Concern for urban planning and policy is somewhat new and even somewhat fashionable, so it’s no surprise Tony Abbott hated it.

All those bicycle-riding women planning for density and walkability and transforming streets into public spaces full of deck chairs gave him the shivers. Not to mention the apparent revulsion he feels toward public transport.

And so, under the guise of a concern about federalism — “cities are the concern of the states” — the federal government got out of the cities policy space. It abolished the Major Cities Unit in the Infrastructure Department on its first day in office.

The Abbott government also refused to fund public transport, but willingly pitched money in for roads.

The previous administration had been abundantly excited about the cities policy. Labor MP Anthony Albanese, as infrastructure minister, oversaw a department with a burgeoning expertise in the field. It released an annual document called the State of Australian Cities, complete with Albo’s smiling face in it.

The Abbott government released just one State of Australian Cities report, and it had no ministerial imprimatur. Only the names of public servants.

Malcolm Turnbull is highly likely to put the federal government back into the cities game, and not only because his wife, Lucy Turnbull, is a former lord mayor of Sydney and has served on various boards and committees tasked with urban planning reform (though that sort of influence on the home front certainly doesn’t hurt).

Turnbull doubtless knows the economic power of our urban clusters. Around 80% of Australia’s GDP is made in cities.

Cities are only going to grow more important. With the price of commodities having fallen so far, the value of mining sector output will not reach the heights some expected. We can’t rely on remote Western Australia for GDP — it will have to come from our cities.

Luckily, demand for what we produce in our cities is extremely high. China’s consumption of services is at an inflection point. Whether it be tourism services, health, education or professional services we can offer, there will be growing demand for them.

Producing those high-value services rely on the sort of dense networks you find only in cities. Those networks are placed at risk by underinvestment in transport and investment in the wrong sort of transport, leading to congestion.

It doesn’t hurt that the Business Council of Australia is also eager for a cities agenda.

Expect the tram-riding, train-loving new PM of Australia to take a close interest in reshaping our cities.

Peter Fray

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