Opinion pieces, speeches & transcripts

Address to the Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council

July 27, 2021



TUESDAY, 27 JULY, 2021


The sustainability of cities matters so much more than the attention it is currently being given.

By 2050, it is expected that two thirds of the world’s population will live in urban areas. In Australia, it’s projected that by then, 91 percent of our population will live in urban areas.

So, how our cities function, and how their citizens live and work, really matters.

Of course, there is no greater long-term threat to our cities than climate change.

Right now awful floods in Northern Europe, and a stark warning from Paris Equity Check, identifying Australia together with Russia, China and Brazil as having ‘disastrous’ energy policies threatening success at November’s Glasgow climate summit, must be a prompt to urgent action.

Tackling climate change means reducing our emissions, of course.

It's why Labor has committed to net zero emissions by 2050, along with many leading businesses, every state and territory- but not, to all our cost, the Morrison Government.

But the challenge of mitigation and adaptation doesn’t - can’t - end here. It must be a central focus of urban policy in what is one of  the world’s most urbanised nations.

Urban heat, water usage and air pollution are just some of the long term threats to our cities we must reconsider as we plan for a sustainable urban future.

Especially as we also navigate the ongoing impacts of the pandemic on urban life, such as the decline in public transport usage.

These challenges underscore the importance of having an effective, national urban policy framework that traverses all the dimensions of cities policy.

A framework that will make our cities more resilient to future shocks, as they decarbonise.

And a framework for cooperation.



Which brings me to ASBEC.

It’s a real pleasure to be here today, to recognise the work that you do, and to engage more closely.

No organisation is better placed to speak to the challenges and opportunities connected with reshaping our cities, thanks to the membership that makes up ASBEC.

There’s such a diversity of perspectives on planning, sustainability and interests connected to the built environment gathered together.

With significant state and local government, and academic involvement, too.

Which in turn means that ASBEC’s Task Groups do incredibly important work, in distilling these perspectives in common ground.

These are important resources for decision-makers. I’m particularly interested in the work of the Urban Resilience group, which has had a real impact on my thinking about the future of Australian cities.

Back in 2019 - then called the Cities and Infrastructure Task Group - its Thriving Cities paper was a prescient contribution to this debate. Together with its recommendations, this report made the point that realising a vision for change will rely on improved coordination and engagement.

While under Malcolm Turnbull, a cities reference group was formed apparently with this in mind, we recently learned through Senate estimates that it hasn’t met since 2019.

Since before we’d even heard of Covid-19.

This is a problem, and a missed opportunity. Obviously, ASBEC Board members are a part of this body, with expertise to be harnessed in the national interest.

But we don’t have a national government that’s very good at, or much interested in listening to expertise.


Labor’s approach to urban policy

There’s another way.

Earlier this year, Anthony Albanese outlined Labor’s vision for cities. To reinvigorate urban policy an Albanese Labor government would:

  1. Transform City Deals into genuine City Partnerships
  2. Revitalise our CBD
  3. Renew the independent role of Infrastructure Australia in urban planning
  4. Deliver a new National Urban Policy framework
  5. Publish annual State of the Cities Report
  6. And give local government a voice in a meaningful National Cabinet process

These measures are designed to be a joined-up framework, which facilitates the participation of the full range of stakeholder perspectives, and addresses the fractured responsibilities for cities - within governments, and between government, the community and the private sector.

This was of course the initial rationale for the City Deals program.

But this has been withering on the vine, consumed by short-term politics, and heedless of the significance of sustainability.

Labor is committed to realising real City Partnerships, putting in place the mechanisms to enable this, so that they are built from the ground up - as they always should have been.

We understand that achieving this goal will require genuine, long-term partnerships with local and state governments as well with businesses and local communities. These should be to achieve shared objectives, not just agreements to deliver particular projects.

This in turn requires a national urban policy to put in place the right collaborative framework.

In this regard we propose three pillars: productivity, liveability and sustainability.

Three imperatives to drive policy-making, recognising both that these goals are interrelated, and that the role of national government is, by and large, to set objectives and incentives, not to presume to dictate.

As Anthony Albanese has said: "if we recognise the challenges and opportunities, and develop the right policies, we can harness the urban transformation in a way that will help us build back stronger from the pandemic and the recession".

So, in addition to establishing the Australian Cities and Suburbs Unit within government, to do for places what Infrastructure Australia does for projects, we will bring together a renewed Urban Policy Forum, which will expressly include environmental perspectives. It won’t be just about productivity.

That’s also why we will bring local government into national cabinet. It’s so often councils which have been leading the way when it comes to innovations in sustainability and especially adaptation, but these individual efforts have been hamstrung by a lack of engagement, a lack of dialogue, a lack of recognition and a lack of interest from the Morrison government.

This can’t continue, and it won’t under an Albanese Labor government.

The UK Centre for Cities has this month released an important paper, on decarbonising cities and towns - a pathway to net zero, and the roles of respective levels of government in getting there.

This is a pointer to both opportunities we can seize, and how this goal can only be met when there’s a shared vision, and the means as well as the will to realise it.


Thinking differently about Infrastructure

In recent weeks, it’s become clear that this government sees urban infrastructure as just another opportunity for election pork barrelling.

This is holding us back.

We can’t afford such an approach, if we are to turn around our anaemic productivity growth.

Nor if we are concerned to face up to our climate imperatives.

The infrastructure assets we build today will still be operating when we, if not this Government, have committed to reach net zero emissions.

And we are seeing private investors increasingly interested in sustainable and low emission developments, and are seeing a rise in the availability of finance exclusively available to sustainable projects.

It’s ridiculous that capital is so far ahead of Australia’s government, and it’s unconscionable.

This is another race, and we are stuck at the starting line.

Organisations overseas are looking at the possibilities of the Biden infrastructure stimulus agenda, and have identified more than $25 billion US in sustainable infrastructure projects, including water, public transport, energy efficiency and adaptation.

This work, driven locally, is informing a national debate in the US. On what’s needed to make our cities sustainable and resilient, and what this can mean more broadly.

The head of CDP North America, Katie Walsh, puts it this way. "We want to show how these projects can make an impact on emissions … but also in growing local economies, creating jobs and racial and social equity,".

Our Shadow Minister for Climate Change and Energy, Chris Bowen, has similarly recognised that good climate policy is good jobs policy- with up to 250,000 jobs ready to be created as we move towards net-zero.

Our national government must have in place a framework that responds to and incentivises such an approach.

I note that the Assessment Framework just released by Infrastructure Australia contains new guidelines intended to facilitate a wider, more holistic view of projects, including in relation to sustainability and resilience.

The Council’s Reshaping Infrastructure issues paper recognised the opportunity to prioritise emissions reduction provided by evolving our assessment frameworks.

Government infrastructure decisions have a critical role to play in reaching a zero emissions future- currently more than half of infrastructure projects are completed for the public sector, and these in turn shape our cities.

And without a consistent approach to emission reduction at the assessment and decision making stage, our ambition at the outset of a project can fall short, for the project, and in terms of its contribution to our broader goals.


Liveable, sustainable cities

I mentioned earlier how interconnected our urban policy pillars are.

It’s worth touching on the relationship between liveability and sustainability, so we can begin exploring the possibilities that emerge from this.

If we look at the Australian Urban Observatory’s liveability index, we can see the same pattern emerging in each of our capital cities.

A number of highly liveable, but unaffordable, suburbs concentrated close to the city centre.

And on the outskirts, low levels of liveability-with more restrictive public transport options, less access to social infrastructure and limited public green space.

The right national framework for urban policy will improve the lives of millions of Australians.

Get it wrong and we end up with worsening urban congestion, declining housing affordability, a bigger carbon footprint and unequal cities that are only liveable for the few.

So how can we make our cities more sustainable, and more liveable?

For us all.

Our cities need to get smarter, with technological solutions deployed to address a wide range of challenges.

Better digital infrastructure should be a no-brainer.

The International Energy Agency’s Empowering Cities for a Net Zero Future report released last week reiterated its importance to emissions reduction.

Smart sustainable cities benefit from improved energy efficiency, reduced environmental pollution, better water usage and giving people a healthier environment in which to live.

We can look to the work currently being undertaken by state governments and local councils to alleviate the existing effects of urban heat, enabled through digital mapping of canopy cover and urban heat islands.

The Victorian Government committed to plant 500,000 trees across Melbourne’s west in the most recent state budget. In 2018, the western suburbs of Melbourne had just 5.5 percent canopy cover, compared to 26  percent in the eastern suburbs, resulting in the greatest urban heat island effect across metropolitan Melbourne.

Adaptation will also play an important role in making our cities more sustainable.

From pop-up bike lanes to transforming old office buildings to new usage, and making them more sustainable in the process, we can see cities around the world embracing this.

Maximising the use of our existing assets, reducing the extent of new construction required, has the potential to reduce emissions by up to 80%.

From collecting better data on the performance of construction materials and practices to promote low-emissions new builds, to better integrating a building’s power and heating systems, maximising internal energy efficiency, while boosting connections between buildings to provide flexibility in the grid - digitalisation brings significant benefits for the built environment.



Research conducted by the ABS in March this year, a time where there were minimal COVID-related restrictions around the country, found that regular public transport use had dropped to 14 percent, 10 percent lower than before the pandemic began.

While this was an improvement on the 9 percent of Australians using public transport regularly in September 2020, transport is a major source of air pollution, and is a major environmental challenge for our cities.

It’s not simply distance or trip complexity that is stopping Australians from shifting to public or active transport- there are over two million car trips every day in Sydney that are less than 2km in length.

In addition to promoting low and zero emission vehicles, as Labor has proposed, we need an integrated transport network, that promotes active transport options and supports people getting back to public transport.



The restrictions of lockdown have reminded us of the need for thriving local economies and communities, not just in CBDs but across urban areas.

Access to employment opportunities is critical, but access to services and amenities cannot be ignored when we think about stronger communities and what building blocks are required to secure good lives for the suburban many, not just the well-off few.

The pandemic has helped accelerate the rise of working from home, for those who can. While it will remain important for colleagues to work alongside one another - the workplace will become more a place of collaboration than task-performance.

And the dispersal of work means we can revive and reimagine suburban hubs as well as our CBDs.

The Planning Institute of Australia’s recent discussion papers on a climate-conscious planning system recognises the importance of neighbourhoods that are walkable, compact and mixed use to reduce transport related emissions.

Forming twenty minute neighbourhoods, and providing people the opportunity to meet most of their needs locally, creates healthy, liveable communities within our cities.

For this to work, we need to prioritise infill redevelopment of our urban centres, providing the opportunity for innovative, sustainable design in areas that have been previously overlooked.

Our cities have within them the potential to drive the transition to a net-zero emission economy-  but the transformation needed is being hampered by fragmented governance structures and a lack of clear vision.

This can’t continue.



This week, the Economist newspaper’s front cover headline reads ‘No safe place - 3 degree future’.

It sets a challenge we can’t shirk.

To meet this challenge requires resolve and collaboration.

Resolve to stand up to the forces of reaction and denial, including within Australia’s government.

And collaboration - internationally, of course. To play our part in working towards a world of net zero emissions.

But we need to get better at working together at home, too.

While this requires the leadership of a national government committed to climate action, we need genuine partnerships - with the states and territories, local governments, industry, businesses, community groups, and ordinary Australians. Peak bodies like this one, of course.

The COVID pandemic, and recession, has hit our cities hard - revealing existing fault lines and  accelerating changes.

We have an opportunity to do better, and be better.

Indeed, an obligation to the Australians sacrificing so much right now and to our children and grandchildren.

This must involve making sure our cities are resilient to future shocks like climate change.

And that our cities are more sustainable, more productive and more liveable - for everyone who lives in them.

We need an Australian government that’s committed to action on climate, committed to an effective national urban policy framework and committed to listening to and collaborating with all the groups with an interest in this framework.

An Albanese Labor Government.