The Global Urbanist

News and analysis of cities around the world


Coming out of the shadows: connecting Australia's secondary centres

In the second of a two-part response to the Australian national urban policy, Kerwin Datu argues for a sense of global ambition for Australia's regional cities and outer suburban centres, and calls for the issues that confront smaller cities to be brought out of the shadows of the megacity.

Kerwin Datu

Cities: Adelaide, Brisbane, Melbourne, Perth, Sydney

Topics: Integrated planning, National governance, Local economic development, Global cities

Australia's five big cities punch well above their weight in the global economy. In 2008, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers, Sydney's GDP was 213 billion US dollars (PPP), on a par with Singapore (215 bn USD) and Mumbai (209 bn USD), the engine of the Indian economy. Melbourne's GDP was 172 billion US dollars, bigger than Delhi (167 bn USD), the world's second-largest city at 22 million people, or Beijing (166 bn USD).

According to the Globalisation and World Cities Research Network (GaWC), Sydney is one of ten 'Alpha+' cities which dominate global business, alongside stars like Hong Kong, Paris, Tokyo and Milan. Melbourne is ranked as a 'Beta+' city alongside Washington DC, San Francisco and Dubai; Brisbane a 'Gamma+' city alongside Montreal, Vancouver and Cape Town; Perth a Gamma city alongside Philadelphia, Portland and Rotterdam; with Adelaide and Canberra ranked as cities of 'high sufficiency' alongside Phoenix, Osaka and Ottawa.

While these six cities must work hard to maintain their positions, they are nevertheless operating at close to world class levels. Therefore the greatest productivity gains on offer are in the secondary cities currently in the shadows of these six leading centres. If Canberra already has some competitive standing internationally, why not Gold Coast-Tweed or Newcastle, both of which have larger populations than the capital? And what stops the ten other major cities from planning to join the ranks of globally competitive cities? What stops Hobart, Townsville or Darwin from looking forward to a world class future?

Australia's socioeconomic peers ... contain several small cities that contribute significantly to economic innovation and productivity, such as Antwerp, Lausanne, Strasbourg, and Aarhus. With some real sense of ambition, Australia's smaller cities could all join these ranks as well.

Australia is an extremely wealthy country socially and economically, consistently ranked second in the world in the UNDP Human Development Index. As a consequence, even its smaller cities can enjoy vast wealth and productivity. Australia's socioeconomic peers in Northern Europe contain several small cities that contribute significantly to economic innovation and productivity, such as Antwerp in Belgium, Lausanne in Switzerland, Strasbourg in France, and Aarhus in Denmark, all of which feature in the GaWC rankings. With some real sense of ambition, Australia's smaller cities could all join these ranks as well.

Equipping Australia's smaller cities

Australians know better than most wealthy countries that there are real constraints on the water supply available to each region. Each region also has a specific local capacity for energy and food production, which may be developed responsibly with the right national support. Once these are established, however, smaller cities will need to build up the planning institutions that allow them to grow rapidly and sustainably. Stronger planning capacities and development authority to identify and preserve agricultural land and urban uses, internal and regional infrastructure corridors, effective zoning for high-density development, and intelligent and flexible regoluations to allow new and unfamiliar business sectors to emerge.

They will need vastly more substantial transport infrastructure to become real growth poles for their regions. The Gold Coast Light Rail is a praiseworthy example; similar initiatives should be underway for all of Australia's secondary cities. Newcastle and Canberra must revive their commuter rail lines, and expand their other transport systems. The smaller cities need hub-and-spoke networks of commuter rail or rapid busways to cover their entire commuter catchment areas. Improving mobility will be a major step to encouraging businesses to take root in these centres, enjoying the larger labour pools and local markets that they provide access to.

However the competitiveness of these centres is not only a question of local investments. To stand up against the big five cities, the national urban policy should also connect up the smaller cities in ways that allow them to combine their economic power. This does not mean that we should connect these places up with better links back to the big five, since this would only encourage businesses to see these secondary centres as dormitory suburbs. For example, Toowoomba doesn't need better links to Brisbane as much as it needs more connections to the Sunshine and Gold Coasts that bypass Brisbane's centre. Likewise, Albury-Wodonga is better served by reinforcing its connections with Shepparton, Wagga Wagga and the Latrobe Valley than its links with Melbourne.

By connecting Australia's secondary cities like this, they would begin to act as combined urban regions that could compete effectively alongside larger cities. They would begin to resemble regions like the west of Germany or the north of Italy, where enterprises coordinate their activities across chains of small cities, generating great wealth away from the largest centres.

Why shouldn't Parramatta, one of Australia's oldest cities, be as famous as Kyoto or Cologne? Why can't Liverpool or Frankston be as sought after by international students as Delft or Palo Alto?

From suburban centres to real independent cities

As I've written before, another great source of productivity gains comes when we stop seeing the outer regions of our largest cities as dormitories for workers employed in the inner city, and start allowing them to function as thriving cities in their own right. We tend to think of the Sydney and Melbourne regions as 'Sydney/Melbourne and suburbs'. Yet a glance at regions of similar size overseas makes a mockery of this conception. The Sydney statistical division covers 12,145 km², Melbourne 8,806 km², both dominated by a single internationally-renowned centre. Yet the Bay Area of Northern California covers 8,818 km², but includes the cities of San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose, Palo Alto, Redwood and the Napa valley, all with global reputations in specific sectors. The Randstad of the Netherlands covers 8,287 km², yet contains Amsterdam, Rotterdam, The Hague, Utrecht, Delft and Almere. The Rhine-Ruhr region of Germany covers only 7,110 km², yet includes Cologne, Bonn, Essen, Dusseldorf, Dortmund and Duisberg. Even the Keihanshin region of Japan, which contains cities as historic and diverse as Osaka, Kyoto, Kobe, Himeji and Nara, is smaller than the Sydney region, at only 11,170 km².

All of these cities have rich histories and identities of their own, with international reputations in various arenas. Why then should Sydney and Melbourne be the only cities worth speaking of in their regions? Why shouldn't Parramatta, one of Australia's oldest cities, be as famous as Kyoto or Cologne? Why can't Liverpool or Frankston be as sought after by international students as Delft or Palo Alto? If Reading, 60 kilometres west of London, can become a hive of multinational headquarters, why not Penrith, 50 kilometres west of Sydney, or Dandenong, 30 kilometres east of Melbourne? The same goes for Gosford and Wyong in the Sydney region, and Box Hill, Broadmeadows, Footscray, Ringwood and the Latrobe in Melbourne. For our international readers - you heard those names here first. For Australia's sake let's hope you keep reading them in the future.

If Australians keep imagining these places as suburban centres, with a few blocks of office buildings serving local businesses, then they are missing vast opportunities for productivity gains in the country's largest urban regions. Each of these centres should be capable of competing on the world stage. Like Palo Alto, Delft, Essen and Kobe, these cities should expect to enjoy their own cultural and commercial identity independent of the centres of Sydney and Melbourne.

To realise these gains requires a spatial strategy similar to that for the regional centres. Infrastructure investments must be made in ways that strengthen these centres and make them viable cities in their own right, without strengthening the CBD and the inner north of Sydney, or the Hoddle grid of Melbourne, at the same time. All of the cities above should be the hubs of greatly expanded commuter networks, not simply forks in the network feeding Sydney and Melbourne. This means abandoning the hub-and-spoke philosophy that points all new railway corridors in the Sydney and Melbourne regions towards the CBD, and instead creating high volume transport corridors that connect outer suburban centres to each other.

Coming out of the shadows

When we bring our smaller cities out of the shadows of the largest centres, we do more than simply move other places into the light. A different set of policy issues come out of the shadows at the same time. Suddenly we may see how much of so-called 'spatially blind' policies are being defined and prioritised by the needs of the biggest cities. Perhaps other questions need to dominate national policy discussions instead. For example, how can leaders diversify a small urban economy as it grows to become a mid-sized city? How can we create entrepreneurial and technologically progressive cultures in smaller regions? How can a growing city implement new rail and rapid busway transport systems from scratch? How do we broaden local planning capacities so that cities with 100,000 people can learn how to accommodate another 500,000?

Throughout the developing world as well, small cities turning into mid-sized cities will dominate the urban transition for several decades. No matter how complex the issues confronting our largest cities, the relatively simple battles our smallest cities must face will go unresolved if we don't keep asking the fundamental questions about our urban systems, nationally, regionally, and globally.

Read the first part of this article - What's a national urban policy for? Three scenarios for Australian cities.


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