A new Minister for Cities and the Built Environment Announced in Australia: a model for NZ?

Australian Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, has just announced a new Federal Ministry for Cities and the Built Environment and appointed Jamie Briggs MP as the first holder of this warrant. 

He said:

We often overlook the fact that liveable cities, efficient, productive cities, the environment of cities, are economic assets. Making sure that our cities and regional centres are wonderful places to live, is an absolutely key priority of every level of Government. Because the most valuable capital in the world today is not financial capital, there’s plenty of that and it’s very mobile. The most valuable capital today is human capital. Men and women like ourselves who can choose to live anywhere. We have to ensure for our prosperity, for our future, for our competitiveness, that every level of Government works together, constructively and creatively to ensure that our cities progress.

In another point with application everywhere but particularly in New Zealand cities:

Roads are not better than mass transit or vice versa, each has their place. Infrastructure should be assessed objectively and rationally on its merits; there is no place for ideology here at all.

The statistics of urbanisation are compelling. In 2008, human civilisation reached a landmark: half the global population now living in urban areas. Fifty years ago it was 30%. A century ago it was 10%. Today, according to the UN, 54% of the world’s population lives in urban areas, a proportion that is expected to increase to 66% by 2050. Urbanism, the art and science of cities and built environment, is no longer a specialist area; it is a key part of our future as a sustainable species.

Although the words ‘sustainable living’ often bring to mind visions of living in a thinly-populated, isolated, rural idyll; it is (assuming infrastructure that is not totally deficient) far more environmentally sustainable to live in densely-populated areas. In a widely-cited op-ed, and in his seminal book, Triumph of The City, Edward L. Glaeser writes of the significantly higher pollution, energy, transport and land use inefficiencies, carbon emissions, and social isolation that are the product of urban sprawl and low density living. He puts it provocatively but accurately:

We are a destructive species, and if you love nature, stay away from it. The best means of protecting the environment is to live in the heart of a city.

Cities generate over 70% of the world’s GDP (80% in Australia) and most industries and businesses are located in or within immediate vicinity of urban areas. I look forward to the day we see a recognition of quality cities as an essential part of the liveability, success and prosperity of New Zealand – rather than being treated as a burden on the ‘rural backbone’ – with the creation of a similar ministry and appropriate allocation of government resource.

Minister Jamie Briggs is a junior member of the government (not a Cabinet minister) and direction will come from Environment Minister, Greg Hunt. Mr Hunt’s father, Alan, designed the policy for green spaces which are a notable factor in the liveability of Melbourne. There have not been any concrete policy announcements yet but according to an Australian news source, ‘some objectives Mr Hunt and Mr Briggs might examine’ are:

— An annual “liveability index” with all cities rated against tough benchmarks. Mr Hunt had proposed this in 2011 when in Opposition. It was to have been conducted by a sustainable cities taskforce, a policy idea the Abbott government dropped.

— The 20-minute commute. No important destination — work, school, shops — would be greater than 20 minutes away by foot, bicycle or public transport. It is the holy grail of urban design and is being pushed by the Bus Industry Confederation.

— Joint operations by federal, state and local government to bring aboutimprovements. Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott saw only a limited federal role in this area, but Mr Hunt has declared “we are at a moment in history where each Australian city could bring together

federal, state and local authorities to lay out an overarching physical road map for the next 30 and 50 years”.

– Reduced energy use. Cities account for more than 60 per cent of total demand, through transport, cooling and heating buildings and running manufacturing.

— Finding more places for city people to live and cut the costs. The Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council calculates the gap between housing supply and demand stands at a shortfall of 228,000 new homes.

— Boosting public transport. The priority of the Abbott government was construction of major roads as part of a broad infrastructure program but most authorities argue for public transport and “active travel” such as cycling and discouragement of cars.

Alan Davies of ‘The Urbanist’ on Crikey.com offers a more critical perspective on the appointment of Jamie Briggs as the minister:

  • He’s a junior Minister, he’s not a Cabinet Minister.

  • His regulatory powers are likely to be narrow.

  • His expenditure powers will be slight.

  • The Commonwealth portfolios that have the largest impact on cities – like Infrastructure, Energy and Immigration – are in other hands i.e. Warrant Truss, Josh Frydenberg and Peter Dutton.

  • The most important Commonwealth functional responsibility for cities – transport – remains in the hands of the Nationals.

  • There’s little evidence that the Government as a whole see cities in the same way Mr Turnbull does.

About Vernon Tava

Barrister. Lives in Auckland, New Zealand.
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