Ben Harris-Roxas writes:
As part of last night’s budget, the Commonwealth government released a new urban policy, Our Cities, Our Future: A national urban policy for a productive, sustainable and liveable future.
This document has been mostly overlooked in media reports but has the potential to have impacts on population health and health services.
Australia is one of the most urbanised countries in the world. Seventy five per cent of us live in cities and regional centres, which generate 80% of the nation’s income. Any discussions about sustainability invariably deal with urbanisation in some form.
The Commonwealth also has some history in this area through the Better Cities Program that ran from 91 until 96, and the 2005 inquiry into sustainable cities, though up until now it has tended to cherry-pick the issues it has wanted to address.
As has been noted, the policy is more about setting out broad areas of activity than spelling out details, though some of its highlights include:
- $7.3 billion for passenger rail projects in Melbourne, Adelaide, Perth, Brisbane, Sydney and the Gold Coast;
- $20 million over two years for planning activities and demonstration projects in fast-growing outer suburbs and major regional centres;
- $100 million for a suburban jobs plan aimed at developing employment hubs; and
- Expanding the role of the National Planning Taskforce set up by COAG.
In effect the Government is trying to bring a range of disparate activities under one banner, most of which aren’t new.
Some of the less publicised budget items that will have implications for any urban policy include:
- deferring $620 million worth of freight rail and road projects to help fund flood and cyclone rebuilding programs;
- deferring a feasibility study into the F3 Sydney Orbital ($150 million);
- withdrawing $56 million in funding for the O-Bahn city access project in Adelaide.
Despite its planning focus, the policy will have implications for health. It has a clear focus on reducing car dependence and increasing active transport, which will have considerable population health benefits.
We have good evidence showing that cities with good public transport have lower rates of obesity and chronic disease. As it currently stands the policy focuses on transport infrastructure and developing economic activity. It’s less clear what role the government sees for service and social infrastructure within its urban policy.
The Our Cities, Our Future policy shows the Commonwealth government is reengaging with urbanisation as an issue, instead of ceding it to state and local governments as has often been done before. It represents a welcome step forward to more coherent action and an attempt at policy coordination.
Health needs to be part of that.
• Ben Harris-Roxas is a Research Fellow in health impact assessment and healthy public policy at the UNSW Research Centre for Primary Health Care and Equity.
Update: June 2
Margaret Simons has covered some more of the background and context to this policy for Inside Story, in an article, Who should look after the cities? It indirectly reinforces the point made above by Ben – the need for a public and population health perspective to be part of these wider discussions.