Few cities in the world exist because of a piece of legislation. Can you imagine the political elite drafting the constitution of a newly formed Commonwealth and deliberating about what they might declare in order to legislate a city?
The founding fathers of Federation in Australia did this in the twighlight years of the 19th century. Their final words were less aspirational and more pragmatic. Section 125 of the Australian Constitution states:
“The seat of Government of the Commonwealth shall be determined by the Parliament, and shall be within territory which shall have been granted to or acquired by the Commonwealth, and shall be vested in and belong to the Commonwealth, and shall be in the State of New South Wales, and be distant not less than one hundred miles from Sydney.”
It goes onto to say a bit about the size of the territory and other matters to do with transition, but it is a neat bit of historical circumstance that a legal document can give effect to an entire city. It also raises another interesting point about the role of a federal administration in the functioning of a city.
In truth federal legislation does little to affect the operation of cities because cities are complex. They present some of the most critical and compelling challenges of our time. Critical, because humans are collectively grappling with the concept of accommodating more than half the world’s population in urban settings, and compelling because the way problems are framed and issues resolved in each city is unique to its history, culture and genius loci or the local setting.
Therefore to conceptualise the great urban challenges of our time is to understand the knowledge deeply rooted in the understanding citizens’ have of their city. Legislation doesn’t do this.
These challenges, however, are strikingly similar across cities and nations.
How do we house a growing and changing population? How should we effectively transport ourselves, our goods, and the services we need to function? How do we feed urbanites? How do we maintain a decent standard of living and at the same time reduce our demand on the resources so that future generations may enjoy the same standards that we aspire to? How do we adapt to global shifts in information, population, economic flows and climate change? In tackling these challenges, how do citizens make meaning of their city in a local, regional, national and international context?
It is these universal challenges that intersect with the role of federal governments in the operation of Australian cities. The Australian Commonwealth is just over a century old; Federation has been around for half the colonial white settlement history of Australia. In the first 50 years of Federation- the Australian government showed some interest in housing supply but the machine of the economy and therefore the national agenda was on the ports and in the bush. It was well known that during the 1950s Australia rode the sheep’s back to prosperity.
Four times since then, federal administrations have run an urban agenda – their interests ranging from direct investment in housing stimulating the growth of cities, to federally run programs to reform planning and development. The Better Cities Program in the 1990s and the most recent iteration, the major cities unit in the department of infrastructure are examples. The most direct intervention into cities came in the form of the ministry devoted to urban development in the 1970s. The unfortunately known DURD (Department of Urban and Regional Development) was most famous for its short but significant influence on Australian urban agenda at the time.
However, cities are State affairs in Australia, so why the Federal interest? All of these post-war forays have been initiated by reform minded left leaning governments. All have sought to influence State governments to improve the performance of urban design on some level. Given the increasing need for cities to adapt to climate change- and become more robust to shocks such as those seen across the US over the last decade-it seems timely that a national urban agenda exists and thrives.
But there are cautionary tales to this increasing interest in cities at a federal level. The resources and political effort needed to wade into the urban agenda has a twofold effect- it draws attention to major cities and by inference away from inland towns and the regions.
The current national urban policy focuses on the top fifteen cities in Australia of which twelve are on the coast. The current national urban agenda also reinforces the point that our largest cities are some of the biggest in the world- experiencing significant migration- while many other towns are stagnant or declining.
Yet from a service delivery perspective big cities are the most efficient, from a global branding point of view, the majors are most effective at drawing attention to international investors, but from a quality of life they can also be some of the least equitable places in Australia. Federal agendas on cities cannot be just about the economic potential, or the environmental cost. As important as these objectives are, it remains true, that cities are homes to millions of people and their experiences cannot be measured using nationally standardised metrics. The top down approach of a national agenda should be met with an equally compelling bottom up approach from local communities.
In an age of environmental urgency, and rising inequality it means urban policy operates in incredibly complex spatial and temporal spaces. We live in interesting times.