Australia’s national cities policy needs to focus on our 31 Great Small Cities
On Friday 8 April 2016, Regional Australia Institute CEO Jack Archer attended the 3rd Annual Regionalism 2.0 Conference in Wodonga, Victoria to talk about the potential of Regional Cities. Jack gave a preview of the RAI’s upcoming Great Small Cities report with ministers, local government mayors and CEOs, business leaders and academics.
The RAIs work reveals that over the last 40 years, Australia has developed a thriving and diverse network of smaller cities that make a significant and growing contribution to national prosperity. This has been our major urbanisation trend over this period.
Australia has been slow to recognise this opportunity. Previous governmental reports define major cities as those with populations over 100,000 or ‘the top 20’ which enables cities like Ballarat and Bendigo in Victoria to make the cut.
The RAI finds that a population of at least 50,000 is sufficient for cities to begin to develop a diverse economy that fosters the kinds of innovation, markets and productivity exhibited in the major capitals.
If we focus on Australian cities with a population of more than 50,000 we find 31 distinct small cities across Australia. These small cities form a growing and increasingly connected network of urban areas stretching from Cairns in the North to Hobart in the South, while Darwin, Mandurah and Bunbury south of Perth complete the national network.
These regional cities are free from the many accompanying downsides of urban dis-economies such as crime, pollution, congestion, and inequality that plague the further development of largest cities. This means that small cities can be both highly productive and great places to live.
Crucially for our current cities debate, the OECD has recently found that countries with greater number of cities generally have higher per capita GDP and are more likely to be resilient to place-specific shocks. If countries have a network of cities with diverse specialisations, economic or environmental impacts in one place have a lower overall effect on the prosperity of the nation.
In Australia’s case, this means framing our national cities policy to have a greater focus on the performance and potential of our second and third tier cities. Such a policy approach that includes and responds to the opportunities in our small cities has the potential to support opportunities for over 80 percent of Australia’s population.
While it is clear that focusing attention on all our cities makes sense, the reality is that Australia’s many smaller cities have yet to receive the attention they deserve.
The RAI’s Deal or No Deal? report makes the case for a specific small cities policy that addresses this attention deficit. Positioning Australia’s great small cities not only benefits regional Australia and their cities, but all Australian cities and the nation as a whole.
This is one of the greatest opportunities Australia has in this renewed national cities debate, but only if we include all of our small cities in the policy decisions we take.