City Limits: interview with Paul Donegan

The physicist Geoffrey West has demonstrated that whenever a city doubles in size, it produces 15% more services per capita; which is to say, every person in that city is responsible for 15% more economic activity and likewise enjoys 15% more access to opportunity. We don’t need physicists to tell us this, though – we instinctively understand the pull of cities and vote with our feet accordingly. Most of the world’s people now live in cities. This is especially true of Australia, where they are home to more than three quarters of the population and generate 77% of the national income.

I met with Paul Donegan at the Grattan Institute’s headquarters in Melbourne’s Parkville, in a room decorated with framed front-pages of newspapers from around the country – each one boasting a lead story in response to the Institute’s research. The Grattan Institute is an independent public policy think tank that provides governments and others with advice and ideas about pressing issues facing Australia – health, education, productivity, energy, or, finally, cities. Of course, governments aren’t always inclined to listen to policy wonks, so the Grattan Institute also has an interest in shaping debate and raising public awareness around its research – which explains the proudly displayed newsprint and why, through Melbourne University Press, it has also recently published Donegan and Kelly’s book, City Limits.

Dressed in a sensible charcoal suit and red tie, Donegan speaks with the cadence and clarity of a man accustomed to explaining complex ideas to distracted, time-poor people. He chooses his words carefully, with every response weighed and measured to fit the facts as he understands them. This is not a man accustomed to hyperbole, which gives added weight to the central assertion of City Limits – that, to quote from its subtitle, “Australia’s cities are broken”.

“The reason we chose that description was that from the perspective of people living in them, two of the things you need from a city are a home and a job,” says Donegan. “What we’re seeing as a result of the way the housing market works, and the way the economy is changing, is that there’s a big and growing divide between where people live and where people work. That has some pretty dramatic consequences for people’s access to opportunity, for social connection and family life.”

As Donegan and Kelly explain in City Limits, for much of the 20th century, Australia experienced urban population growth. This accompanied the rapid development of manufacturing, which brought with it employment opportunities in what were then the outer suburbs of the capital cities. In turn, a sharp rise in car ownership gave people choice as to where they could live – they were no longer tied to train and tram lines, or to industrial areas in the inner city. Australia saw rising incomes, rapidly increasing home ownership, high employment and rising living standards, and people were able to get around a lot more easily. Australia’s cities grew outwards to envelop their suburbs.

Today, the geographic footprints of our cities continue to expand in line with these trends, with new homes being built further and further out. Meanwhile, the economy has changed dramatically, to become more knowledge intensive; instead of factory jobs in the fringes, opportunities are now concentrated where knowledge-driven businesses tend to operate – in offices in the central business district and inner suburbs, typically within 10 kilometres of the city centre. Combined with our fixation on rubber and roads, this has created some serious problems for the way our cities function.

“We’ve got this car dependant approach to getting around, which doesn’t work so well when you’re trying to concentrate lots of people in a small area,” says Donegan. “Cars are great when you’re travelling to places where there aren’t that many other people; when you’re travelling to where there are lots of other people it’s just gridlock. With our cities’ populations growing outwards but opportunity concentrating inwards, as the manufacturing sector stagnates, what that means is division and inequity.”

If the subtitle of City Limits implies a mechanistic understanding of cities, that they should be operating like well-oiled engines and with a few new bolts in the right places they’ll be humming along in no time, the book itself sees them as the product of many forces, not all of which can be readily “fixed”. Likewise, Donegan is loathe to pin the blame for their dysfunction on any one actor or organisation. While there is no quick fix for Australia’s urban woes, though, he does believe there is one ingredient that will be crucial to any solution: housing.

“What we contend is the most important thing governments can do is make it much easier to build new homes in the inner and middle established suburbs, where there is good access to employment and there is good access to transport,” he says.

Australian governments will face stiff headwinds in tackling this challenge, though, not the least of which stems from the enduring legacy of the Australian Dream, which sees the ownership of a house on the proverbial quarter acre block as practically a right of citizenship. As the research within City Limits reveals, however, Australia’s supposed fixation on the single residential dwelling in the depths of suburbia is at least as much myth as it is dream.

“We did some survey research where we asked people to, within their own budgets, trade off a range of choices around the kind of home they’d like to live in, against location,” says Donegan. “What we found is that while nearly all new homes being built in Melbourne, for example, are detached houses on the fringe or highrise apartments in and around the CBD, many people identified that they’d prefer to trade-off the location of their home against its size in different ways.”

The survey found that fewer than half of its respondents from Melbourne said they would prefer to live in a detached house. About a quarter of people surveyed said they would choose semi-detached housing such as townhouses, units or terraces, and another quarter would choose a flat or apartment, if they could live in the kind of neighbourhood they wanted. In Sydney, the preference for detached houses in a real-world scenario was even less. About 40% preferred it. A quarter preferred semi-detached townhouses, units or terraces, and about a third preferred apartments or flats. Clearly, Australia isn’t building the kind of houses that it wants or needs.

The biggest challenge in addressing this discrepancy, though, won’t be the myth-busting, but tackling the regulation and resistance to development that is endemic to our cities’ more established suburbs, which benefit from the relatively central locations and high level of amenity most Australians want.

“The regulatory constraints on building a detached house on the fringe are very minimal – often you don’t need to get planning approval at all, or it’s through a fast track process, the potential for objections from neighbours are very limited, given the neighbour is agricultural land,” says Donegan. “Contrast that to the considerable number of hoops that need to be jumped through to build homes in established areas, particularly homes other than detached houses. Fewer of them are getting built because there’s a pretty clear set of disincentives that have nothing to do with the demand from people looking for housing.”

On the morning I met with Donegan, an announcement by Victoria’s Minister for Planning had thrown the enormity of this challenge into sharp relief: in response to pressure from the City of Boroondara, a local council for some of Melbourne’s wealthiest neighbourhoods, the government had passed legislation that prevented the construction of any buildings over three storeys within its boundaries. Some sixty square kilometres of inner suburban Melbourne had been locked away from development. When I put this to Donegan, who just weeks before, had enjoyed extensive coverage in The Age and other mainstream press on City Limits, he gave a characteristically measured expression of disappointment. I had to ask, though – what drew him to work in urban policy, a field where the chances of effecting real change are subject not just to the outrageous swinging fortunes of politics, but so many more forces beyond the control of any one person or organisation?

“The kind of satisfaction we have in our life is shaped in no small part by our job, the kind of shelter we have, how we’re able to connect with people and get around. There’s an opportunity to make things work a lot better than they are, and you can make a big difference to a lot of people by doing that. These are some of the most important things we can deal with in our lives”.

City Limits: why Australia’s cities are broken and how we can fix them (co-authored by Jane-Frances Kelly and Paul Donegan) is published by Melbourne University Press. At the time of writing, Paul Donegan was the Cities Program Fellow at the Grattan Institute.

If you’re fired up to have your say on how you’d like to live in Australian cities – now, and in the future – we’d love you to take part in the Assemble Small Footprint Living Survey: survey.assembleprojects.com.au 
Help redefine the Australian dream. We’ll prepare a report on the survey findings that will be made publicly available – you’ll be able to download a free copy from the Assemble website. We’ll also submit the report to the Victorian Government as part of the consultation period for ‘Better Apartments, A Discussion Paper’ and use it as a conversation-starter to engage with industry stakeholders and policymakers across the country. Our hope is not only to influence policymaking and the sustainable growth of our cities, but also to provide a useful resource to assist decision-making by home-buyers, renters, developers, planners, architects and city-lovers alike.

Illustration by Alice Oehr.


The Assemble Model

Bridging the gap
between renting and owning
your home

Visit Assemble