FOR THE FIRST time in history, the number of people living in urban areas has outstripped those in rural areas – an urban reality that jostles uneasily with the iconic image Australia presents to the world. But beyond the wide outback spaces and sandy beaches are the houses, suburbs, master-planned estates and high-rise buildings where most Australians actually live. Within this there is diversity, creativity and resilience. Yet the uneven costs of urban progress and development are emerging as deeply felt, highly inequitable outcomes of reduced public planning. It seems ironic that, in the wake of an era defined by market-driven logic and minimal government intervention, some including Alan Moran in his book The Tragedy of Planning (Institute of Public Affairs, 2006) continue to blame urban planning for the loss of the ‘Great Australian Dream’.
Not everyone agrees. One of the most striking themes to emerge from the 2007 State of Australian Cities Conference was the need to address urban issues within the national policy agenda by ‘planning with a light touch’ – using what keynote speaker Ruth Fincher describes as the principles of ‘redistribution, recognition and encounter’ to provide both conceptual and practical guides. It is over twenty years since Australia had a coordinated and strategic national vision and agenda for urban planning and development. In the years that have followed the dismantling of the Department of Urban and Regional Development and later the Better Cities Program, there have been few attempts to produce urban-focused policy.
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