The issue of decentralisation could be back on the table given the elevated significance of the three regionally-based independents*.

I’ve previously argued (here and here) that there are big questions about the viability of decentralisation on a large scale, so today I want to look at whether or not our major cities can cope with more growth.

There was quite a bit of interest in the 60s and 70s around the idea of an efficient city size. The assumption that a point was reached where diseconomies of scale set in was part of the rationale for the failed decentralisation push of the Whitlam era.

There’s a better appreciation today that cities make structural adjustments in response to growth and may generate new economic advantages. There’s wide acceptance of the idea that productivity increases (modestly) as city size/density increases.

Australia’s major cities are certainly not bursting at the seams, notwithstanding residents’ concerns about issues like traffic congestion and housing affordability. Sydney is actually only the 80th largest city by population in the world and Melbourne the 87th. Many of the larger cities dwarf ours — Tokyo, for example, has more than nine times as many residents as Sydney.

There’s little evidence that size is inevitably a bad thing. Many of the world’s largest cities are highly sought after — people want to live in places like New York, Los Angeles, Paris and London and relish their immense size. Many people, including quite a few Australians, aspire to live in them even though the wages offered don’t usually offset the higher cost of living.

It is true that many have severe problems like traffic congestion, but this doesn’t dampened the enthusiasm of immigrants. Yet some cities, especially those in Europe, have addressed the problem with reasonable success by strategies such as investing in public transport and promoting high density housing. Public transport has a much, much higher share of travel in New York City than it does in any Australian city.

Many of these cities provide a clue to how Australian cities might deal with high population growth. Proximity provides benefits for humans, whether in labour markets or marriage markets, but it also has downsides — like congestion, high rents and crime — so it entails costs and compromises.

Those compromises include the need to invest in massive infrastructure and regulatory systems as well as tolerate a higher level of intrusion from fellow humans. They also usually mean living at higher densities, making concessions in the size of dwellings, being prepared to travel more in the company of strangers, and recycling “waste”.

However the form and structure of Australian cities evolved in an era of mechanised transport (trains and trams led the first great wave of suburbanisation). Although more dense than most US cities of comparable size, we have a legacy of extensive suburban development built on the premise of cheap and easy car use.

Until relatively recently, residents were able to have their cake and eat it too. Decentralisation of jobs and services away from the centre (50% of jobs in Melbourne, for example, are more than 13 km from the CBD) enabled many to enjoy high levels of space and amenity while maintaining acceptable travel times and minimising traffic congestion (although travelling much longer distances).

Now however most people want to live closer to the centre where they can enjoy better access to all the benefits of the metropolitan area, including family and friends, work and recreational opportunities. In Melbourne, for example, a little over half of new dwellings are constructed within the established urban area (it was up to 60% in the late 90s — early 2000s).

If that demand isn’t to be dissipated in higher prices, concerted action will need to be taken to facilitate the redevelopment of established suburbs. That is a much more complex and problematic issue than the simple solutions of documents like Melbourne 2030 would have us believe (that’s a topic for another post).

At the same time the growing costs of car use (congestion and running costs) will increasingly transfer the financial cost of travel from individuals to the State. Massive investment in public transport will undoubtedly be required, but this is also a contested and knotty issue (again, a topic for another post).

Our cities can absorb considerably more growth but future residents will have to make big compromises and Governments will have to think big. It’s not just infrastructure either — if we want successful cities, there need to be non-physical changes in how we regulate behaviour (for example, see here). Nor should we import foreign solutions directly — we need to adapt to local circumstances.

*Care needs to be taken that “decentralisation” and “regional development” are not conflated. They are not synonymous. Regional development should be the real concern of the independents.

**This item was originally published on the blog The Melbourne Urbanist