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Decongesting our cities: It all starts with quality planning

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Traffic congestion, Melbourne (image via Reinis Traidas / Flickr).

Australia's major cities are undergoing radical urban transformations but livability will continue to decline unless a long-term quality planning approach is adopted, writes the Planning Institute of Australia's chief policy officer Rolf Fenner.

I TRAVELLED to Melbourne on business last week, flying into Tullamarine at 7.30am for a 9.30am meeting in the Central Activities District.

I could easily have caught a cab into town or taken the SkyBus service. But I’m a planner with an interest in public transport and like to see what’s on offer for the thousands of Australians whose budgets don’t stretch to expensive taxis or express bus services.

That meant catching a Public Transport Victoria bus at the interchange in Terminal 4 connecting with a train at the Broadmeadows station.   

On a good day, the 22km journey from the airport to the city by public transport takes 70 to 90 minutes. With a ten minute walk from Terminal 1 to the Terminal 4 interchange added, my trip took two hours and 30 minutes.

A train malfunction at Ascot Vale didn’t help. It meant a tram ride to Flemington Station and then another train ride to the city centre.

If my trip turned into a lottery, people travelling by car that day didn’t fare much better. Stop-start traffic on the M2 freeway is an everyday occurrence and even our small capitals like Canberra and Hobart experience peak-hour snarls.

Not surprisingly, many Australians are fed up with our congested roads, our overcrowded schools, hospitals and our affordable housing shortages. And, they’re blaming the high population growth that’s fed by record immigration levels.

That frustration was palpable on the recent Q&A program on a "big Australia" when there was warm applause for Bob Carr’s suggestion that high immigration rates be slowed until infrastructure shortages are addressed.

Mr Carr referred to a 2017 survey by The Australian Population Research Institute (TARPI) which found 74 per cent of voters thought Australia did not need more people.

This TARPI survey also indicated “big majorities” of respondents believe population growth is putting “a lot of pressure on hospitals, roads, affordable housing and jobs”.

Federal and State governments have responded to these pressures by belatedly ramping up infrastructure spending and stressing the need for fast-tracked planning and approvals processes.

Yet it’s arguable that our current predicament is the direct result of those kinds of prescriptive, market-led solutions.

Witness the way public transport patrons get short shrift at Melbourne airport. Our major airports were once run as public utilities. When the Commonwealth started privatising them in the 1990s – under terms very favourable to the buyers – that began to change.

Today, our big airports generate large profits off the back of well-heeled domestic and international airline travellers. But money can’t buy these elites a quick trip into town. They’re as likely to be stuck in the same traffic jams as the bus passengers, the commuters, the delivery drivers and the mums and dads on their school runs.

At fault are governments which have repeatedly prioritised outdated road-building projects over other transport investments —even when it was evident the motorways would soon reach capacity and need duplication.

To continue doing the same thing hoping for a different result won’t work. Indeed, there’s a risk that applying more top-down, market-oriented policies will harden public attitudes against immigration and inner-city densification.

Our politicians need to abandon the notion – endlessly parroted by developers, shock-jocks and other vested interests – that planning is an impediment to the development of our towns and cities.

In fact, policy development that values and prioritises good-quality planning and long-term integrated strategic thinking is essential if we’re to grow our towns and cities while preserving and enhancing their amenity, their heritage values, their character, and their economic and environmental sustainability.

These words have become overworked in recent years but they remain articles of faith for planning professionals. It’s evident in the Planning Institute of Australia’s advocacy of a coordinated national settlement strategy to managing population growth migrant resettlement.

Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth are undergoing radical urban transformations. But their deserved reputations for high-quality living and first-class infrastructure risk being lost if we don’t carefully stage-manage the process. 

There needs to be greater public engagement and participation too because the one clear lesson to emerge in recent years is that participatory planning is more likely than not to deliver what people want. Australians are, after all, citizens first and not just materialistic consumers.

Our collective efforts to accommodate a growing population may have fallen short of expectations but the good news is we can do better. The starting premise for that, however, is acceptance of the requirement for integrated and professional planning approaches.

If we continue to do things based on quantity, speed and raw cost we risk giving our children and grandchildren far worse headaches than we’re currently experiencing.

Rolf Fenner is a Registered Planner and the Planning Institute of Australia’s Chief Policy Officer.

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Decongesting our cities: It all starts with quality planning

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