Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Urban Policy for the Greens

A few days ago as I bumped and bustled my way out of North Sydney station, I accepted a newsletter from a bearded, middle-aged, concerned-looking gentleman, looking lost amid the primped and preened flyer hander-outerers for the newest manicure parlour, and the harried and hurried businessmen and women on their morning commute. He was as though from another age, when being a concerned citizen-activist held social currency, and I felt for him with every turned head, or irritable brush off from the all-to-preoccupied iPhone-reading commuters.

The NSW Greens newsletter - Green Voice - shouted the anti-coal-seam-gas (CSG) message on its front page, in bold letters, showing off the resolute farmers standing up to the dirty energy sector. An important message for sure, but I couldn't help feeling that the whole package - from first encounter (I had noticed him the day before and felt guilty for not taking a paper then) to final skimming of the publication - that the Greens have a much more socially powerful message than they are currently telling; an ace up their sleeves.

The Australian Greens need solid, progressive, urban policy to take advantage of the seemly inevitable global trend in the demographics and sensibilities of urbanising populations.

The most compelling argument for the environmental movement is that in the long run, it makes real-world sense to care for the systems that sustain us. Unfortunately the feedback loops in most natural systems are slow, and the systems themselves very resilient, so full effects are not always immediately obvious. This means that the great majority of environmentally sensitive policy must be sold on future benefits, or the mitigation of future consequences.

Cities, however, are one sphere where the benefits of progressive, environmentally sound policy show almost immediate, and entirely tangible benefits to constituents. It is also a sphere where the tide of history is inexorably moving towards clear winners (and also clear losers): cities that get compact design, mass transit, affordability, liveability and resilience right will out-compete those that remain locked into a sprawling, car-driven, concrete-jungle  not-in-my-back-yard (NIMBY) mindset in the very near future. The effects of high quality urban policy could even be felt within a single political term, something that cannot really be said for many campaign promises.

But to appeal to urban voters, the Greens must shift tack somewhat in how they portray themselves. The efforts to save the Tasmanian forests and the Great Barrier Reef and their advocacy for energy transition, biodiversity and biosecurity have framed the party primarily along rural lines - a party to save our natural resources. As populations urbanise though, the coal-face of meaningful environmental policy is increasingly becoming the form and governance of our cities. To better reflect these leverage points for progressive action, the Green's message needs to appeal to an urban audience as strongly as it does the rural environmental and conservation activists that have laid the party foundations.

The focus on conservation and resources also misses one of the primary battle lines of the major battle on the environment: that between ex-burb, NIMBY interests and next generation, compact urban interests. Busses vs cars. McMansions vs Apartments. Highly leveraged old money vs affordable housing and amenity. The form and governance of cities is a bit of a zero-sum game on this front, and choosing to bet on the long-term success of cars (and associated planning systems and outcomes) is unlikely to be a winning one.

The beauty of the environmental story for cities is that it embraces people across the full spectrum of society by providing tangible benefits that are felt in the near term. It can be told to property developers (compact cities increase land value), infrastructure planners (next generation infrastructure for mixed use neighbourhoods), commuters and first home buyers... Most importantly, it particularly benefits those who will be coming into the voting booths for the first time in the coming half decade.

Australia's cities are possibly it's most valuable asset, and I would have thought the opportunities in cities for new models of resilience and sustainability would be central to any 'green' party.

I'm no political scientist, nor am I well versed in the Green's policy - they may well have a truly extraordinary urban vision... But right now in Australia, in the lead-up to a federal election, there is awfully little attention paid to how our cities are governed, invested in and supported. This means there an awfully big opportunity being missed for a party whose central message can so well be served by good urban policy.


  1. Interesting.I think the green message has to be both/and - cityscape and supporting landscape. Cities live on borrowed resources. Sydney particualrly so - with almost of its freshwater coming in from the adjacent catchment of the Hawkesbury-Nepean. But yes - a clear focus on do-abilty and live-abilty of more sustainable cities could catalyse attention of urbanites to their rural (catchment)dependencies. Vive la verde.

  2. Hi mum,

    Yes - absolutely both-and... All cities rely on a surrounding 'footprint' of impact (I think an earlier post - The Secret of Villages was on this topic).

    While critical in the big picture, I'm not sure that demonstrating catchment dependencies is the best leverage point politically. Demand management and smart infrastructure (like water re-use and renewable energy) as well as better planning (compact cities, public transport etc) have the chance to change the way city systems function; mitigating resource impacts and improving livability and affordability.

    I think the Green's have the broader issues fairly well covered (at least politically), but urban policy seems a missed opportunity to me - both environmentally and politically.