victims of prosperity

sprawls edgeSomething has gone badly wrong in the housing affordability debate in Australia, even as our cities continue to break new records for extreme housing stress. The conventional wisdom has the definition of ‘affordable’ resting on cheap land at the far periphery of our great cities. Even if this wasn’t wiping out extensive tracts of urban bushland and peri-urban farming country at an accelerating rate, the fact that sandlots far over the horizon are the only places that even vaguely fit the definition of ‘affordable’ show how dysfunctional the Australian housing market has become.

In an increasingly cruel hoax played on first home buyers and renters fleeing unaffordable inner city and middle ring suburbs, the stereotype of ‘affordable’ has been limited to how much it costs to get through the door of a brick-and-tile fitted with big air conditioning units and a mandatory car per working adult.

At the right scale, this pattern of urban development has a lot going for it: peace and quiet, places for kids to stretch their legs, room for a backyard garden, and plenty of unpaved permeable ground for rainfall to recharge the water table. The problem is that we’re not doing it at the right scale. Public transport has suffered decades of neglect and now mainly serves the inner cities, and hundreds of thousands of people are finding themselves suffering long commutes in paralysed traffic, far from jobs and services. As petrol prices rise, the vulnerability increases and people are finding themselves living on finer margins, even as traffic congestion eats up more and more time.

Implanting monolithic high-rise within suburban areas isn’t the answer either: ‘infill’ now has a bad name in many places as it has come to mean developer-driven white cubes looming over peoples’ back yards. Is there a middle way somewhere, a template for reclaiming the best our cities can be?

I’ve become increasingly interested in the model sketched by Rob Adams, a Melbourne-based researcher who undertook the first detailed study of the potential of a mild increase in density along Melbourne’s foreseeably expanded tram network. Out of this study, some intriguing conclusions emerge: the possibility of diverse, affordable housing clustered along transit routes woven throughout the city, leaving most of the urban fabric untouched but bringing jobs and services out towards where most people live. Do this well, and cities can grow without expanding. Ultimately this recreates the kind of ‘network cities’ that prevailed in the early years of the 20th century before ubiquitous private transport; in the 21st, it will be augmented with rapid transit, broadband and reinventing the best of urban agriculture. Linking cities and major regional centres with rapid rail connections and fast data connections brings the picture into focus: affordability doesn’t have to come at the cost of sustainability.

There are enough examples of this working at a small scale in Australian cities to provoke the question: what would happen if local, state and federal governments worked deliberatively with local communities to shift infrastructure spending and planning priorities across to this model in a systematic way?

For more than a decade, the Howard Government stayed out of city policy and no formal mechanism existed for national funding of urban infrastructure. We’ve also had twenty years of capital gains tax exemptions, absurdly generous negative gearing provisions and the utterly maladaptive and inflationary cash handout known as the first homeowners grant. Not only have these policies not increased supply of affordable housing; they’ve actively inflated a property bubble cheered on by the investment community but now openly referred to as a Ponzi scheme[i].

In cheerleading housing as just another asset class, we’ve lost sight of the fact that affordable housing is actually a human right. We’ll have more to say about that during the election campaign.

The tide on infrastructure spending may at least be on the turn, with new electrified light rail systems under construction or in advanced planning stages around Australia, the halting transition from road to rail freight networks is now moving beyond rhetoric, and there is a growing interest in a High Speed Rail corridor linking the major population centres of the east coast. Even the humble bicycle is reclaiming its place in the transport ecosystem, with a growing campaign for Commonwealth cycling funding to support transport plans in which walking, cycling and public transport reclaim central roles.

If its rollout is not sabotaged by a change of government, the ubiquity of the National Broadband Network will also have profound consequences for the renewal of regional economies and the ability of small-scale startups to play to global markets.

‘Transitioning to a zero-carbon economy’ sounds simple if you say it quickly, but it’s going to take unprecedented collaboration between business, civil society and all three tiers of Government. We’ve been victims of our own prosperity over the last few decades, in the sense that there is very low community understanding of the vicious consequences of unrestrained growth in material consumption, and just how close these threats are. So while we step up our advocacy for the solutions, it’s important not to sugar coat our message or pretend that there are decades more of business as usual ahead of us. If we want the things we hold most precious to stay the same, we’re going to need to change.