Why Australia needs a national cities research agenda

AHURI’s Head of Development Dr Tom Alves outlines the importance of a national approach to cities and urban research and policy planning.  

Australia is an urban nation. People arriving in Australia from all over the world during the last 230 years have built and, predominantly, lived in cities. Many of these cities began as prison settlements and strategic sites of military occupation; others were established to exploit the wealth of the land, and some claim more enlightened origins. All are built in places that have been inhabited for tens of thousands of years, with a deep and ancient history of human settlement and an ongoing connection to landscape and place.

Our cities today face many shared challenges and opportunities: expensive housing markets, extensive geographical sprawl, high carbon intensity and resource consumption very high levels of household and population growth and of course, the coronavirus pandemic. Australian cities however, are among the most prosperous and liveable in the world. How successful our cities continue to be, and how widely that success is enjoyed, will depend on how we manage challenges like the transition to sustainable, single planet living, and providing access to quality, affordable housing close to employment and services.

We now need to understand our place as an urban nation as we look toward the future. What role will our cities play globally, or even in our own Asian-Pacific region? How will we manage the transition to sustainability? What is the best way for our cities to adopt or adapt to digital transformation? What is the role of growth in our cities and how do we manage it to maintain a just and prosperous society?

One thing that is clear is city governance in Australia has a unique structure. This means we need to work out our own way forward and, rather viewing this as an obstacle to success or an excuse for poor outcomes, it must become our advantage.

For more than twenty years AHURI has delivered the National Housing Research Program, creating Australia’s premier and most comprehensive catalogue of high quality, policy-relevant housing research—all freely and publicly available. This program has served to advance significantly our knowledge about housing and homelessness in Australia and has progressed an ambitious research agenda through collaboration with federal, state and territory governments and leading universities around the country. Our research has attracted international recognition and established a strong global reputation for Australian research and policy formation.

From the outset, many urban issues have been addressed through AHURI’s housing research program. This is understandable given the centrality of housing and its provision for cities and urban policy. Although state and territory governments continue to oversee the planning and growth of our major cities, as they have since European arrivals commenced, the last several decades have witnessed an increasingly relevant national policy focus on cities. Our universities also have expanded their expertise and capacity for urban policy research across a diverse range of fields.

We believe it is timely, therefore, that AHURI fully activate its urban research remit and provide Australian cities research with the same coordinated focus and connection to the policy community that it currently brings to housing and homelessness research.

Likewise, the increased importance of cities policy reinforces the need for nationally coordinated, high quality and independent research to underpin and inform policy development and decision making.

As an urbanised country, Australia has proven that our society and economy are highly resilient in the face of global shocks like the GFC and the current coronavirus pandemic. While we need to do significantly more to improve our environmental resilience and address climate change, this position of relative advantage and strength means Australian cities are well placed to lead the world in urban innovation and to play a critical role in our region. Addressing our challenges and capitalising on our many opportunities for innovation and leadership requires a well-supported and vibrant culture of research.

To develop a strongly grounded and appropriately targeted research agenda that can support leading cities policy in Australia, AHURI began with a detailed stocktake of current policy and the policy context. From this we identified nine broad themes that are addressed in jurisdictions across the nation—essentially those which have defined cities policy in Australia to-date.

Next, we systematically analysed the existing field of international and local urban research, to understand what the current leading edge of knowledge is and where policy gaps might be emerging. We also conducted an international survey of policy and research organisations with similar or related roles to AHURI. From this we found additional emerging themes that are relevant to a future cities policy agenda in Australia. You can explore an overview of all of these themes on our website.

We invite you to explore our new cities and urban hub, and consider how your organisation might contribute to the next phase—delivering a comprehensive National Cities Research Program to ensure the decision making that underpins our urban future is supported by the best evidence delivered by AHURI’s national network of research partners.