Causes of the urban crisis


By Peter Boyle

Rising smog levels, deteriorating water quality and predictions of future water shortages for most major cities in Australia add to a widespread sense of urban crisis. It seems as if our cities are set to continue expanding indefinitely, sprawling ever outward until they meet natural obstacles — or another city (the area from Newcastle to Wollongong already appears almost a single megalopolis).

Urban sprawl is one of the most visible symptoms of the crisis of our cities. The solution to this crisis can be sought along two different paths. In one case, the problems are seen as fundamentally social, in the other as basically due to natural, physical, obstacles.

Those who take the first view tend to question the way our cities are planned, the nature of our transport systems and the way in which work in these cities is done. However, efforts in these directions still remain largely locked in dry discourses among academics, environmental activists and a few more socially conscious architects and town planners.

The other response — one which enjoys more media attention — has been the argument that the urban crisis is caused by too many people. From this standpoint, once population passes a certain point, the only alternatives are equally undesirable: overcrowding or urban sprawl — maybe both. Too many people, it's argued, are a product of immigration (which accounts for about half of Australia's population growth), and therefore cutting immigration would help to solve the urban crisis.

Of course, the two approaches may meet at various points, or may be combined with more or less success by different individuals. Discussion of what is accurate or mistaken in each is not aided by the fact that individuals on both sides are sometimes guilty of caricaturing the other position: it is not true that those who see the problem as fundamentally social believe that a finite amount of land can hold an infinite number of people; and those who stress physical limitations are not ignorant of the fact that the limits for nomadic tribes are different from the limits for modern industrial society.

Nevertheless, with these qualifications in mind, solving the urban crisis would seem to require coming to a clear understanding as to whether social or physical factors are the more fundamental source of what is wrong with our cities.

Migration data

Proponents of the "too many people" argument anchor their position in evidence that most immigrants settle in cities, especially in Sydney and Melbourne. According to a 1990 Bureau of Immigration Research report, Impact of Immigration on Urban Infrastructure, until 1971 Melbourne attracted most immigrants, but since then Sydney the last two decades, Sydney has taken 32-35% of all immigrants to Australia.

However, immigration flows into Sydney and Melbourne have been offset (30% and 20% respectively) by population movements away from those cities in this period. This internal migration has kept their population growth rate below that of other cities.

Most research shows that most immigrants decide where to settle on the basis of availability of jobs and affordable housing. However, a 1990 National Population Council (NPC) study presented some evidence that different categories of immigrants had different patterns of settlement. While all categories were attracted to Sydney, refugees tended to settle more in Melbourne, New Zealand citizens in Brisbane and Perth and economic immigrants in Perth. It concluded that if the present mix of immigration continued, most immigrants would continue to settle in Sydney and Melbourne.

While the rates of growth of Sydney and Melbourne are now slower than in the 1950s and 1960s, it is predicted that on present trends their populations will grow to 4.8 million and 3.6 million, respectively, by the year 2011. Perth, the fastest growing capital city, can expect a population of 1.8 million. These are modest sizes compared to cities like Mexico City, New York, London or Tokyo.

It's true that Australia has one of the most urbanised populations of any country, with 80% of its population living on 0.1% of the land area. But this figure is due more to the very sparse character of rural population than to the absolute urban numbers.

'Shifting resources'

Many arguments against big cities as such are really based on the inequities and environmental destructiveness endemic to capitalism, under which city planning and management are geared primarily to maximising big businesses' profits, not to satisfying requirements for human social life.

If schooling seems more alienating, more factory-like, in big cities than in small towns, for example, this is less due to absolute numbers than to the fact that larger numbers of students allow governments to introduce capitalist "economies of scale".

In his famous book Ideas for Australian Cities, Hugh Stretton wrote that "very big cities are both physical and psychological devices for quietly shifting resources from poorer to richer". He identified big retailers and land developers as major forces pushing urban growth, but he confused the problems of profit-driven planning with those of urbanisation per se.

Most modern studies on urbanisation conclude that there is no abstract "optimum" population for a city. However, geography does place real physical and environmental constraints on particular cities, and many who see population as the cause of the overcrowding vs sprawl dilemma home in on these.

It is often claimed that Australia's cities cannot grow any more because there isn't enough water or suitable land. Images of the dry and sparse continent are evoked to create a notion of Australia at its limits of population growth. But if we examine the specific constraints facing Australian cities, we get a different picture.


Many Australians see Perth as a good example of a city stuck out there on the other side of a great desert. If Australian cities have "water problems", then surely Perth has them. But according to the 1991 NPC report, Population Issues and Australia's Future, Perth "does not face any measurable immediate constraints to its growth".

It has no shortage of suitable land and enough potential water supply to last well into the 21st century at projected growth rates. The main problem is the quality of the water supply and the preparedness of government to develop urban infrastructure (transport, sewerage and other services) in pace with growth. According to the report:

"Already a third of the surface water resources in the Perth-Bunbury region (among the cheapest future sources of supply), is brackish or saline — a consequence of agricultural use and forest clearing in catchment areas. Within Perth itself there are serious concerns about ground water pollution from industrial, intensive farming and domestic sources."

A big part of the problem is the fact that a third of Perth dwellings (mostly in an inner-city ring of 1950-1960 development) rely on septic tanks. These appeared to work well in Perth's sandy, porous soil, but over time drainage into aquifers is threatening to contaminate ground water sources and pollute the Swan estuary, which is hydrologically connected to the surrounding areas.

There is no physical reason to prevent Perth's "sewerage backlog" from being addressed (as Sydney's was during the 1980s, a period of high population growth). But it is estimated that it will cost about $800 million, money that WA governments have been reluctant to spend.

Closer to a real "water problem" is Sydney. According to estimates by the NSW Water Board, Sydney's water supply can accommodate "current trends in customer growth and per capita usage" for less than another decade. Then alternative sources will be needed.

Two possibilities are raising the level of the Warragamba Dam and building a new dam on the Shoalhaven River; both would have serious impacts on the environment. They place on the agenda either a future limit to Sydney's growth or the phasing in of lower water consumption through greater use of recycling and water conservation.

The immediate sources of stress to the water systems around Sydney are inadequate sewage treatment and pollution from agricultural and of these problems is insoluble from a technical standpoint; what has been missing is a government that will make them a political and financial priority.

Air pollution

Sydney's south-west (the area of fastest suburban spread in this city) tends to collect air pollutants from the surrounding region because it is an air basin. Air quality is well below Australian National Health and Medical Research Council guidelines. If Sydney continues to grow at the present rate and without major regulatory changes, pollution levels in the south-west will approach those of Los Angeles by the year 2010.

But the real problem here, once again, is poorly regulated industrial development and the deadly combination of extensive outer-suburban development and inadequate public transport.

The biggest cause of air pollution in Australian cities is motor vehicles. Industry comes second. About 80% to 90% of carbon monoxide and lead emissions and 50% to 80% of hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxide emissions in Australian cities are due to motor vehicles.

Between 1976 and 1985 the average per capita emission rates of these pollutants have fallen in Australia's five largest cities despite an average population growth of 1.3% per annum. This has been due to technological and regulatory changes, relating primarily to motor vehicles.

But Sydney, which experienced an average annual population increase of only 1.1%, suffered a 6.3% increase in lead emissions and 1.4% increase in nitrous oxide emissions. Carbon monoxide and hydrocarbon emission fell along with the national average.

These figures illustrate that there is not a direct link between population growth and pollution and that these problems can be tackled, given the political will.

The sense of urban crisis in Australia reflects less the growth of urban populations than the fact that social spending on infrastructure has not kept up with population growth. Governments are collecting more per capita in taxes, but the money is not being spent where it is most needed, socially and environmentally. Indeed, current studies in Sydney and Melbourne are revealing large government subsidies (built into taxation, building regulation and council rate regimes) for developers pushing the low-density, outer-suburban urban sprawl that is antithetical to sustainable urban development.

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