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Perth could become a model for 21st-century urban planning

Cities are always much more complex than their popular perceptions. Daniel Lee

Perth could become a model for 21st-century urban planning

What is the future of Australia’s wealthiest state? The Conversation, in conjunction with Griffith REVIEW and Curtin University, is publishing a series of articles exploring the unique issues facing Western Australia.

Perth is not high in the national consciousness, although its growth has sparked some interest.

The latest Australian Bureau of Statistics projections about its population growth are remarkable – three million by the early 2020s, passing Brisbane later that decade, five million by 2050, bigger than Sydney now: the prospect of becoming Australia’s second “global city” megalopolis beckons.

It is not hard to deconstruct these projections, and they may be overstated. Perth has always grown in fits and starts depending on the mining industry. But in-between the spurts it continues to grow, because people find interesting things to do and a good place to live. So Perth will keep growing at a fair clip.

On The Gruen Transfer a few years ago, the ABC’s chosen marketing gurus were asked to sell the idea of a “bogan-proof fence stopping Western Australians from crossing to the east”.

I was amazed by how seriously they took it.

The view from across the Nullarbor is that Perth is a “Wild West” town with few of the features of a cultivated and civilised society. There is some truth in this, as our treatment of the Noongar would indicate, and we have little of the iconic architecture or memorable townscapes of the European ideal.

But this is a city with a very strong civil society, especially in environment and planning. I study cities around the world and find that idealism about environment and planning is the basis of a strong city, essential to any potentially sustainable future.

From my professional point of view, I know that self-satisfied cities are in trouble. The best are full of people who are dissatisfied with what their cities are doing about the future, and who set up organisations to change this.

Perth is much more than a relic of the Wild West, its civic sensibilities are strong and it is setting the pace towards building a sustainable future. The American–Pacific states threw off their Wild West past to become the epicentre of sustainability, innovation and cool, confounding preconceptions. Perhaps the analogy can be applied here.

Maybe the better challenge for The Gruen Transfer would be to sell the sustainability lessons that have been learned in the Indian Ocean state.

The “Wild West” should not care for its environment – it should just exploit its forests. But that is not our long-term or recent history.

People noticed the amazing wildflowers very early on, and now we know that the south-west corner of Australia is one of the world’s biodiversity hot spots.

West Australia’s amazing wild flowers captured people’s attention. Brian Yap/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Preserving bushland has had a strong scientific and popular base. The early settlers could find no suitable agricultural land in the sandy soils of the Swan Coastal Plain, nor was there much on the adjacent Darling Scarp with its jarrah forest and ancient, eroded soils. But there were good soils inland, so the great Wheatbelt was created and some of the most biodiverse countryside in the world was used to produce grain.

As the population grew and water became the most limiting resource, jarrah forests were set aside for water catchment and the Swan Coastal Plain groundwater systems for water supply. Much bushland was saved by these decisions, and is now mostly preserved in perpetuity.

Further south, however, both jarrah and karri were easy prey for export and the local market. The forest campaigns began early, as people realised how special these forests were, but it was not until the 1960s that their conservation campaign really got going. The civil society movements generated over the next 40 years became more and more sophisticated, and began to eat into the political landscape.

Finally, in the 2001 election, “stopping the logging of old growth forests” became the mantra of the ALP government, after much internal lobbying and a famous campaign involving Mick Malthouse (the coach of the West Coast Eagles AFL team), fashion queen Liz Davenport, and other famous public figures including the artist Robert Juniper.

It was the time of the “men in suits” protests, where protesters gathered outside the premier’s office and jammed the switchboard with mobile calls.

Geoff Gallop won the election. Polls showed that not only were all his Australian Labor Party supporters wanting to set aside these forests, but 92 per cent of Liberal voters as well.

Never before had there been such a complete whitewash of the opposing forces – led by captains of industry including Michael Chaney, the former CEO of Wesfarmers. WA was the first state to make such a decision; it was not a “Wild West” decision.

During the 1990s, alarming predictions were made that Perth would have to be abandoned in the near future because its water supplies were not sustainable. All the climate change models demonstrate a drying climate in the South West, and this has been observable during more than 40 years of reduced rainfall. Dams and groundwater were never going to be enough, and the Water Corporation decided well before climate change became a political football that the predictions were real.

In 2001, a crisis emerged when it did not rain. Apart from immediate conservation measures, the long-term solution was thought to lie in a large deep aquifer called the Yarragadee in the South West. But civil society objected: stressing a natural system in a drying climate was not sustainable. The result was a decision to build wind-powered desalination.

In the eastern states, desalination became a dirty word for wasted public expenditure: the plants built at the end of the last big drought have hardly been used. Not in Perth. Over half of the water supply comes from the Indian Ocean, and soon recycled, treated sewage will recharge depleted aquifers.

Perth is now climate-proofed – the first Australian city to successfully introduce wind-powered desalination. A remarkable turnaround from the earlier dire predictions.

This journey began when CSIRO scientists and others demonstrated that reduced rainfall was likely be a permanent reality. People in Perth and the South West were highly sensitive to the issue, and pushed the politics of resilience planning to the limit by saying an emphatic no to using the Yarragadee aquifer as the next major water source.

Desalination and recycling of sewage were the only real options, and despite being the first city to attempt it, the politicians moved quickly to affirm desalination and get it into the water supply system. They have been proved right. As the Pacific Ocean moves into another El Niño drought cycle, the eastern seaboard cities will move to use the mothballed desalination plants that were built just as it started raining again.

Perhaps the politicians and their technical advisors who thought it was a good idea to buy them will finally be recognised for their resilience planning, just as they are in Perth. Being a leader in climate adaptation is definitely not “Wild West”.

Perth 25 years ago had virtually no railway system. Only seven million passengers a year trundled along in the old diesel trains. The new suburbs to the north and south had no prospect of good quality public transit.

Now, there are more than 70 million passengers a year travelling on fast, quality railways to the north and south. Perth’s public transport has become the envy of other Australian cities. It needs to double this again, but this is not the Wild West when it comes to public transport.

Perth is a very beautiful city, but it has always been a car-based city. The processes that began to reverse this, and build railways instead of freeways, were not the result of public-sector plans – they were shaped by civil society action, through the political system. The almost 200 kilometres of modern electric rail built since 1990 would not have happened if the public sector had had its way.

The railway to Fremantle was closed in 1979 after a government report claimed Perth would never need a rail system. A four-year grassroots campaign resulted in the removal of a government, and a period of rebuilding. Extending the rail into new areas was the subject of at least four elections, and at each one the same public-sector advice suggested that car-based suburbs would never work with a rail system.

The public disagreed, and hence fast rail was introduced into the long northern and southern corridors with spectacular patronage results. The “Perth model” of building rail into car and bus-only suburbs is now being adopted in many cities around the world, including all the main cities on the east coast. It was not a Wild West culture that did that.

Perth has had a long history of idealistic planning since early days, from John Septimus Roe through to Gordon Stephenson. Professor Stephenson, Britain’s most eminent planner, drew up a plan in the late 1950s that created a long-term land use, infrastructure and open-space strategy girded by a statutory process with real legislative teeth. It also produced a land tax-based fund, hypothecated to providing regional infrastructure reserves and nature reserves.

The planning system in Perth has had bipartisan support now for more than 60 years. No regional decisions can be made without going through the Planning Commission with representatives from across government and all the local government corridors and regions.

One of the great achievements of the planning system is that 90 per cent of the land along the river and the coast was acquired. It has enabled reclamation of this priceless amenity for public use.

Perth’s main planning problems are due to car-dependent urban sprawl. The Stephenson Plan was created when car ownership and use were rising dramatically, so building a city to accommodate this seemed to make sense.

Perth’s main planning problems are due to car-dependent urban sprawl. Ilena Gecan/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Cities are shaped by their dominant transport mode, as housing and jobs cluster around the means of transport. Thus, we have central cities of Perth and Fremantle (the old walking city fabric) and the traditional railway suburban corridors (the transit city fabric from the 1880s to 1950s) that are rather thin, as they did not grow in the periods of intensive commitment to these modes like Melbourne and Sydney, and most European cities.

Perth’s growth has mostly been in the automobile city period from the 1950s on. We did it well. Perth, Brisbane and the Gold Coast are the most American of cities: in Perth, this is due to the planning system.

Each boom has fed into further growth of the car-dependent suburbs. For those seeking a safe and easy suburban lifestyle, Perth has everything.

But the city now stretches for 120 kilometres along the coast; predictions for 2050 suggest the sprawl will extend more than 270 kilometres from Myalup to Lancelin. The resulting lifestyle does not suit everyone.

Indeed, the latest boom lured a clutch of young professionals west, eager to take up some of the opportunities that growth provides. They were not just seeking the delights of suburbia, but wanted an urban lifestyle with all the benefits of being able to walk, cycle or take the train to work, with nearby bars and entertainment precincts, top-end restaurants and interesting places to stroll. They brought a taste for the urban from Melbourne and Sydney, New York, London and Shanghai.

And Perth has begun to provide it. Car use per capita has peaked, and the city has witnessed a dramatic growth in rail and cycling. And those thin bones of the walking city in Perth have been strengthened to create a much more interesting city centre. The streets are now filled with pedestrians day and night, footpaths host coffee shops and bars spilling out in ways that were never imagined, even a decade ago. Young immigrants of the iron ore boom have given Perth a new urbanity.

The next phase of filling in centres across the inner and middle suburbs has been planned, and stresses the need for more redevelopment and less sprawl. But it is still tentative and most local governments are not so keen.

At Curtin University we have developed a Plan for Perth, which suggests the next 30 years of urban growth should be filling in the gaps rather than sprawling. The development will need new rail extensions and a series of 20 to 30 cities within already existing suburbs.

Such centres would need European densities and should also be demonstrations of green infrastructure and design, following the leadership of developments like Josh’s House. It’s a plan to save money, petrol, greenhouse emissions and bushland – but will it happen?

“Perth people don’t like living in flats” has always been the cry, and this remains a feature of the city’s culture. But now, a large and young group seek dense, green urbanism and want to live in such centres. A more sustainable urban form beckons if we can overcome the fear of density. As the processes of planning are based on community engagement and the NIMBY (not in my back yard) reactions of local groups, convincing people of the benefits of the new green urbanist market is a challenge.

It is feasible to imagine Perth being a far more interesting, lively and sustainable city. Not a bogan hang-out, but the model of a sustainable future. Civil society has demonstrated how this can be done in relation to the environment and transport – the challenge is to have the same impact on the way we live. Planning for city centres rather than endless sprawl is the next step. Perth can become a sustainable, polycentric city, and a model for the 21st century.

Cities are always much more complex than their popular perceptions. But as populations grow, planning is more important than ever. It is worth remembering the lessons of the recent past: we saved the forests, provided a sustainable water supply and built a rail system. I was surprised that they actually happened, but not that they worked. I hope I will be surprised again, and Perth becomes an urban centre of sustainability.


This essay was originally published in Griffith REVIEW 47: Looking West.