Made in Australia: The future of Australian Cities boldly heralds the entry of landscape architecture into the national urbanism debate in Australia.
Populate or perish! Engaging incisively with an Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) population projection for a big Australia of 63 million people in 2101, Richard Weller and Julian Bolleter postulate how our cities could accommodate that future growth.
Beginning with a statistical exercise they highlight gaping holes in urban policy frameworks across federal and state jurisdictions. Spatial analysis reveals that current metro planning strategies for major cities account for only 5.5 million extra people – not the thirty-nine million anticipated by the ABS in its Series A high-level projection for 2101. Weller and Bolleter proceed to show that when physical, ecological and landscape limitations are factored in, it is clear that Australian cities will exhaust their potential footprints around mid century.
Adopting the “thirty-nine million additional Australians by 2101” scenario as a baseline, the authors then extrapolate the hard and soft infrastructure required to support this number of people. This additional population translates into either nine extra Sydneys or 115 extra Canberras. Using a geographical information system (GIS) derivative of Ian McHarg’s sieve-mapping analysis technique, the entire Australian landscape is tested for mega-scale constraints and opportunities.
By avoiding the hysteria around the population debate itself and instead focusing on deploying the federal government’s own metrics, the authors mount credible arguments for expansion of existing cities and the creation of new ones. They make it clear that they don’t claim to have the right answers but they “do offer speculations built upon ideologically neutral and methodical explorations.”
In all the current ABS projection scenarios the majority of Australia’s population growth is attributed to net overseas migration, not increasing fertility, and therefore the future hinges entirely on amplification of existing federal government policy. Acknowledging mass immigration as a social and economic driver, the book proposes three new megaregions of moderately sized, livable, clustered cities. An east coast, a west coast and a “new north” megaregion are linked by the National Broadband Network and a high-speed rail system. The megaregion is described as a “large scale hybridisation of culture and nature … a new conception of integration between landscape systems and infrastructure.” These necklaces of cities are supported by propositions for agricultural expansion and engineered water-supply systems. Adopting a Richard Florida paradigm, the authors argue that megaregions create an economically productive environment for member cities but point out there should be a limit placed on city size. Using international livability score surveys the book concludes that megacities above ten million people should be avoided in Australia as they generally are rated poorly for their lifestyle attributes.
The work touches on the enormity of the environmental challenges Australia faces in meeting its international carbon commitments under the adopted growth scenario. Based on 2008 emissions levels it identifies Australia would require around seven billion new trees in an area almost the size of New South Wales to sequester the carbon to support a population of sixty-three million. The book does not set out to provide all the answers for these challenges but it intelligently identifies the magnitude of ecological footprint considerations attached to expansion of urbanized settlements and the potential impacts on ecological systems. Metropolitan plans in Australia are still largely mute on the carbon issue and ignore climate change considerations.
Three-dimensional design propositions for expansion of current Australian cities are also included and they paint a confronting picture of a possible urban future. I think that most Australians would hold strong views on the appropriateness of such high-density urbanism to our coastlines and the end of the suburban dream. It is much easier for governments to hide behind a veil of population projections and laissez faire decision-making than to illustrate the true spatial implications of immigration policy on the landscape. This is where the book really cuts new ground in attempting to visualize a decentralized polycentric typology alternative to sprawling LA-style urbanism across all our cities.
A series of loosely connected essays by invited authors are included as additional material in the final chapters. The essay contributions are sound in themselves but it is not made clear how they support the key messages of the book. Perhaps their role is to open more questions for future explorations.
The media-fuelled misconception that mining alone drives the entire Australian economy is important to footnote. The Australian economy is primarily driven by the tertiary services sector, which contributes about 68 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), with mining and related industries responsible for about 19 percent. The services sector is primarily concentrated around our major cities, which collectively produce about 80 percent of Australia’s GDP. The reluctance of Australian federal governments to intervene in the urban planning agenda at a coordinated national level since Malcolm Fraser took power in 1975 is bewildering, seeing the very foundation of our economy is reliant on healthy, productive cities. The supporting essay by Robert Freestone provides a sweeping and articulate description of failed forays into urban planning by successive Australian governments.
Made in Australia reignites the call to action for an intelligible and coherent national set of interlinked spatial, infrastructure and ecological design frameworks to drive sustainable urban growth to ensure Australia enjoys a prosperous future. It is a must-read for landscape architects and anyone with an interest in the future of Australian cities.
Richard Weller and Julian Bolleter, UWA Publishing, 2013, paperback, 318 pages. RRP $49.99.