Oct 27, 2009

We don’t need new fast trains, Albo, we need new cities

When it comes to infrastructure, what we need first and foremost are not new rail lines. Not even fast rail lines. What we need are new cities.

Guy Rundle — Correspondent-at-large

Guy Rundle


There have probably been worse appearances on Lateline than last night's Anthony Albanese extravaganza. Greg Sheridan's encounter with George Galloway in the lead-up to the Iraq war comes to mind, when the grumpy Grouper spent most of the segment yelling "don't go off your medication, George" at Galloway's satellite image -- leaving a bewildered nation muttering "physician heal thyself". And doubtless there have been times when a guest, getting up to go, has forgotten the clip mike cable, wrapped it around their neck, pulled themselves into their waterglass and drowned. That would be worse than Albo's appearance last night. But that's about it. You'd have to say that Albo's fumble through refugee policy was bad -- but his take on infrastructure was alarming. It was also indicative of the lack of real determination to make change happen within the Rudd government. Beyond the 20-20 frou frous and flattery, this is federal government running like a state government, plundering the housing and teaching budget to build schools, etc, etc, all aimed at keeping an economy ticking over and not much more. Everyone's mind has been focused by new reports that we will be heading north to 30, 35 million and beyond quicker than we know it. Since most of that gain will come in Sydney and Melbourne these cities will cross a threshold becoming something else. It is plainly obvious that we cannot grow simply by adding fresh rings of suburbs to them. Melbourne will be at Gippsland. Sydney will hit New England. None of these new areas will have any real focus. They'll be exurbs, noplaces. Radical and audacious policy is needed if this demographic change is to be an opportunity not a disaster. There was none of this in Albo's discourse about infrastructure. He burbled on like the Tasmanian minister of railways c.1956, talking about a new line here, and a new station there. He looks like Doc Evatt, and he makes Tom Cahill sound like Caesar Augustus. Even Tony Jones was frustrated, sounding like a tutor coaching a slow-witted student: "Anthony what about fast rail. Europe. Interlinking cities ..." "Ah but Tony remember, soon there will be a second ramp at West Footscray, and the Twisties machine will be fixed ..." This is the worst of Ruddism. It is a mad Mandarin adventure on stuff that doesn't matter and a dull suburban Labor outfit where it does. What we need first and foremost are not new rail lines, you clown. Not even fast rail lines. What we need are new cities. Whole new cities. Cities and towns. Places designed to grow to a variety of sizes, from 50,000 to half a million or so. Some could have a strong eco-emphasis, mixing city and country, different ways of life, others could be more conventionally centralised. We need, say 25 of them, all within 30 minutes by fast rail (250 kph) of a larger urban centre -- with the expectation that they would take, in total, five million to seven  million people of the new 35 million population. We need to stop worrying about the failure of earlier planned start-up cities -- from Canberra to Elizabeth -- and instead learn from them. We need to make them not conventional slapped-up cities -- box skyscrapers, slab tilt low rise jobs -- but places with a core of design excellence. Give leading architects a city each, and let them go wild. Give Peter Corrigan a city. Ashton Raggatt. Invite overseas architects in, from Gehry on down. Put Denton Corker Marshall in jail for crimes against humanity*. Design the cities so that they will not be limited by their designed status, but enabled. So that they will grow in ways their initial designers never imagined. Put a federal department head office, state department head office, a university in each of them, and give corporations tax breaks to locate there. Link them by fast rail and successively revolutionised communications, so that teleconferencing becomes the norm, rather than pointless travel for bogus meetings. Make some of them post-cities -- spaces where rural life and urban life co-exist in as yet unexplored ways. Where there are farms beside skyscrapers. Where local production is emphasised, building codes allow a greater mix of styles and approaches. Emphasise not elitism (as did that mad multifunction polis idea of the '80s-'90s), but openness, with selected areas of rent control, so that low-income creative types, from painters to punk bands, can live there and transform them as they go. Some of these new cities would be old cities -- Newcastle, Warragul, poor old bloody Elizabeth -- but it would also be a way of making sure we don't wreck mid-size, functioning cities and towns such as Ballarat, in a desperate war against sprawl. It also means that we won't have to wreck Melbourne, with the new doctrine of density, so that it enters up as a characterless imitation of Guangdong. The truth is that these Victorian cities were never designed, intended or imagined to take this insane, unserviceable sprawl. Cue phalanx of cultural studies types to tell me that, "arrrrr the suburbs are a multimodal space of rhizomatic post-metaphysical ... arrr I've got it on a card somewhere." Simple rule. If you live in a place where you need a car to get around, local shopping is the mall, and the majority of people commute more than an hour a day, then congratulations, you're in a slum of the future. The desire for the constituents of suburban living -- gardens, low-rise, large houses, etc -- are absolutely legitimate and there is an anti-suburban elitism it's easy to fall into. But there are smarter, better ways to ensure more people get a share of this, together with a whole series of other advantages, than simply ploughing up ever more far-flung fields. The truth is Melbourne and Sydney had exceeded their bounds by about 1910. Melbourne's natural boundaries are the Maribyrnong to the west, Dights Falls to the east, Merri Creek to the north, and Veludo Cafe Bar, Acland St, to the south. Beyond that, you can see, you can actually see in the layout, how the city started to lose its focus. That sprawl is now terminal. Melbourne and Sydney are two of the worst-planned, worst prosecuted cities in the world. A new cities plan should be a bi-partisan commitment over 25 years, and projected a full half-century ahead. The emphasis would then shift with different governments, but ideally the plan would show a way forward. And to those who suggest that this is hopelessly ambitious, what can one say. Maybe you're right, with a government whose infrastructure minister bleats "well I was hoping for a better fast rail infrastructure proposal". Jesus, Albo. You're the gummint! Lead! For it's worth remembering that, within the space of three long-lifetimes, we did do this, did found cities. Their names were Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, Adelaide ... *This is a satirical reference to my entirely subjective view that DCM's designs are not to my taste. It should in no way be taken as an imputation that DCM are anything other than fully professional architects, or guilty of actual war crimes.

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38 thoughts on “We don’t need new fast trains, Albo, we need new cities

  1. james mcdonald

    Does anyone know why desert cities never took off in Australia as they did in the US? Don’t bite head off if that’s a dumb question.

  2. Karl Reed

    Yes, Rundle is absolutely right! We need new cities, most likely in the North, where there is water. But, adding 3 million to Melbourne is criminally insane! The rhetorical question is..

    “How many cities as big or bigger than Melbourne are there in Europe?” A hint.. Australia has 2 such cities and a population of 21 Million, therefore, 1 Melbourne/10.5 Million.

    So, there are about 350 Million people in Europe.. So, we expect about 35 cities as big as Melbourne or bigger?

    But, are there?

    A similar argument applied to GB with a population of 50 million would have five such cities.

    But, are there?

    Oh dear, I am seriously aggravated by this Government’s ignorance and inaction!

    Karl Reed

  3. Kylie Zupp

    We don’t need new cities, Rundo, we need less people!

  4. Jim Wright

    Albanese is quite right ! So is Guy Rundle. The point is, if the infrastructure is not in place, no one will want to go to these cities. What we need is a statewide master plan, identifying the best places for development and the infrastructure to serve them. Not only that, we need taxation benefits to persuade people (and more importantly, potential employers) to move there, we need protocols to prevent entrepreneurs from manipulating the system to their own benefit. We need people who are prepared to go out into the dry areas and reverse the effects of desertification (dry country refugees from the Middle East would jump at the chance of compulsory 5-year contracts to engage in this work if they were promised the opportunity to save money and the right to become fullcitizens afterwards). We need to make determined efforts to invent and develop new teechnology (and what is more, hang on to it!) .
    If we could create and sell to the world, the technology that would make deserts inhabitable or at worst economically support fly-in/fly out projects other than digging holes, we would become rich. Here are some examples. (1). Years ago, the ABC Landline program featured someone (back of Mildura, I believe) who had erected huge glass-houses made of plastic (to keep the hail out) with a computer-controlled environment and recycled water and was producing several crops of hydroponically grown legumes and vines each year. (2). A proposal is on the table somewhere to build a huge glass-house, several kilometres square with a flue, about a kilometre and a half high in the mddle. The theory is that the difference in weather conditions at ground level and in the upper atmosphere would create an updraught which would power turbines to control the environment. (3). Pump water into dry areas from water-rich areas using pipes with many small turbines along their length, all powered by solar energy, the cells sitting on top of the pipes.
    There are so many things we could do, but they must be co-ordinated and paid for as part of a grand plan or none of it will come to fruition.

  5. meski

    How are you proposing to lessen the number of people, Kylie?

  6. Guy Rundle

    interesting question on desert cities. Until recently they were all small. Sante Fe, Phoenix, Vegas were Spanish then Mexican trading outposts.

    Vegas grew by the simple expedient of being in the only state where gambling was legal until the 70s – and still the only state where prostitution is legal.

    Phoenix has grown from retirement moves – dry heat for old bones.

    Albuquerque – large scale state investment

    LA diverted water from surrounding valleys (see Chinatown)

    None of them are even remotely sustainable water-wise

    I’m talking cities of the hinterland, the green east of Oz

  7. michael crook

    None of you seem to understand that the only way decisions are made in Australia is solely dependent on whether someone can make a dollar out of it. Whether Labor or Liberal, the only criteria for decision making is the economic well being of an opportunist, whether individual or corporate. Why else do you think we are still mining coal even though we know it is killing the planet. Why else do you think we put totally inadequate resources into things like child safety and preventative health. Why have Brisbane suburbs been turned into a bombsite of road construction while public transport languishes. Why else do we cheer for increased personal consumption and waste. The age of personal self gratification and conspicuous consumption is still with us. The question we should be asking, is, what are you going to do about it. Yes, thats right, you.

  8. John Molloy

    Guy, I notice you picking on Elizabeth. Well done! (Sorry, that was uncalled for). Elizabeth is an example of a satellite city that was overtaken by suburban sprawl. SA seems to have a penchant for such things. Monarto, for example. Originally going to be a satellite city in the 70s (like Elizabeth in the 50s) Monarto is now a zoo (like Elizabeth now).

    Sydney. Where would you put the satellite cities? Wallarawang? Appin? Gunderman? Hey, I’m warming to this. It just might work.

  9. Rena Zurawel

    Perhaps we do need more cities. But to build a single one, we need a good transport infrastructure, first.
    In present monetary culture I am not sure we can build anything, let alone a city. Commercial greed, our taxation system, GST and strong lobby groups representing countries other than Australia are the biggest barrier to any development. Building infrastructure does not bring immediate profit so we focus on many totally useless albeit profitable enterprises which give us immediate return. To build a new city we would have to direct taxpayers’ money into our country’s needs. Stop costly wars, cut bureaucracy by half, CEO’s salaries, bonuses and perks. Ease licensing system. Build a national grit so we can have energy resources available nationally.
    Giving an example, Whyalla in SA comes to mind. The town was built for 50 000 people. There are currently 22 000 with the infrastructure for a much bigger township. Monopoly of BHP would never allow any other companies to be there. Council would not issue permits. Situated in the vicinity of the richest iron ore deposits Whyalla alone would provide for steel needs of the entire country. It did not happen, it will never happen. We import steel from overseas.
    It would be nice if a 18 km bridge were built from Pt. Germain to Port Bonython which would cut short the distance from Adelaide to Whyalla by half (200km). In Japan they build bridges 50 km long.
    There are not that many cities ‘born’ on a drawing board. Adelaide is one of them. New cities do get built if there is a need. It would be nice if there was a fast, solar power operated train from Adelaide to Melbourne, but I don’t think oil companies would allow to build one. Steel from One Steel should be available.
    The question is: Can we build a new city all by ourselves? Would the bidding process for contractors be fair and free of corruption?
    Or shall we ask Chinese to do it for us?

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