Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Smart Cities: Brave new world or no country for old men?

The times are changing.  The "sharing economy" is upon us. But everyone knows it is not about sharing at all. It is about getting what you want at the cheapest price possible where everything is for sale. However, with little consequence for that once noble sentiment of the "common good", I am finding that I am reluctant to "share" in this future.

Glimpses of the "sharing" future appear in the most unlikely situations. When I was a young "Westie", being a Penrith Panthers supporter was the epitome of loyalty. The fans made the club. Yet today, the fans are providing "feedback" about the Canberra Raiders' performance and what they expect for next year.

So rather than the fans providing moral support for the club, the team is now expected to do it all themselves. "Sharing" at its finest. So I thought I would rate the fans. Dear fans, you do not pass or fail, you are expelled for behaviour likely to prejudice the Canberra Raiders.

We're all losing something every day but are too busy consuming to notice. I feel like I am John the Savage.

And when I think about the "smart" economy, I do not share Mr Turnbull's enthusiasm, even though I am pleased that he might put the "liberal" back into "Liberal". He might even put the sense of public duty back into the role of the prime minister.

But the more I reflect on the rise of Uber, traffic congestion in Sydney, having to pay for every part of day-to-day interactions, owning a property but still having to pay rent on the land, drinking unhealthy concoctions out of jars and that Canberra is somehow "cool" now whereas it wasn't before and so on, I must admit to becoming philosophical about the future. In particular, what's the point?

Now I am far from depressed or sad in any way, but I can't help heave an internal sigh of relief when I think 'Thank God that I may not live to see where all this "smartness" ends'.

Having said that, when I drove in Sydney traffic to get to Redfern at 5pm on a Friday night recently, I would have paid up to $500 if I could have shouted "Beam me up, Scotty!" and be done with it. Instead, I got caught at every no right turn and spent most of my time being abused while stuck in the middle of intersections with nowhere to go. 

Three hours later I arrived at my destination with my car sounding like a diesel for want of oil. Strangely enough, even my car recovered as soon as we got past Campbelltown on the way back to Canberra.

I do not want to live in high-density housing. I don't want to catch public transport unless it is as good as the Hong Kong MTR, and I don't want to use a smartphone or a GPS just to drive somewhere. As for Uber, that brings together all of the things I do not like. And don't get me started on TED Talks and how they are so much better than boring professors! Yet somehow this is all meant to be about choice.

So where does it all end? With population explosions in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth expected to bring these cities to a grinding halt, if nothing is done to address the growing need for more transport options, it will end badly. But what about other capital cities like Adelaide, Canberra, Darwin and Hobart?

There is still some hope left. Adelaide, Canberra, Darwin and Hobart are not growing as quickly as Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth. This is partly driven by migrants preferring to live in the bigger cities. But there is not much being done to encourage people to leave the big cities in terms of opportunities for employment and so on. Yet it would seem that opportunities for growth in the smaller cities and even regional towns could shift the burden away from the larger cities which are already bursting at the seams.

Mr Turnbull's recent cabinet reshuffle brings cities back into the federal fold. Not since Whitlam established the Department of Urban and Regional Development, and later Hawke's "Building Better Cities" program have spatial issues been on the federal agenda. Indeed, the appointment of Mr Jamie Briggs as the Minister for Cities and the Built Environment is the first time a Coalition Government has looked beyond the market for solutions to spatial, transport and liveability issues in our major cities.

Unlike the United States, Australia has a distinct lack of medium-sized cities that can help overcome the challenge of high-density living. It is certainly not for everyone. But rather than tunnel our way into better transport networks, there are other ways to bring about regional renewal if only workplaces could be encouraged to change the way work is done.

Rather than focus on workers being in the building, a renewed focus on outcomes has the potential to change the current demand to live near places of employment. Yet we remain focused on inputs, as if the budgetary changes of the late 1990s were only administrative, rather than cultural, reforms.

If we are to offer real "choice" for people to live the life they wish, there must be alternatives to high-density living. Supporting regional growth has the potential to take the pressure off the big cities, while reviving parts of the country that are on the verge of becoming ghost towns. But changing the nature of work and providing viable alternatives to cars are key.

Higher-density living is only part of the solution. It is counter-intuitive that the easiest way to fix congestion problems is to make our cities even more compact. And it is certainly not how I would want to live if Canberra's development is anything to go by. Give me a federation house on a quarter-acre block as the bare minimum. The trouble is that many today would see such a living arrangement as an opportunity to split the property into two titles, knock down a piece of classic Australian architecture and build pokey rental properties. That's no choice at all.

Can you have your cake and eat it too? After all, the dream of a federation house on a quarter acre block in a city is well beyond affordability for the average punter. Yet regional towns have scores of classic architectural beauties on large plots of land going begging - towns that once boomed due to mining and rural industries or as important transport hubs.

There is still plenty of scope for regional renewal, and an opportunity for those of us who cringe at the thought of being a few feet away from one's neighbour every night. This is a big country after all.

What remains to be seen is whether the renewed focus on cities will improve their liveability or further erode the fortunes of the regions as even more people concentrate around improved transport and affordable housing close to employment opportunities in the major cities.

It would seem that improved transport (such as high-speed rail) and communications infrastructure targeted at potential regional growth areas would give people more options than the architectural penchant for sardine cans (complete with stacked stone that matches all of the other sardine cans on the street) in Canberra's newest suburbs that are beyond the affordability of many.

And architects really need to self-reflect. Mid-century architecture suggested that form followed function. Now architecture operates akin to Ricardo's Iron Law of Wages: Give them enough space to live in, convince them that they are privileged, then fleece them for all they're worth. The contemporary architectural mantra is closer to cheap is chic.

In the meantime, I will test my ideas by moving into a regional town. I wonder if I can rediscover the sense of local loyalty that has been lost in Canberra. I wonder if my federation house on a quarter-acre block will give me that sense of well-being that has evaded me here. I wonder, too, if I can change the current work model that has little to do with outcomes and get the best of both worlds - the living space I want with ongoing employment I enjoy.

These are the choices I wish to make but unfortunately government policy offers only a narrow set of choices that all lead to stacked stone sardine cans supported by light rail. It might as well be back to the future with workers terraces connected to workplaces by trams. We spent years trying to break the hold the slums had on our poorest souls in our major cities. I cannot see how it will be any different this time around.

But I must do something. I have had enough of feeling like John the Savage. I do not share Mr Turnbull's enthusiasm for a brave new world unless more choices are offered. Otherwise, I fear that this will indeed become no country for old men.



Creative Commons License Except where indicated otherwise, Le Flâneur Politique by Michael de Percy is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.5 Australia License. Based on a work at politicalscience.com.au. Background image ©Depositphotos.com/ @redshinestudio