By Brendan Gleeson & Jacques de Vos Malan

Urbanisation, the inexorable way in which the bright lights draw people in from the countryside towards the cities, is as old as civilisation. Three and four thousand years BC saw the establishment of Mesopotamian cities like Uruk and Ur. The urbanisation phenomenon really started to accelerate worldwide after the Second World War, when New York and Tokyo expanded to become the first megacities (more than 10 million people) and hundreds of other clusters of humanity ballooned in size, density and spread.

Up to a certain point (some say between 800,000 and a million people), the benefits of urbanisation seem to outweigh the problems. Mass production (and the economic growth it produces) was not possible without a concentrated workforce. Large market economies, mass tourism and the sort of spectacular advances in education, science and technology that have been characteristic of the twentieth-century, all needed a large pool of people on which to draw.

Recently though, we have begun to question the wisdom and, in particular, the long-term sustainability of large cities. For the first time, decentralisation is becoming both fashionable and feasible. Some Australians are leaving the larger cities for a quieter life: the so-called ‘sea-change’ or ‘tree-change’ phenomena. For those who are still being drawn in towards the bright lights, the move from the countryside is not necessarily to the big capital cities but instead to the ‘corridors’ – the strings of metro areas like Goldcoast-Tweed Heads, Newcastle-Maitland and the Sunshine Coast.

Much of this is made possible by technology. Motor cars, rapid transit systems, mobile telephones and the Internet have made it possible for people whose professions demand connectivity to live much further apart than before. At the same time, the most sophisticated digital technology imaginable is leading to the development of the ‘smart city’, in which traffic management, policing, garbage collection and the allocation of resources is facilitated by real-time data analytics.

These are exciting developments, but in many cases the modern Australian city is not sustainable. Our large capital cities generate serious greenhouse gas emissions and they create urban heat islands, both of which exacerbate climate change. Large cities in Australia are also not equitable. Much development of new housing now takes place on the outer urban fringe. This is where new arrivals and many young people have to go to find affordable accommodation, to buy or to rent. In cities like Melbourne and Sydney, new housing developments stretch far beyond the reach of public transport. Accessing jobs, schools, sports and cultural activities and social services means that the ‘fringe dwellers’ are obliged to drive motorcars. They have no choice. And that means they are directly vulnerable to imported fuel costs.

The only sustainable way to begin to address the increasing pressure of urbanisation is to rethink our city planning. That means reconsidering what we plan, how we plan and who does the planning. Australian urban planning is deeply fragmented, with responsibilities spread across local government, State and Territory ministers and Commonwealth departments. Plans made at one level don’t necessarily get much prior consultation at others. Developers, investors, home-owners and buyers have little to rely on. But between now and 2050 we have to work out where to put another 23 million people.

It’s time to review urban planning in Australia and to review the relationship between planning and transport infrastructure. What are the best urban scenarios with which to face a two-degree global warming? What will the consequences be for Australia?

When the population increased and weather patterns changed, Mesopotamia could no longer cope. Uruk and Ur and other ‘first cities’ declined into backwaters, footnotes to the new empires into which they vanished.

A new report from the Australian Council of Learned Academies explores the sustainable planning options for Australian cities. Delivering Sustainable Urban Mobility, launched by the Chief Scientist and Minister for Cities and the Built Environment on 7 October 2015, is available at ACOLA.

Brendan Gleeson joined Melbourne University in January 2012 as Professor of Urban Policy Studies and then took on the directorship of the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute in early 2013. 

Professor Gleeson came from the position of Deputy Director of the National University of Ireland’s National Institute for Regional and Spatial Analysis. Prior to that he set up the Urban Research Program at Griffith University and was its inaugural Director. 

Professor Gleeson has made significant scholarly contributions in urban and social policy, environmental theory and policy, and is a regular commentator in newspapers, television and radio. He has qualifications in geography and urban planning, including a masters degree from the University of Southern California and a PhD from the University of Melbourne. Professor Gleeson is a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Social Sciences. 

He is the author or editor of thirteen books, three of which have won national and international prizes, and numerous journal articles.

Dr Jacques de Vos Malan studied music, anthropology and African languages at the University of Cape Town, before pursuing postgraduate work at King’s College, University of London, reading composition, musicology and palaeography. He returned to South Africa to complete the degree of Doctor of Music at the University of Pretoria. On several occasions, he studied informally, and collaborated, with the American experimental composer Morton Feldman.

De Vos Malan worked as a radio and television music producer and subsequently as an independent documentary filmmaker. He has lectured in ethnomusicology at the University of the Witwatersrand and in composition and twentieth-century aesthetics at the University of Cape Town. His career has included the roles of Manager of the National Symphony Orchestra, Johannesburg; Executive Director of the Cape Town Symphony Orchestra; Music Director of the Musica Reservata chamber orchestra; and founder of Fine Music Radio, Cape Town.

In Australia, de Vos Malan’s roles have included managing the Major Festivals portfolio for Arts Victoria and Director of Programming & Marketing for the Adelaide Festival Centre. In 2006, de Vos Malan was appointed as the inaugural CEO of Melbourne Recital Centre. Since 2010, he has been managing ACOLA Secretariat Ltd, an interdisciplinary research venture established by Australia's Learned Academies. He has served on the board of Melbourne Fringe and been closely involved with the Australian National Development Index.

De Vos Malan serves on the international editorial board of the European Scientific Journal and has twice addressed interdisciplinary conferences, in Ponta Delgada and Buenos Aires, on the subject of interdisciplinary research management.

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