Colliding cities: have our cities slipped their metro moorings?

South-east Queensland now has a 200km long city. dazza17-DJ

Despite the emphasis in Australia on the “compact city” foreshadowed in every major strategic metropolitan plan such as the South East Queensland Regional Plan; there is a growing trend towards “colliding cities”. We are seeing an almost seamless link-up of cities and towns into complex mega-metropolitan regions.

A spatial settlement inversion/invasion has taken place. What were previously urban islands along the coastline of Australia are now inter-connected, linear urban corridors. Natural and agricultural islands are left adrift in an ever-growing urban landscape.

This join-up of once separate cities and towns now accommodates almost 80% of the Australian population.

The largest of these occur along the eastern Australian coastline and include Melbourne-Geelong and Sydney-Newcastle. The 200 Kilometre City of South East Queensland (SEQ) links the Sunshine Coast and the Gold Coast with the capital city of Brisbane.

Within this new urban order, planning and managing this metropolitan/regional complexity is a crucial part of urban governance. But in Australia, the approach has been characterised by a lack of institutional co-ordination and policy integration.

In the 200km city region for example key areas such as climate change, transport, communications, industry and housing development have proven difficult to address at the local government level alone. The spill-over of urban growth and development across the border into northern New South Wales (NSW) further problematises this at both the regional and state levels.

How can national urban policy help mediate the spatial challenges of new urban settlement patterns and address the “beggar thy neighbour” metro-regional mentality?

‘Beggar thy neighbour’?

These emerging mega-metro regions present different kinds of urban governance and policy problems to those associated with single cities. They have uneven and inequitable spatial settlement patterns (which increases levels of diseconomies of scale).

The need for better cross-border governance arrangements to address new master-planned mini-cities such as Cobaki Lakes offers one such example. When complete the $3 billion+ development will have the capacity to house an additional 12,000 new residents in this cross-border region.

The Cobaki Lakes mini-city is located in NSW but will still rely heavily on Queensland for key infrastructure services. The implications of such development-led growth are significant in terms of further exacerbating existing deficits in core public services, water resources, agricultural land and ecological integrity in the border region.

Governing a mega-metro region involves all three tiers of government (local, state, national). It also takes input from the private and community sectors working together.

There is currently neither the power nor influence at any single level of government to tackle broader metro-wide concerns around public transport, water security, energy, sewerage and public housing.

Using different sectoral policies tends to simply shift problems across administrative borders or offer contradictory policies that generate more issues than they resolve. This is despite the recognised economic, social and environmental costs of non-coordination at scale within the Australian city context.

In 2011 the Australian Government released the first National Urban Policy Our Cities, Our Future, which set out the aims and aspirations for the planning, management and development of Australian cities.

This national urban policy is a step towards developing a strategic framework for Australia‘s growing mega-metro regions.

But it falls short of substantively addressing the key challenges of the planning and management of new Australian settlement patterns.

Linking national policy (and infrastructure investment funding) to existing strategic metropolitan plans, the over-emphasis on the compact city underscores the existing governance deficit. These challenges are already manifest at the mega-metropolitan regional scale.

Meanwhile the problems of rising infrastructure demands, socio-spatial inequities and issues of ecological integrity intensify and fester in the borderlands of these colliding cities.

A fairer, more sustainable future for Australian cities beckons.

Australian city futures

Within our lifetime we could see one long linear conurbation along the length of the eastern coastline of Australia – the rise of the coastal mega city.

Whether this is desirable (or sustainable) should be the focus of robust planning and deliberation. We need to discuss decentralised urban concentration. It should not be left to a default position that emphasises stand-alone Australian cities that – in terms of growth and development – have already slipped their metro-moorings and started to sail away.

The messy reality of colliding urban settlements is that they do not adhere neatly to local, regional or state administrative boundaries. Relying on parallel multi-level governance mechanisms that are institutionally divided won’t address the issues and challenges we see in cities at the mega-metro scale.

The resulting impact affects the ecological and economic capacity of these vast urban corridors, as well as the overall quality of life of those who live within them.

How to better plan and manage the “colliding city” phenomenon is the contemporary governance – and therefore democratic – challenge within the Australian urban context.