‘City Limits’: a different take

In the August 2015 issue of CBD News, Shane Scanlan, the editor, expressed considerable disappointment with the book City Limits by Grattan Institute academics Jane-Francis Kelly and Paul Donegan.

While some disappointment is justified, I think his judgement is too harsh. Perhaps the authors should not have made bold promises to explain “why Australia’s cities are broken and how we can fix them”.  No single book can fulfil that expectation.

Chapter eight, which outlines proposed remedies, makes the opening point that all Australian cities are different, and each needs to look for an appropriate solution. The “remedies” are thus couched in general terms, and tackled under four general headings: decision-making; housing; transport; and how to pay for improvement.

True, these are predictable and somewhat familiar prescriptions, but they provide a reasonable starting point, and I believe that they have correctly given priority to improving decision-making by encouraging greater and better engagement with communities. But the question of how genuine community engagement can be put in place requires much more detailed development.

On housing, they rightly focus on the resident-unfriendly system of state and local government rules “that dictate where and how new housing gets built” (p. 162). “Dramatic simplification and streamlining”, however, is too easily presented as a solution. Changes to the taxation and financing regimes are also needed, but again solutions for particular city/state/national government regimes are difficult to identify and generating political momentum for change is even more difficult.

Perhaps too many of the book’s recommendations appear as exhortations for government to take action and to use successful reforms in other cities as a guide to reform. Only in the final paragraph do the authors say that “the challenge is not just one for governments … our cities will only get better if we want them to, and act accordingly.” How citizens should act, however, is not fully addressed. Even engagement with communities is presented as an issue to be initiated primarily by city governments.

These shortcomings are largely a consequence of the scope and ambition of the book. More positively, many of the book’s general points can be taken up in ways that relate to local needs.

In the case of Melbourne CBD, a number of existing residential groups are active and can play a vital role in working co-operatively with the City of Melbourne (CoM) to engage with the Melbourne City Council and Victorian Government. Some work in this direction has been initiated by members of EastEnders and Residents 3000. They will liaise closely with the CoM’s current review of the current planning scheme as it applies to the CBD.

Specifically it is proposed to examine the application of 3D visualisation tools in a small area of the CBD with the aim of keeping neighbourhood citizens informed on the likely effects of all new planning applications and approved developments on building density, tower spacing, and streetscape, as well as likely impacts on traffic and service delivery, amenities of light and air, and heritage values – a stark contrast to the present building-by-building approach.

As City Limits points out, however, intensive community engagement is neither easy nor cheap (p.160). But they cite examples of where such an approach has led to very significant improvements both in establishing tangible progress and achieving majority agreement on the success of the community involvement process.
The other positive aspect of City Limits is that it presents a strong case for increasing investment in liveable city development across the country, and ultimately the globe.

Cities increasingly provide the potential for economic growth and social development for much of the world’s population, but cities in Australia and elsewhere need to do a better job in making better linkages between citizens and government and connecting people and jobs.

We cannot expect the political and commercial environment to change dramatically or spontaneously in the short term. Community groups must directly tackle the serious problems of social connections and city development and kindle needed policy development by local, state and national government.

Country-wide, state and local governments must be encouraged to facilitate genuine involvement of residents and business and, in turn, citizens must be given genuine opportunities for constructive engagement.

While there are undoubted differences among Australian cities, there are also many problems that are comparable, and lessons learned should be shared. Case studies to establish modalities of engagement between residents and city management, such as that proposed for Melbourne CBD, should therefore be encouraged more widely.

Kelly and Donegan have mapped the territory and the main ridges to be crossed, but direct citizen action supported by government will be needed to make this increasingly necessary journey.

William Allan

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