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Can Australia’s growing cities also be liveable cities?

How projects can have an impact
As Australia’s cities continue to grow, how can we ensure that they retain quality of life for citizens? Using global examples, this article examines how others are maintaining citizens' living standards in their projects.

We are living in an era of global urbanisation with the United Nations projecting that by 2050 a further 2.5 billion people will be living in cities.1 For Australia this is not a new trend. 

Our cities grew up through the 50’s and 60’s when cars became universal, enabling people to commute increased distances to newly developing suburbs. But as our cities continue to grow how well equipped will they be to manage an increase in population of 2, 5 or even 10 million?

Evidence from global cities is demonstrating that cities are being confronted with a range of challenges that are forcing city infrastructure to respond and adapt.

Project complexity

The challenge for project leaders is that adaption must occur whilst keeping the existing system running. Current projects in Melbourne and Sydney for instance are demonstrating how complex this can be. In Melbourne the progressive removal of level crossings across the city is resulting in periods of severe network disruption. In Sydney under-ground cables and utilities pits have led to an ongoing contractual dispute delaying the delivery of the Sydney Light Rail project.

The reality for project leaders is that working in a city that has already established its core infrastructure adds to complexity when delivering projects. Because projects are part of an interconnected network it is necessary that as part of project conception that project leaders understand how a specific project will impact the continuing functioning of a city.

Adapting existing infrastructure

In the context of a growing city, the purpose of projects is to improve liveability for the city’s citizens. With a focus on the outcomes that are desired, the first step for project leaders is to consider how existing infrastructure can be adapted. This requires understanding how cities themselves are changing.

Los Angeles is an example of a city where the spatial distribution of employment is changing. Start-up businesses have been attracted to Santa Monica because of the availability of a young and educated labour force that in turn is attracted by the area’s laid back lifestyle. The result has been significant congestion which the city’s public transit service is struggling to address.

Commuters on a bus

One challenge is that city transport systems were often built around transporting workers to centres of industrial activity. As economic activity changes, so too will transport patterns. The future may well be that instead of commuting to factories, workers will commute to the most liveable areas of a city in areas such as software development and professional services. This will create a need to link urban planning and human capital with business.

Another example of a city adapting its existing infrastructure is Denmark. The ability to access timely health treatment is core to the quality of life in a city. With growing demands on health and an ageing of the population, Denmark’s solution to managing increased demand was not to build new hospitals, but to change the way that health services are delivered.  Denmark began to restructure its health system fifteen years ago with a focus on delivering more services locally and transforming hospitals to specialise in specific areas. The result is that since 1999 Denmark has actually reduced the number of hospitals from 98 to 32 today. By also linking data with a digital strategy Denmark’s health system is encouraging citizens to take responsibility for their own health education. Denmark’s experience demonstrates that by working smarter, not simply increasing the amount of investment in the health system, it is possible to create a coherent health system that meets community expectations.

Southbound BART train passes Outer Mission in San Francisco between Balboa Park station and Daly City station

Southbound BART train in San Francisco

In considering the best intervention to achieve specific outcomes, project leaders will also need to appreciate how a range of behavioural factors can lead to cascades that impact the functioning of a city. One example is San Francisco which has seen an increase in homeless people sleeping in corridors, and a rise in violent crimes on San Francisco’s Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) – which have increased by 69% over the past decade. The result has been a rise in complaints and static growth in ridership as commuters shift to cars rather than riding public transport.  BART has recognised that addressing homelessness is core to building the confidence of San Francisco’s citizens to ride trains and buses. The city’s transit system has resourced investment in a range of initiatives including deploying full-time Crisis Intervention Training Coordinators to connect homeless people to services and assisting those in crisis by transporting to mental health facilities or hospital.

Project conception

Changing the approach to how projects are conceived has the potential to change the way that projects are delivered. One example is roads. In Australia the management of roads across Australian cities is subject to three layers of government and has long been a source of political arbitrage. The result has been an ebb and flow of funding for road projects, which transfers risk to constructors who have to move resources at short notice in order to deliver projects. But there are alternatives, as the United Kingdom has found through the establishment of Highways England in 2015, enabling roads to be strategically managed. Because Highways England has control of its own capital and maintenance decisions it has been able to establish long term relationships with private contractors  who are responsible for the design and delivery of road maintenance in a particular areas of England for a period of four or five years. This enables projects to be planned and rolled out efficiently.

Sydney Water employees on the job

Sydney Water employees on the job

With Australia just recording its hottest summer on record by a “large margin” the need to ensure water is available not only for the needs of citizens, but for agriculture and the environment, requires new ways of thinking. With opportunities to build new dams limited, Sydney Water has focused on developing a flexible methodology that recognises how the value of water changes with the weather. As part of its Operating Licence 2015–2020, Sydney Water for the first time adopted investment in water conservation based on the Economic Level of Water Conservation (ELWC) methodology. The result is that Sydney did not need to turn on its desalinisation plant through the recent drought with a range of other measures kicking into save water. This approach to water allows Sydney Water to concentrate its efforts on long term strategic water projects including working on new investments for wastewater outfalls that have the potential to make the Parramatta River swimmable again.

Growth of brownfield projects

The shift to a focus on project outcomes is unlikely to reduce the overall investment in projects, but it will shift the types of projects that project leaders will work on. In this regard smaller brownfield projects are likely to be increasingly important.

Examples of smaller brownfield projects that have made a significant difference to customer experience include the aviation sector which has introduced a range of initiatives over the last few years to improve service. Major airlines all now offering a form of mobile phone check-in that lets a passenger confirm their flight and have a boarding pass created on their smart phone for faster access to the plane for boarding. Customs process have been digitised and many airports have also responded quickly to the rise of Uber by establishing special pick up areas.

A core theme of our work has been the need for infrastructure to adapt. Perhaps the next area for reform is our infrastructure bureaucracy. The focus on 30 year plans by infrastructure agencies, which just a few years ago seemed a necessary reform to prepare cities for linear increases in population, needs now to be questioned. But if not 30 year plans, then what should infrastructure agencies be doing?

The Better Infrastructure Initiative at the John Grill Centre works with a network of global partners to address key challenges in Australian infrastructure, with a particular focus on project economics and governance, finance and funding.

Infrastructure spending needs to work harder for communities and business, producing tangible benefits, increasing economic output, and improving social well-being.