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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.


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?

  10. Andrew Crook

    Tom Cahill or Tom Cargill?

  11. Daniel

    What’s wrong with Elizabeth. 🙁

  12. Richard McGuire

    I didn’t see the Lateline interview but Rundle’s article resurrected ghosts from the past….Tom Uren, The Department of Urban and Regional Development, Albury-Wodonga.

    These names are associated with tentative steps by the Whitlam Government over thirty years ago at promoting decentralisation and growth in the regions. The Whitlam Government did not last long enough to see the vision realised. Malcolm Fraser became PM, Ronald Reagan became US President, Margaret Thatcher Prime Minister of Great Britain, and planning was something that happened in Russia.

    Maybe Australia can accomodate 35 million people. No doubt it is possible to jam most of them into the Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane regions. Those calling for Australia to become part of Asia would be on the way to seeing their vision realised.

    If our major cities are to remain liveable it is going to require vision and leadership on a national scale. Not all of Australia is desert. There is no shortage of land for housing. If people are going to move to the regions there has to be work for them, and “infrastructure”, that word again, to support them. Over to you Rudd.

  13. Rena Zurawel

    Guy Rundle
    America is not the end of the world. There are desert cities in some parts of our planet. We will have to force big companies to look after our environment and instead of i.e. using our underground water from bores – have desalination plants and encourage them to produce solar energy for their purposes. We are made to believe that because corporates ‘give jobs’ they can have a status of sacred cows. They are plundering this country mercilessly and unconditionally, and they have already sent thousands of jobs overseas. Residential use of water is less than 10%.
    The argument that environment friendly industry would cost jobs- may be totally wrong. The invention of a car did not kill a horse. It killed a cabman, perhaps but created chauffeurs, taxi drivers, car drivers, racing drivers, auto mechanics, spare parts industry, jet planes and submarines. The introduction of computer did not kill a secretary. It created the whole armies of clerks and bureaucrats and data operators.
    If we are scared to develop other countries will do it… at our expense.

  14. baal

    Why does Guy Gundle think a column is an opportunity to put down everything he knows (on that day anyway)? Now he’s even providing footnotes. He’s in need of discipline from, well, frankly, an editor, but does one of those exist at Crikey? The trouble is, judging from the posts above, most respondees follow the same habit.

  15. Daniel

    Oh no…..not footnotes….the horror…..the horror………

  16. Kylie Zupp

    Well Meski, thanks for the question, in the spirit of the recent column on ‘dangerous ideas’ maybe we could start by doing extremely outrageous things like offering a sterilisation bonus instead of a baby bonus? (And yes I would be happy to go first – but the offer should apply to both men and women).

  17. sean bedlam

    If we do need cities, we’re going to have to start tolerating the people with a vision for those cities. Or the people with the vision are going to have start slitting some throats. In a visionary kinda way, of course.

  18. james mcdonald

    You’re right Sean, there is a lot of Maoist brave-new-world in this thread. I’m starting to get a picture of what these progressive new cities will look like.

    Guy, in theory it could be done. But who would pick the architects? The same people that renamed Darling Harbour as Bagakangaroo, er, Barbarossa, er, Barbar- … whatever?

  19. mtats

    I think it’s a great idea!

    As long as the people who think it’s a good idea move there.

    Not me of course, everyone else.

  20. bakerboy

    As Richard McGuire points out – these ideas a nothing new. That silly old incompetent bloke Gough Whitlam and his minister Tom Uren had this idea to build regional cities based on Albury -Wodonga and Bathurst -Orange. But they were a bit before their time with these very good ideas which are glaringly obvious now. We need to start identifying locations for developing existing towns/cities as well as building some others from scratch. Sydney is just an awful, polluted, crowded place now and it will be unliveable not many years from now.

  21. bakerboy

    James McDonald – grow up and stop criticising viable ideas just because you think they’re some lefty pipe dream. Anyone with half a brain can see that allowing Sydney and Melbourne to just keep spreading out is madness. They build new suburbs 30 klms from the CBD and neglect to provide any public transport so families finish up with 3 or 4 cars so all members can get to work. Even my home town Brisbane is a complete shambles now due to unplanned growth and lack of infrastructure. This year, I moved to Toowoomba, a city of 100,000 people, less than 2 hours from Brisbane, a city with good facilities and the potential to become a much larger centre as long as it’s done with good planning and care. There are other such places in eastern Australia eg Coffs Harbour, Goulburn, Taree, Wonthaggi, Bendigo, Warnambool just to name a few. Let’s think outside the square. Bring back Keating!

  22. james mcdonald

    Bakerboy: OK, I’ve taken my grown-up pills now. The thread was starting to strike me a bit like an anti-capitalist whine, but I may have given too much weight to one or two entries.

    Women, it seems to me, lead modern population movements. When enough young women left the country towns in the 1980s, that was the writing on the wall for rural Australia. The collapse of the global wool market soon followed, Australia’s grain exports started to come under attack from the US and Europe, and then came the drought. Men started heading for the cities because the alternative was a single life. When the women leave town, it’s time to sell your house.

    It was uncanny. I can’t explain it. I have no mystical faith in women’s intuition, it’s just a pattern I’ve noticed. Today, the hot spots for residential investment are almost all demographically overweight with young women. If you want a tip for picking the next winning suburb, look for a recent change in those age and sex demographics which isn’t yet reflected in the prices.

    Most of the regional centres have lost their industrial reasons for being. The farms struggle to make a profit and they get bigger, lowering the population density. Manufacturing towns like Lithgow are just weekend getaways now. Men will go where the work is, even if that means living in a corrugated iron streetscape with a converted shipping container for a pub. But they won’t stay for long and they won’t build anything if there’s no one to share it with but a bunch of footy mates coming around for pizzas and dirty videos.

    So I think if we want to induce population movement we’ve got to do it the reverse of the 19th century way and start with the finer things. Gardens, art schools, music, walkability factor, social hubs, bookshops, waterlilies … Women have taste, and taste has to be the central consideration in these designs. Or we’ll be leading a horse to rancid water.

  23. Scott Grant

    We ought to be aiming to stabilize our population and then reduce it to a level that the continent can sustain. To lessen the number of people in a controlled fashion, we could reduce our rate of immigration. Our birth rate is already below replacement rate.

    Global warming means that this continent will be able to sustain a far smaller population than hitherto. The green east of Oz will be no more. I don’t know how quickly it will happen, but the collapse in food production and water supplies will probably happen sooner than many people expect. Large parts of our traditional farmlands have been in more or less permanent drought in this decade, and are unlikely to improve. In the last week I read somewhere that the Lachlan has dried up, threatening the water supplies to several large inland towns in NSW. The Darling has been dead for years. Snow will disappear from the snowies, and flows in the Murray will decline to a dribble.

    The US has far more inland rivers than Oz. Las Vegas, in its current form, exists because of the Hoover dam and the once plentiful water of the Colorado river. (In this decade water flows in the Colorado river have declined substantially and are continuing to decline.) Ph0enix was built in the Salt River Valley and is supplied by dams built nearby.

    We might conceivably pump water from the north to our southern towns, using solar powered pumps, as suggested. It is more likely that we will produce enough drinking water for our population through de-salination and massive energy use. Local food production will decline, so we may have to transport food from elsewhere – probably from countries that are unable to feed their own populations.

    Whatever plans are made for new population centers, the bulk will move to areas around the existing population centers and the overcrowding will be a thing of nightmare.

    The future looks pretty bleak to me, and the idea of calmly proposing an increase in our population to 35 million seems staggeringly disconnected from any sense of reality.

  24. deconst

    I’m surprised noone’s mentioned the NBN. One of the strongest outcomes of a high-speed broadband network is the possibility of decentralisation of the workforce. When you can access files on your work server as fast from home as from your cubicle next door to the server room, we’re going to see smart companies take advantage of regional centres and reopen regional offices or even virtualise the office altogether.

  25. james mcdonald

    Thanks Scott for that ray of cheeriness. Should we start choosing the music to accompany our mass suicide? Albinoni’s Oboe adagio in C perhaps?

    The other day I wrote in a letter highlighting research on the potential to transform Australia’s soils into carbon sinks and revive Australian farming. This is the sort of thing that Turnbull was pressing for in his amendments to Labor’s CPRS. Labor weren’t going to give farmers credits for terrestrial sequestration, but now they will.

    At the same time I sent a letter to the Wentworth Group asking if these measures also might lead to an increase Australia’s rainfall. The short answer is yes, eventually. The long answer is printed below.
    Dear James,
    Thanks for the email and your feedback. I have forwarded it to our Director for his information.
    You are quite right that there has been work linking vegetation with regional rainfall. Clive McAlpine has done some retrospective work on this (I have attached a few papers but there would be more).
    The two processes (water sucked up by forests) and increased rainfall from restored vegetation would occur, as you say, at different time scales, with the former being an immediate problem and the latter being a gradual process. Any immediate losses in water availability have to be managed now, although the prospect of increasing rainfall sure is an encouraging one. Unfortunately, regardless we are still heavily under the influence of the El Nino cycle and ultimately global climatic shifts, which is also another good reason to restore vegetation – we need our landscape to be resilient and capable of adaptation.
    Thanks again for your email. Hope the papers help.
    Kind regards,

  26. james mcdonald

    Rena, I don’t think you can drive much of a high-speed train on solar power. You can desalinate water with solar power though, and it doesn’t even need photovoltaics. The Port Augusta plant will be able to supply up to a quarter million people

  27. John Bennetts

    Where will the new town planners come from?

    The ones we have at present are either corrupt or ignorant. Or both.

    And please stop telling me that an architect can solve the problems. Anybody remember a bloke called Burley Griffin? And Canberra is economical, well designed and comfortable? For sheep, perhaps.

  28. Ned Lukies


    Maybe I can answer that question. As someone who has just completed their 3rd year of a planning degree, I can certainly say that there are some who are ignorant. However, the fast majority are aware of the issues discussed above, and are passionate about trying to provide solutions to the various problem we face as a country. Lets just hope the idealism doesn’t get beaten out of us when we graduate.

  29. John Bennetts

    Welcome to the big, wide world, Ned.

    When you fix the coastal fringe and ribbon development including below high tide mark then you may start on the satellite cities. Not before. Priorities, fellow, priorities.

    On further reflection, any help you can offer by way of setting aside meaningful transport corridors in growth areas would be much appreciated. With room for cycles, trains, buses and the odd car or three.

  30. james mcdonald

    Come on John, I got told to “grow up” just for showing a touch of healthy cynicism.

    Ned, I’ve read that the state of the art in planning has now moved on from the fashion of “organic” suburban streets designed to increase the distance between any two points about tenfold, and strict zoning that turns every shopping strip into either a Westfield-in-waiting or a white elephant. What can you tell us about the next generation of towns?

    And what do women want? Since, as I argued above, it’s all for nothing if women don’t like these towns enough to move into them.

  31. John Tevelein

    Rundle for PM

  32. meski

    @John: Canberra isn’t a bad place to live. Low population, which means you aren’t going to get everything a high population centre has, but some people like low population. By its nature, new architect designed cities will be high density centres, and I pity any who live in one that hasn’t been designed, but just ‘happened’

  33. Evan Beaver

    More Canberra defence:
    “And Canberra is economical, well designed and comfortable”

    Yes, it is all of those things. Particularly when compared to Sydney.

  34. John Wood

    Some good points Guy, but for Chrissakes be careful of the architects you let loose. Remember that about 70% of CO2 emissions are down to cities and who has been designing them up to now – fashion conscious hi-tech look architects with no training or idea about sustainable design. Yes, there are a few good ones around but most of the stellar ones are not!

  35. AR

    Bad as Li’l AA was, has “Foreign Minister” Smith ever looked more like the blow-waved simulacrum that he is than the 7.30 Report tonight?
    Not only that he doesn’t have a clue but, in repeating Krudd’s (current) line by rote, shows that he is the epitome of the seat warming, times serving apparatchik who, in the real world would be lucky to be a dog turd collector. Apologies to the Godd Soldier Schweik.

  36. William Schild

    An interesting article and as a designer of tomorrow I have some points to make. Rundle is accurate in his view that we need to design new cities and to ask ourselves what is a city? (another question we should ask is how do we transport people, not how do we move cars)
    The current idea to combat urban sprawl by packing people into high rises is not going to work for cultural reasons. These cities will need to be economically viable or else developers won’t want to develop them and governments will struggle to implement their designs without raising taxes.
    The problem is that this task is not the province of one form of designer (architect), it will need a slew of people working on the project from landscape architects, urban designers, industrial designers, town planners, engineers, economists and yes developers so that the new cities are designed for humans. ( I agree with the comment about DCM)
    For the person who said we need less population, the reason for this expected growth rate is not our fertility but immigration.
    Unless you seal the boarders tomorrow this is our reality and I am afraid I can’t be that brutal, can you?.

  37. meski

    William makes a good point re population growth. look at the left graph here


    or (this is same, but less likely to have been mangled) http://preview.tinyurl.com/yarqktj

    Observe the mostly flat (grey) line representing natural growth, compared to the dashed line representing oversees migration.

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