‘City Limits’, a missed opportunity

Book review by Shane Scanlan

As residents of inner-city urban renewal areas, we are generally ahead in our understanding of how big cities like Melbourne work and how they don’t work.

After all, we have already made the decision to locate ourselves in the centre, ditch the car, and generally leverage the other available benefits.

So looking for greater wisdom as promised in a new book by Grattan Institute academics Jane-Frances Kelly and Paul Donegan is a disappointing experience.

City Limits holds out the promise on its cover: “Why Australia’s cities are broken and how we can fix them”.

But Kelly and Donegan are good at describing the dysfunction but not so good at suggesting solutions.

They rightly point out the fragmented decision-making, political resistance to change and a resulting public failure to see and engage in the wider context.

They do offer some piecemeal solutions such as central changes to negative gearing, capital gains taxation and the introduction of congestion taxes.

And they correctly resist calling for wholesale organisational restructure, saying: “There is no single kind of structural change that would work for all Australian cities”.

Instead, they call for genuine, widespread and serious community engagement as our best chance of fixing our dysfunctional cities.  They point to some North American examples where proper public consultation has achieved outcomes.

And, given the democratic political structures (restrictions) we are working within in this country, perhaps this suggestion is the best we can hope for?

But you would have to have an extremely optimistic (naïve?) faith in society to expect this is going to happen.

In somewhat of a contradiction, the authors point out the flaws of letting communities preserve their self-interest in planning and transport matters.  But they then go on to recommend an extension of community involvement as the solution to political paralysis.

“All of the overseas cities in the study had a different story to tell.  But a recurring theme was early, sophisticated, sustained and deep engagement with the community.  This was especially the case in cities that seem to make hard decisions and did so successfully.  Engagement seems to make tough decisions possible and to make them stick,” the book says.

The authors go on to acknowledge that: “Too often in Australia, governments ‘consult’ residents to provide a veneer of respectability to a pre-determined outcome, rather than genuinely respond to residents’ priorities.”

In my view, this is certainly the case here in the City of Melbourne where council officers have become more and more sophisticated at claiming public support for their pre-determined outcomes (and, sadly, being recognised as leaders in their field for such manipulation!).

The authors say engagement has to happen early, before decision-makers’ minds are made up.  Further, they advocate that such engagement needs to be conducted by an “organisation” which operates at arm’s length from government itself.

“The organisation need not be completely outside government, but should at least be at arm’s length from the political process, not subject to direction from a government minister,” they say.

They say government should be happy to accept “results they wouldn’t have favoured”.

As I said earlier, this is a very optimistic position to be taking.

In my view, the book misses an opportunity to put forward a more realistic way forward.

It dances around the fact that our cities are our new national economic engine-rooms but never quite nails the argument.  It even points out how lucky we are to be so urbanised compared with other countries.

“The future of our cities will shape everything from national prosperity to the quality of everyday life.  Yet, there is little appreciation of the hard choices we face. The fate of cities barely registers on the agendas of our politicians.  This books seeks to change that, in order to give cities their rightful place in the Australian story,” the authors say in their opening chapter.

But it fails to go and suggest how to get the debate onto the national agenda.  It fails to suggest how the politicians can be educated.

And it fails to point out the reality of our global competition with the other cities of the world and how they are operating to their advantage.

As Melburnians we are acutely aware of the Chinese money flooding into our property market.  We see its affects all too clearly, but we fail to reflect on how this wealth was generated in the first place.

If we stopped and reflected, we would see how the cities of Asia have become the engine-rooms of the world economy.  The Chinese understand the purpose of urbanisation.  But, by and large, we don’t.

The publication of City Limits helps us understand cities better.  But this greater understanding has happened almost by accident. It fails to capitalise on the opportunity to suggest ways of educating our political classes and the wider community about the new economic forces.

The Emirate of Dubai has generated eye-watering wealth for its citizens in the blink of an eye simply by building a city.  It is obvious more complicated than this, but they had no oil reserves and no exports to start with.  They had a barren desert to work with but had a strategic location.

They have created wealth simply via political policy settings and an unrestricted ability to make those policy settings.

Would I prefer to live in Melbourne rather than Beijing or Dubai?  Absolutely.  And is our flawed democracy better than the alternative?  Of course.

Even if Kelly and Donegan are right in saying that community engagement is the way forward, let’s get to the heart of the matter and start talking about how cities work and why we need them rather than tinkering with planning codes and taxation settings.

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