Cities vs regions: why reforming cities must remain central to the modern Labor project

By Linda Scott

Friday June 29, 2018

Cities can learn from the great leaders in our regions, and help their communities prosper along the way, says Linda Scott.

Each time I travel across our majestic New South Wales ranges, as I do regularly now as the president of the peak body for all our state’s 128 councils, I am amazed at the endless sky that opens up as you reach the other side.

Beneath this great blue, days are filled with conversations with regional mayors and councillors – good people who are essentially volunteering their time working to create a little more public good for their community than they had growing up.

As a person who has spent her life in cities, now spending time on regional land with a profound natural beauty all too often hollowed out by gaping economic, social and health inequality and a community determined to make their region prosper again, I often find myself heartbroken at the stories of need.

As a City of Sydney Councillor, I am often challenged about the regional and cities divide: when the regions need so much more attention, why should reforming cities still be a central tenet of the modern Labor project?

Stories of division

Country mayors tell the profound stories of loss and opportunity for their regions. Mayors like Chris Bilkey of Murray River, who speaks of the complexities of living in a cross-border town. Families grieving the loss of a loved one often have to wait several days for a coroner to arrive from Sydney to process their dead because we cannot solve an agreement across the NSW and Victorian borders to share resources. A Victorian coroner would likely arrive within hours instead.

Darriea Turley, our Mayor of Broken Hill, whose region is at the beating heart of Australia’s water crisis, finds herself caught in the middle of a fight between the Commonwealth, three states and more vested interests than litres of water left in the Murray Darling basin, which she is forced to navigate deftly to save her region from drought.

In any one week, I hear regional stories of roads that go unpaved, leaving children unable to get to school when it rains. Stories of towns with no public pool and no rate base to build one, with stretching summers of over 40 degrees lasting longer each year and little employment to afford energy to cool. Stories of towns where the Council public library has become the public living room for the community, largely because of the air-conditioning during summer and heating during winter. Stories of towns where the only investment opportunities for decades seem to be ones that destroy the environment, leaving the unenviable choice between short-term survival that will threaten future investment opportunities – not to mention the liveability of an area – or the prospect of no clear plan for any future economic development.

In contrast to our cities, there are towns in NSW with annual new housing approvals in the single digits (ABS, 2018). On the surface, life can look grim in the face of great challenges for our regions. In the face of such inequality and isolation, I am often asked why Labor doesn’t shift all our focus to our regions, and have our cities – according to the great conservative mantra – simply left alone to naturally prosper?

Ecosystems make the world go around

The simple truth is that Australian regions cannot thrive and prosper alone. Without thriving global and local cities, our regions simply won’t have the markets needed to grow their own prosperity. To quote Australian musician Ben Lee’s famous song, ‘we are all in this together’.

As Pinker notes, the unprecedented growth in the world’s middle class has profound implications for how the world will work into the future (2018, pp. 85-86). Pinker cites the following examples:

Since 1995, 30 of the world’s 109 developing countries, including countries as diverse as Bangladesh, El Salvador, Ethiopia, Georgia, Mongolia, Mozambique, Panama, Rwanda, Uzbekistan and Vietnam have enjoyed growth rates that amount to doubling of income every eighteen years…

It’s remarkable enough to see that by 2008 China and India had the same per capita income that Sweden had in 1950 and 1920 respectively, but more remarkable still when we remember how many capitas this income was per 1.3 and 1.2 billion people… Extreme poverty is being eradicated, and the world’s population is becoming middle class.

Of this growing middle class, a recent Brookings Institute study noted 88 percent of the next billion people to enter it will be on our doorstep, living in Asian nations (Kharas, 2017).

And the growing middle class – largely living in cities – needs to grow and eat, consuming services and skills along the way. Australia’s regions, with space to grow food and respond to growing needs for service provision, are best placed to meet the rapidly growing needs of our world. Moreover, their future prosperity fundamentally relies on the growing cities in China and India.

To give a parochial example, one of my favourite places in the world to visit and eat – Griffith, with its almond production – 1.8 million almond trees and growing (Gorman, 2017), needs the Asian food and traditional medicine market to expand and value the superior quality of Australian almonds, in order to see their regional prosperity improve. In short, as a region, we need inclusive economic growth that sees both our cities and regions, which are fundamentally interconnected, grow together.

What makes a great city?

Conservatives around the world tell tales of cities full of good men pulling themselves, through sheer hard work alone, out of hardship to build a great enterprise and, on the back of that work, a great city. To a conservative, we all just need to work harder for the boss and the great city will grow on the back of our labour.

Like all tales from conservatives, it’s more myth than truth and not based on evidence. The deliberate actions of good governments acting forcefully in the interests of the public good are hidden from view. Individuals, acting alone, shine so brightly in these tales as tall as the skyscrapers, they mask all else.

There is no doubt that great cities are made by people, however in truth it takes so much more than individuals working alone. Cities without good governments are dystopian. A city built on private interests, bursting with freeways to zoom anonymously past each other in increasingly larger automobiles carrying a single passenger, delivering you past places to maximise drive-through consumption of food, retail purchasing, banking and minimise community interaction and exercise. Think Los Angeles.

“Good governance in the public interest is a fundamental basis for great city-making, and without it, cities fall apart.”

How then to create a great city? We need strategies, big and small, to take this project forward. Good governance, not built on vested interests. Good governance in the public interest is a fundamental basis for great city-making, and without it, cities fall apart.

Sydney, with some notable exceptions such as the 1951 Cumberland Plan that prioritised the preservation of green belts, has suffered under many examples of poor governance. With a voting franchise based increasingly on property, not people, now re-embedded into the heart of the City of Sydney electoral system by the NSW State Liberal Government, this is at risk of continuing into the future without strong reform from a future Labor Government.

Independent, not gerrymandered, political boundaries that boost public confidence in the fairness of electoral outcomes are fundamental.

With good governance comes the creation of a strong plan for the public good, with strong planning controls to enforce the plan in the public interest. These plans, such as the 1951 Cumberland Plan, have the preservation of public shared spaces for the public good at the heart. In the modern age, public spaces needed for walking, cycling, green spaces, public transport and good quality public infrastructure are vital. Good plans in the public interest also place a strong premium of the preservation of light over public parks and public spaces, by reducing massive overshadowing. Cities with too much overshadowing condemn communities to live in dark spaces with large and environmentally unsustainable energy costs.

And finally, good governance also leads to the fertile ground vital for the creation of great culture, and fun. Tasmania’s Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) is perhaps the best recent global example of art-led economic transformation of a region, and Marcus Westbury’s Creating Cities contains the wonderful story of the recreation of the centre of Newcastle, led by a process he refers to as ‘amusing ourselves’ (2015, p 21).

‘Amusing ourselves’ grew into our own arts and community organisation. My obsession grew into a festival that in turn grew into the city’s largest annual tourism event and one of the largest arts and DIY media events in Australia.

Cities need diversity, and policies to create it over time.

As Jane Jacobs noted in her revered 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities (p 328) when speaking of the importance of zoning for diversity:

First, we must understand that self-destruction of diversity is caused by success (of cities), not by failure.

Second, we must understand that the process is a continuation of the same economic processes that led to the success itself, and were indispensable to it. Diversity grows in a city area because of economic opportunity and economic attraction. During the process of diversity growth, rival users of space are crowded out. All city diversity grows, in part at least, at the expense of some other tissue. During this growth period even some unique uses may be crowded out because they give such low economic return for the land they occupy.

If simply left to a self-regulating planning system with few planning controls, cities rid themselves of diversity and thus, over time, the interest and attraction that drives ongoing investment and prosperity.

Getting the detail right: cities need ‘leaky’, well-integrated borders between features and regions. We all know the impact of an imposed border – a railway track, for example, in the creation of a side of the border than inhibits good quality life on one side. Throughout NSW, we continue to see the impact of living on the wrong side of the track. Whether foreshores, university town borders or ill-planned transport corridor integrations, borders can risk the creation of – as Jacobs (1961) notes, “destructive neighbours”. Good planning to integrate across borders, and ensure they are leaky, or flow into each other, creates a more liveable, safe city.

This is the great flaw of ‘City of Villages’ strategies that have, for example, been proposed by independents for the City of Sydney Council area. Having borders between areas that aren’t well integrated across, for example, the train line between Redfern and Alexandria through to the University of Sydney, or from Surry Hills to Darlinghurst over Oxford Street, has led to the hollowing out of diversity of land use, investment and the creation of a liveable city area.

Vision for change to benefit all across NSW

In recent times, if Sydney had had a strong plan for sustainable economic growth to reduce poverty and economic inequality, implemented through planning controls for housing affordability, access to childcare and infrastructure, that had been enforced, we would all be better off today. It’s time for Labor to create this vision for change in Sydney, which will benefit everyone across NSW.

I find great hope in mayors like Paul Maytom, the Mayor of Leeton, who are leading the way for inclusive economic and social growth in our regions. As mayor, Paul has ensured his town has more signs to welcome refugees than to dictate your speed on the main street. His story of arriving in a town as a young man to find a place that welcomed him and gave him decades of night shift work that allowed him the opportunity to afford a family and home, has created a fire in him that ensures others – no matter where in our world they come from or how they arrived here – are offered the same opportunities in Leeton as he found himself.

Cities can learn from the great leaders in our regions, and help their communities prosper along the way. The false division between Sydney and the mighty regions of NSW is harmful, and Labor must lead the way in reducing this division with the creation of strong, inclusive growth and great city planning to ensure we have liveable cities, and regions, for all.

Linda Scott is a Councillor on the City of Sydney Council and President of Local Government NSW.

This article is part of an upcoming NSW Fabians collection of policy ideas to be launched this Saturday at Sydney Town Hall.


Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), 2018. Balranald (A) (LGA) (10300), Australian Bureau of Statistics, Available Online.

Gorman, V. 2017. ‘Almond plantings tipped to double in the Riverina within five years’, ABC Rural, 27 June 2017.

Jacobs, J. 1961. The Death and Life of Great American Cities, New York: Random House.

Kharas, H. 2017. The unprecedented expansion of the global middle class, The Brookings Institute, February 28, 2017. Available Online.

Pinker, S. 2018. Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, Penguin Books Limited.

Westbury, M. 2015. Creating Cities, Niche Press.

About the author
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

The essential resource for effective
public sector professionals