbucks); 3M in St Paul, Minnesota; Bank of America in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Bentonville, north-western Arkansas, would be a rural backwater off Interstate 71 if it wasn’t the home of Wal-Mart, a retail chain so big that its suppliers have to have branch offices in Bentonville, whose population, and the average household income, increased by 50 per cent in 10 years.
Some of this is because of sheer size; there are dozens of cities in the US that are large enough to support all the necessary ingredients for a large corporation: population, skills and infrastructure. Some of it is because of corporate welfare, otherwise known as tax incentives, in which cities and states outbid each other to lure companies to their region.
Further, our population is going to keep growing (as it should!), and if Sydney and Melbourne are not going to swell to impractical sizes, placing an excessive drag on the infrastructure of these two locations, we’re going to need new cities.
Oh, the excitement! You better believe I’ve thought long and hard about this. Wouldn’t it be fantastic if Hobart wasn’t a miserable old backwater, but was a thriving Boston on the Southern Ocean? Unfortunately, they sent the worst convicts to Tasmania back in the old days for a reason: No one wants to go to Tasmania, and with Melbourne a short hop away, there’s going to be no economic reason for Hobart to boom unless someone discovers oil off the coast there or something. My dreams of a genuine cold-weather Aussie metropolis must be abandoned, I’m afraid.
So how about dragging some of us away from the coast and seeing a mighty inland empire come to life? 2 million people living in Dubbo or Wagga or Bendigo? For sheer variety, I’d enjoy an inland Australian city immensely, but the best shot of that happening would be to make Canberra into a place where actual people live. This is a possibility, though I haven’t spent enough time in Canberra to advise on the best way to transform it from a government-owned office park into Australia’s D.C. Still, even though Canberra could be more lively and much bigger, at a certain point it would run out of water; central NSW and Victoria just don’t have the climate to support too many people.
No, the answer to the conundrum dovetails with a gripe I’ve frequently had about Australian geography. Basically, we built our country as if we were a bunch of Europeans stranded on a desert island in the south Pacific, which is sort of close to how early Australia really did see itself. So our biggest, oldest cities were in the most European parts of the nation, along the relatively fertile crescent hugging the southeast coast of the country. And since the interior around there is big, dry, and inhospitable, we’ve convinced ourselves that area was the natural place to put a lot of people.
But that’s nonsense. We’re Australian, not English, and our home is an island in the South Pacific. We don’t need to keep pretending we’re Europeans in exile recreating home. We like the heat. And so when we found all sorts of stuff in the ground up in un-European climates like Queensland, we moved ourselves up there. So Brisbane is booming, as is that whole conurbation stretching from the Gold Coast to the Sunshine Coast. Townsville and Cairns aren’t doing too bad either, and if either of them should turn into a tropical metropolis, that would be very exciting. And since there’s money up there and people already like living there, if we are to have a new big city, one of those would probably be our best bet. And remember, unlike most of NSW and Victoria, big parts of Queensland do have water, and can support larger populations.
My most preferred scenario however, as unlikely as it is, is for small, sleepy Darwin to become a world city. Situated all the way up there on the Timor Sea, it has a diverse population (10 per cent of the citizens are Aboriginal and another 10 per cent Asian), and it’s already one of the fastest growing cities in the country. Far away from Sydney and Melbourne, a big Darwin would be distant from the country’s east coast origins, and it already has a distinct regional culture not quite like anywhere else in the country (or so I’ve heard). Australia, Darwin should be our next big city. It would be awesome.