Mr. Turnbull all I want for Christmas is a Cities Policy.

For those of you tired of Christmas day gluttony and Hannukah frivolities this blog post from earlier in 2016  is worth reposting. Not much has happened since its publication in the policy arena. Of course the absence of policy only reinforces the idea that the The Australian city is a rhetorical singularity. A discursive construct which is a open and malleable site for the forces that have a vested interest in shaping it. A neoliberal imaginary.

The word on the street is that Australia’s Prime Minister is about to ramp up Cities policy. Not only that, but both sides of politics in Australia are keen to showcase cities policy. Not since the ill fated Multi-Function Polis has urban policy been on the agenda in a Federal election year. Now that the price of Iron Ore has bottomed out  it is the city that has become the hope for the future. In a country beset by booms and busts it is the city that is, and will be the next boom. This boom will be presaged by and indistinguishable from a boom in city orientated policy.

But this current fashion for arguing that the best and most sustainable way to develop is via continual city growth needs to be seriously questioned. In Australia I think these questions are crucial. How big should Australian cities be and where should they be? How should populations, and resources, across the continent be dispersed? Australian cities are obviously cities of the new world and the developed world. In some ways Australian cities don’t have the same problem’s characteristic of larger older cities built on mediaeval or ancient foundations in the developing world. Perhaps this is why it is easy to conceive of Australian cities as greenfield sites engines of a new boom; a primary means to leverage and improve productivity (whatever that might mean). Much of the architectural, urban and policy discourse around Australian cities presumes that their continual survival and growth is the most efficient and sustainable way forward. But in its current formulations cities policy in Australia does not ask the fundamental and basic questions related to cities. Cities concerning distribution, size, structure, social governance and relation to country all need to be addressed before the cities boom becomes the next bust.

In urban discourse across the globe their has been a lot of talk around the notion of the anthropocene. The idea as it is defined is that the “earth’s most recent geologic time period as being human-influenced, or anthropogenic, based on overwhelming global evidence that atmospheric, geologic, hydrologic, biospheric and other earth system processes are now altered by humans.” We are all in the Anthropocene discourse nowadays. The vibrant and energetic discourse around the anthropocene appears to be inextricably linked to the idea of the city and the urban.  As the sponsors of a forthcoming seminar at University  of Westminster put it:

The discursive rise of the anthropocene has been accompanied by the normalisation of the idea of the ‘urban age’. The city has come to constitute a powerful imaginary, simultaneously the locus of all manner of contemporary crises – ecological and otherwise – and the focus for our hopes of their resolution. While earlier visions of urban sustainability disrupted the nature/culture divide, the goal remained one of ‘balance’, to be achieved through intentional agency.  Such aspirations are increasingly augmented, or framed, by notions of ‘resilience’ and ‘smartness’, in which human agency becomes at best reactive, or even dissolves within a process of recursive co-adaptation.

As they argue:

But where does this leave our ability to ‘plan’ our (urban) future? And is this imagined ‘city’ in fact a multiple construct? Might its rhetorical singularity across different discourses be holding us back from reimagining the future in more productive ways?

This pretty much sums up the urban policy debate in Australia. The Australian city is also now a rhetorical singularity. A discursive construct which is a open and malleable site for the forces that have a vested interest in shaping it. A neoliberal imaginary. The Whitlam agenda of focusing on cities, but also suburbs and regions, was an aberration quickly extinguished. But Australians have been witness to the cities rise over the past 25 years which perhaps started with Hawke’s Building Better Cities program. The cities rise over this time frame is easily discerned in a number of developments: in the discourse of architects, who have abandoned the house, and social housing, as a object of intellectual pursuit, in the rise of the urban design profession, and the emergence of landscape urbanism. Fuelling this rise and impending boom, young hipsters flock to see Jan Gehl and his particular brand of cities for people spin. An entire industry has grown up around state government and local councils fostering green cities, resilient cities and so called smart cities.

A boom focused on the discourse of the urban now exists, and also includes developers, all levels of government, the consulting class, policy specialists, academics, architects and urban designers. There are a number of key groups with different agendas and views which circulate around the cities policy pond. A few of these are worth mentioning. These include: Infrastructure Australia an independent statutory body poorly funded and yet somehow still beholden to whoever is in power in Canberra. Alongside sits lobby groups like the Property Council of Australia and quasi-lobby groups like the Green Building Council of Australia  which has made a virtue of legitimising , and marketing, mediocre green initiatives and passing them off as radical. Even the conservative think tank the IPA  is on the case with housing in cities.

There has also been recent work from the Grattan Institute with its City Limits: Why Australia’s cities are broken and how we can fix them. A report, which identifies issues but elides notions of design and community perhaps because its research is rooted in the corporatist methods of the Boston Consulting Group. More admirably groups like AHURI struggle on limited funds to gather data and produce research around cities. At our architecture school at MSD great groups like VEIL offer unique bottom up insights into community and distributed infrastructure systems. AURIN offers insight into the data throw up and produced by urban agglomerations.

For many of these actors the city is seen as the integrative platform through which various wicked problems can be solved. This integration, both imagined and real, drives the new boom in cities and city policy.  This boom is based on the idea that problems are economic and the city is seen as a place where economic functions can be integrated. It is not about addressing ecological damage or income equality. It is about place and productivity. For example, the  Deloitte Economist Professor Ian Harper has recently espoused the centrality of place in economic theory. It is surprising for someone trained in architecture and urban design to see the mantras of place, innovation, creativity, knowledge capital as these have long been discussed in architecture. As Harper proclaims “crowd’s accelerate” the process of value creation in a services economy moving from manufacturing towards the digital utopia.

Of course transforming place in cities will require the most advanced modelling: Urban research datasets (so called big data), combined spatial and statistical modelling, VR simulation and digital visualisation, as well as Carbon accounting and heat sink modelling. Alongside these tools new urban methodologies will also be needed and employed including AI, complex adaptive urbanism, digital ethnography, systems dynamics and agent based modelling. All of the above is supported by the hardware of mobile computing, the internet of things, wireless and sensor networks and drones.

This theatre of actors and set of technologies associated with this boom will accelerate , once the political apparatchiks, fresh faced ministerial advisers and pedigreed policy mavens accelerate city policy. Events, media releases, showcases of excellence and the ever tightening noose between the discourses of design and innovation will be a part of it. Complicating this is the fact that Australians forgot to establish  a sovereign wealth fund during the commodity boom years. As a result there will be always be a mismatch between the boom in policy needs and the volatility of global financial markets. Policy mavens will always try and catch up and explain away market volatility or alternatively align policy with the markets. But, as the proponents of the Westminster  Centre for the Study of Democracy suggest, the idea of setting policy around cities, without radically rethinking settlement patterns, political governance, technology futures, infrastructure, procurement pathways and community participation in development may only lead to the further degradation and implosion of Australian cities. Isolating any one of these factors for example technology futures or procurement (via new methods of financing) will only lead to further disfunction.

Even a simple dialectal or dichotomous approach is better than seeing cities and place as a localised, simplistic, unified, all encompassing, holistic singularity or imaginary. I suspect a whole-of-continent approach is preferable. The problems of the Murray Darling Basin and the remote communities in the West would suggest that.

Before we think about cities we need to defetishise the way we think about them. Let’s hope its not too late to forestall the next boom.