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Australia and the Future Cities Agenda: An essay

  • March 20, 2024
  • by Property Australia
Professor Greg Clark CBE FAcSS

To set the scene to next week’s Future Cities Summit, world renowned urbanist Greg Clark has penned an essay addressing the core issues on the Summit agenda. 

Read an excerpt below or the essay in full here

The Global Future Cities Agenda

Common Challenges.

This future cities agenda does not just imagine a world of hyper competition between 10,000 cities. It also anticipates the common challenges amongst such cities including; productivity, sustainability, affordability, inclusiveness, and distinctiveness. It addresses the ways that new technologies can produce better systems and platforms for urban planning and management, providing enhanced citizen experience, resource efficiency, and system inter-operability and reliability. This creates a significant global market for ‘urban solutions’ that are tried and tested in one market, and then shared or exported to others. Australia is already a leader in exporting urban solutions and city building skills around the world, especially in relation to property.

City Making: a Global Industry.

In effect, every city is now an ‘urban lab’ where new solutions can be forged, adapted, and scaled for adoption in other cities. There is a growing global market in urban services, and such services (including but not limited to urban design, architecture, real estate, infrastructure, planning, housing, transport, utilities, and citizen services) now represent an ‘advanced urban services cluster’ that are one of the world’s fastest growing industries. This cluster increasingly produces specialist technology applications such as PropTech, PlanTech, TransitTech, ClimateTech, GovTech, and more.

New spatial forms?

This future cities agenda also addresses urban form and infrastructure. What is the best way to synchronise, accommodate, and manage population growth and diversification, with economic transition, and climate adaptation in our cities? Is it to sprawl, to densify, to retrofit, or to build new cities, towns, and districts, and which combinations of these approaches in different and distinctive places?

Pandemic accelerator.

The recent COVID-19 pandemic reactivated the debate about our future cities because it exposed the frailty of many current urban models, including the vulnerability of mono-use districts and buildings, the viability of public transport systems, the adequacy of public space (district by district), the challenge and desirability of virtualisation, remote working, and hybrid patterns, and the best means to combine and optimise digital and physical platforms. At the same time, the pandemic unleashed a new wave of adaptive innovations at local and metro level with changes to how streets, public space, buildings, facilities, and amenities are used. Necessity gave rise to new forms of urban invention.
Waves of urbanisation in 10 global regions

In principle, urbanisation is good for us; North America, Latin America, Europe, and Oceania are already 80%+ urbanised. These mature settlement patterns can use the new forces in digitisation and decarbonisation to improve choice and quality of life for millions of people. The Middle East and China are now already 65% urbanised, in Africa and Southeast Asia (ASEAN) 47%, and in India 37%. These are the countries with the fastest growing populations which will see the rapid rises in city making, making use of both new city models and urban expansions.
We will need to build many more cities and urban quarters, the infrastructures that connect them, and the amenities that support them. We will need to innovate to create a revised model of urbanisation that is clean, compact, and connected.

Rapid urbanisation should be not feared, rather it should be embraced, shaped, and managed with a Future Cities focus. Successful urbanisation is the key ingredient in building modern societies that can serve people’s needs, inspire human endeavour, and reverse our planetary peril.

Urbanisation creates opportunities for people and families to improve their quality of life through employment, education, and healthcare. Cities make our workers more productive, our companies more innovative, and our capital more efficient. Cities that are open to trade and cross border investment also become open to people, ideas, and difference. These are substantial advantages when it comes to productivity, creativity, and quality of life, that also drive innovation in our cities. They can increase our connections, accelerate our inventiveness, and raise our ambitions.

The core systems of cities such as energy, utilities, waste, water, transport, land use and property, logistics, and a wide range of citizen services, make our daily lives work. These systems have evolved rapidly during two centuries of intensive fossil fuel usage. Now, in our time, we must transition these systems into new forms of sustainable energy so that we reduce global warming, clean our cities, and start to protect our precious biodiversity. Cities are the means to reverse climate change.

Good urbanisation vs. bad urbanisation

We should not think of 80% urbanisation as a kind of natural peak. Many countries have much higher rates; Singapore and Hong Kong, as well as Japan, Korea, Israel, and the Netherlands are all successful nations with more than 85% of their population in cities. Most of these ‘peak urbanisation’ countries have learned that success requires investment in high-capacity transport to support medium-to-high density living and working, in organised networks of places (poly-centric cities, metro areas, city regions, regions of cities and towns), fostering the critical mass to underpin cherished amenities and to tackle climate peril.

So, the choice we face is not whether to have urbanisation, but how to ensure we get good urbanisation, not bad. This means investing effectively in the ‘carrying capacity’ of cities and accelerating ‘urban innovation.’ This good urbanisation requires that infrastructure, utilities, and amenities be expanded and enhanced as populations grow. We must avoid bad urbanisation where population growth exceeds that capacity. That is when we experience congestion, pollution, high carbon emissions, poor air quality, extreme heat, loss of biodiversity, inflated house prices, and systemic inequality.

Future Urbanisation needs Urban Innovation.

We are now approaching the mid-point of this century of cities. As we grow our population and seek to accommodate more humans though urbanisation on our finite planet, a global quest for future cities that embrace urban innovation is unfolding.

Cities are already the laboratories of human discovery and invention. It is within cities that great breakthroughs in Science, Medicine, Astrology, Energy, Engineering, Navigation, and Philosophy have been made. Cities are also the engines of innovation in how we live, work, travel, and create together. Fundamental innovations that we now take for granted, such as homes, offices, shops, sewers, gutters, water closets, busses, trams, underground railways, lifts/elevators, and tall buildings, as well as libraries, hospitals, police forces, fire fighters, schools, stations, airports, ports, and sports arenas, are all innovations fostered by the growth of cities.