Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

City Limits: Why Australia’s cities are broken and how we can fix them

City Limits: Why Australia’s cities are broken and how we can fix them  by Jane-Frances Kelly, Paul Donegan Kelly_City Limits

We have become a nation of Two Australia’s. But the divide is not based on class, skin colour, or wealth (per say) but on how close to the CBD you live. Those in close enjoy access to good jobs, access to good services, high house values, higher levels of gender equality at work and lower work-life balance issues. Those further out suffer in all these areas.

This is a fantastic, if scary book. It combines several of the biggest issues of modern Australian life, and shows how they are centrally connected to our cities, and how we are comprehensively failing to address them.

The argument begins by noting that while the knowledge-economy was thought to have enabled us to all work ‘anywhere, anytime’, in fact it has pushed us towards the CBD. Where manufacturing let people live in the suburbs near the big plants, today’s economy forces everyone to head to a central point. So much so that 80% of Australia’s economy now occurs on 0.2% of our land.

But that’s not where the people are. Certainly not those who are new, poor, disadvantaged or just on average salaries. This book, if anything undersells, a story of two Australia’s. And while transport, governance and other concerns are part of the issue, the real culprit here is housing policy.

The pursuit of the Australian dream is killing the Australian dream. By assuming everyone wants a large, detached house in the outer suburbs we have built cities which are increasingly harming our lives and our economy.

We are not building enough houses for people, nor the kinds of houses they want, nor in the places they want. Rich suburbs with access to good services and jobs have become virtual forts, keeping out anyone else who wants to access these benefits. Notably one area the authors do not point the finger at is population growth. The problem is not that we are growing too fast, but that we’re doing such a bad job of managing it that all growth is a problem. Likewise foreign investment is about 1% of the market, so again it’s not the culprit.

Tackling this will be tough. Unlike many other countries, there’s usually no one responsible for an entire city (hence why we should abolish the states, though that’s a topic for another day). Worse, it will require both sides of politics to sacrifice beloved policies. The Right needs to embrace more public transport (especially trains). The left needs to recognise that housing policy regulations are crippling the very ‘working families’ they claim to speak on behalf of. And both sides need to become much much better at engaging with the public to see what they want and find what trade offs they will accept.

There’s much to recommend about this book. In fact, anyone interested in Australia’s politics, economy or social changes should pick it up. Best book I’ve read this year in fact.