Guy Rundle
Urban stall

“Brazil is the country of the future – and it always will be,” the French statesman Clemenceau once remarked. He was spot on so far as infrastructure went. For decades, South America was littered with half-built stadiums, bridges projecting into air, and roads to nothing. Projects started by one president or “strongman” would be discontinued, partly built, and a new slate of work started on. Why merely complete someone else’s vision, when you could have your own half-finished masterpiece hanging on the horizon?

We haven’t got it quite that bad in Australia but we come pretty close. In Victoria and New South Wales, which is to say, around Melbourne and Sydney, major infrastructure planning has become little more than a high-stakes game of political chicken. In Victoria, the now-departed Napthine government, blindsided by mass protest and Labor’s opposition to its East West Link proposal, rammed through more than a billion dollars of contracts, daring Labor to stick to its promise to discontinue the project. Labor did so, out of deep commitment – to not ceding inner-urban seats to the Greens, at least – and, in power, promptly inaugurated the Western Distributor, a Transurban roads project so counterproductive to good urban development that Jeff Kennett has slammed it.

Meanwhile, the process in Sydney makes Melbourne planning look like a Danish seminar on multidisciplinary urban design. The Baird government and Sydney developers – the two drivers of key projects designed to reorient the city, Barangaroo and WestConnex – do not even pretend that these projects are about anything other than a position war, with the city no more than a screen onto which cultural-political conflicts are projected: “elites versus mainstream”, “inner city versus outer”, and a signalling to capital that it can reconform the urban plan as it sees fit.

These chaotic, stop-start, ride-over-the-bastards processes are occurring at the worst possible time. When the relentless rise in the Australian population, the attraction of the metropolis and the now unceasing change in the nature of the economy demand the best urban policy, we are getting the worst. Two Victorian-era harbour/bayside cities, premised on population growth to half a million or so, are not merely growing, but changing the very sort of entity that they are. Properly curated, they could preserve their high standard of living. Extrapolating current trends, they will become sinks of inequality, blight and obliterated heritage.

How did we get into this mess? Through a decades-long disjuncture between politics and planning. The latter has always been liable to corruption, but with the mass adoption of the car, it became highly politicised as well. Freeways were suburban, familial, individual; public transport was urban collective and communal. Planning became a form of political signalling. When the actual development process was outsourced and privatised, the opportunity to plug development into party funding came along. So too did the opportunity to extend power beyond the life of a government, by committing to contracts locking the state into decades of transfer payments to private infrastructure providers.

Yet, while infrastructure policy has become politicised, the process that dictates urban form has become bipartisan. For nearly 70 years, with only minor variations, immigration policy has been predicated on the idea of growing the national population with arrivals who, through higher birth rates, will further increase it. The 1996 election was the only one at which this might have come under question, with the wins of John Howard and Pauline Hanson. But Hanson never had the will or skill to make a challenge on immigration policy, and Howard displaced conservative anxieties onto boat-borne arrivals, thus decisively committing the nation to a high-immigration track.

As this policy became gospel at a federal level, the method for handling it remained sequestered at the state level. If a federal system gives a national government some freedom from local pressures, it makes state governments doubly beholden to them. Immigration policy is population policy, and in our era, is urban policy. You don’t have to like the Productivity Commission much to agree with their recent pronouncement that the only immigration policy we have is to have more of it. Malcolm Turnbull’s early announcement of a minister for cities, with the agenda of making them “smart”, appeared promising in those heady, dimly remembered days when Turnbull gave the impression that he might be a forceful and effective leader.

Whatever good may come, the scope of a federal cities ministry is limited. The nation-state is ultimately an abstraction. Cities are the real unit of politics, and, literally, concrete. And they are anything but smart, as per Turnbull’s bubblehead wonkspeak. They are big, dumb rigid things, layers of redundancy; they develop vast inefficiencies from initial seedings, aggregate unintended consequences into the conditions under which millions of people live their lives. Mistakes, half-arsed commitments, simple apathy – Docklands in Melbourne, Sydney’s westward sprawl – become first dominant, then irreversible. Heading into a period when it will no longer be possible to simply add rings of suburbs or low-to-medium density brownfield development, while trying to accommodate three million people in Melbourne and Sydney, and two million in Brisbane, the worst possible driver of development would be the politically motivated tit-for-tat game that passes for urban planning.

What has become clear from the past two decades of planning is that future commitments have to be bi- or multipartisan, projected further into the future than existing plans. Schemes such as the Victorian government’s recent plan for the “Arden precinct” in inner-north Melbourne, with 15,000 new residents, seem underwhelming, even if they are preferable to the de facto anti-planning approach of former Liberal minister Matthew Guy.

What would a genuinely audacious and multipartisan plan look like? For one thing, it would project further into the future, aiming to set the conditions for urban development not for 30, but 50 or 75 years, and taking into account the most expansive estimates of population growth. That suggests thinking not in terms of billions of dollars, but starting to talk in the realm of trillions of dollars – or at least significant fractions thereof – and not of new districts, but of parallel and twin cities, mirroring and doubling the existing urban centres.

In Sydney, the obvious candidate is to develop the Blacktown–Parramatta area into a full city that rebalances Sydney’s western sprawl, a process that inadvertently swallowed up independent inland towns and drained them of their own centrality, turning the city into a vastly unbalanced, and thus very unequal, mega-sprawl.

In Melbourne, the substantial close-in brownfield sites around Footscray would make possible a close-in twin city – a Melbourne II, with its own forests of skyscrapers and apartments, as well as innovative low- and mid-rise stretches, preserving existing heritage (such as the industrial textures of western Melbourne) and hosting parks and urban wild spaces.

Such proposals and projects have a bad rap in Australia, because of earlier failures such as Elizabeth in South Australia. But those older “new towns” were designed with no consideration of the requirements people might have other than work, home and sleep. Parallel cities, dense, architecturally varied and vibrant in themselves, would also be connected to the “host” city by ultra-fast train and road links. Far from isolating people, it would be the only way that access to the intensity of city centres could retain some measure of equity, and the only way such heritage as remains could be protected from the insatiable demand for floor space.

But, of course, bipartisan agreement on long-term planning has been something people have been calling for over decades. And for decades, it has fallen down, not only because infrastructure is too useful as a source of favours and investment for marginal seats and powerful donors, but also because there are real philosophical divisions between the two major parties, and the Greens, about urban form.

The answer may be to try for a bipartisan, decades-long plan that “designs in the difference”. In this scenario both major parties would recognise that they (or parties that succeed them) will be trading power back and forth in six-to-10-year blocks for decades to come, and that a mixture of midterm planning – 15 to 30 years – combined with the political opportunism of privatised, tender-bonanza infrastructure boondoggling, delivers the worst possible outcomes. A five-to-eight-decades plan that contemplated the creation of a Melbourne II or Sydney II within the footprint of the existing city might then proceed with different emphases and priorities as the government changed, but within the ambit of a larger plan. Decades along the track that plan might be wholly reassessed, but at least the precedent and direction of multipartisan and pluralist development would have been set.

This proposal is something more and other than extensive “consultation” models. It proposes that the absolute nature of power be recognised. Power is held and lost, and maintained by means fair and foul. Building a recognition of this into long-term planning would mean even including a realistic expectation that pork-barrelling and clientalism will occur – which should make it easier to contest in a pluralistic society, and to challenge explicit corruption where it occurs.

Some critics might suggest that a decades-long, consensus-based general urban plan will lock future generations into living in a city they did not choose. But so does bad planning, or no planning at all. We have decided, as a nation, to become a substantially larger one. That means much bigger cities. Regionalisation is an add-on at best: immigrants are dynamic, ambitious people; few are leaving their home and culture to start a new life in Orange or Ballarat. Short of introducing an internal passport system, our cities are going to get big, on a global scale. Keeping the best of what they are now means recognising that they must become something very different. Or we can resign ourselves to consecrating, across the horizon, half-built monuments to failure.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 24, 2016 as "Urban stall".

A free press is one you pay for. In the short term, the economic fallout from coronavirus has taken about a third of our revenue. We will survive this crisis, but we need the support of readers. Now is the time to subscribe.

Guy Rundle is an author and commentator. His most recent book is Trumped! Election ’16 and the Progressive Collapse.