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Wednesday, 14 October 2015
Page: 7612


Senator SINGH (Tasmania) (13:19): I rise to highlight the importance of our cities in Australia and the statement of the shadow minister for cities, Anthony Albanese, that cities matter. What is more, the liveability and quality of urban life in Australian cities, which has long been a policy focus of the Labor Party, will matter more and more in years to come.

After this government abolished the previous Labor government's major cities unit, Labor responded by establishing the urban policy dialogue, adopting a national agenda for better cities and creating a cities portfolio to ensure that urban policy is accorded the highest priority. We did this because Labor understands that Australian governments in the 21st century need to be focused on our people, making it easier for them to get around our cities so that more people can walk, cycle and use public transport.

As Professor Jan Gehl, the renowned Danish architect and urban design consultant puts it, 'First life, then spaces, then buildings—the other way around never works.' I recently had the pleasure of visiting Copenhagen, Denmark's capital and consistently one of the world's most liveable and ever more sustainable cities. Danes are often said to be the happiest people in the world, and Copenhagen is often described as one of the world's most liveable cities—alongside Melbourne of course—due to their systematic improvement of conditions for city life and people traffic.

While I was in Copenhagen I was fortunate enough to spend some time and share some ideas with Professor Gehl, whose career has focused on improving the quality of urban life by reorientating city design towards pedestrians and cyclists. He has transformed streetscapes in London, New York and Copenhagen to favour cyclists and pedestrians and has conducted studies in several Australian cities, including my home town of Hobart. His unambiguously people focused city design and transport planning has had a profound and growing impact on our Australian cities. Gehl has already worked on Melbourne, Melbourne Docklands, Perth, Adelaide, Sydney, Brisbane, Hobart and Launceston. A key recommendation of his early report to the City of Melbourne in 1994, updated in 2004, was to create opportunities for outdoor dining, mimicking the success of the grand boulevards of Paris and the communal squares of Rome. While it was ridiculed at the time, Melbourne now has highest ratio of street furniture per person in the world. Outdoor cafes have increased from less than 50 in 1990 to over 600 today, the number of pedestrians in the city on weekday evenings has doubled, and Swanston Street has more pedestrians per day than Regent Street in London.

The professor and I also talked about implementation of the recommendations in his 2010 seminal report for Hobart City Council on Hobart's liveability and his thinking behind it. As Professor Gehl pointed out—and all who live there understand—nature has blessed Hobart with a unique setting: hills, nature reserves and the sea close to the city. Hobart has also benefited from a slower growth rate than other Australian capitals, meaning that much of the character of the city and its historic buildings have been protected. But, as all citizens of Hobart know, our highway-style city streets are a serious barrier between the city and the harbour. No parked cars in the world, Professor Gehl believes, have a better view than the hundreds of cars parked along Hobart's waterfront. Each one of the Gehl report's 230 recommendations has been considered by the Hobart council and condensed into an action plan which is being implemented stage by stage and is already making an appreciable difference to Hobart's liveability.

Because of Hobart's strong basic fabric, Professor Gehl believes the process should be easier than in many other cities, yet visionary leadership—as seen in many other fine cities of the world—will still be very much needed. Visionary leadership for Hobart's transport system was also called for last Friday night at the Hobart Town Hall by Professor Peter Newman, renowned Professor of Sustainability at Curtin University. Professor Newman presented a public lecture titled 'Will Hobart ever do light rail: a global context' to present the case and to lay down a challenge to all levels of government to deliver on this project—a project which I support.

Professor Newman has identified that the 21st century knowledge economy needs spatial efficiency. Public transport, cycling and walking are spatially efficient; freeways, traffic jams and urban sprawl are not. This is well-understood by the Danes. Professor Gehl has noted:

After many years of pruning back pedestrian areas, Copenhagen was one of the first cities in Europe to grasp the nettle in the early 1960s and begin reducing car traffic and parking in the city center in order to create once again better space for city life.

The iconic example of this process is Stroget, Copenhagen's traditional main street, which was converted to a pedestrian promenade in 1962. I had the opportunity to walk down Stroget; it is an area that now has only people. It does not have cars and it does not have traffic congestion. Following that decision, the area in the city devoted to pedestrians and city life grew by a factor of seven—from 15,000 square metres in 1962 to over 100,000 square metres by 2005.

Jan Gehl's most recent book, Cities for people, has become the key text for city planners across the world, having been printed in 20 languages since 2010. Its focus on putting people first in transport planning enables bike lanes and pedestrian thoroughfares, and great mass transit and abundant public spaces, to naturally follow—networks of good bicycle paths that provide safe alternative transport systems. You simply want to get on a bike in Copenhagen. I enjoyed being on a bike; in fact, it was the quickest way to get around because that is just what people did.

Copenhagen is now building 26 suburban commuter arteries just for bicycles: carefully maintained bike paths linking suburbs with the inner city, up to 20 kilometres long and requiring the cooperation of 21 separate municipal governments. This make sense because, in a city much colder than any Australian city, including Hobart, 37 per cent of Copenhagen residents and 55 per cent of downtown dwellers use bikes as their primary mode of transportation. In fact, only 29 per cent of Copenhagen households actually own a car.

Copenhagen is the world's cycle infrastructure leader, and its most liveable city, because it prioritises people and bikes over cars. With that comes a distinct bicycle culture which gives such vibrancy to the city. In fact, Copenhagen was European Green Capital 2014. That ambitious green profile of the city has a clear goal: to become the world's first CO2 neutral capital by 2025. The Danish government has decided to lead the world's transition to a green growth economy and will be independent of fossil fuels by 2050.

While in Copenhagen I cycled to the offices of the official green brand for the country, State of Green, a public-private partnership that gathers all the leading Danish players in the fields of energy, climate, water and environment. It was quite clear from my discussions with State of Green employees and with Professor Gehl that to improve the liveability and sustainability of Australian cities, to aspire to make Sydney or Hobart as liveable as Copenhagen and Melbourne, Australian governments need to follow federal Labor's lead to ensure that they are energetic, diverse and vibrant places, rich in human experiences with a more thoughtful approach to how we create, manage and get around the spaces in between.

Of course, there may be other policy ideas that would need to complement that. For example, London introduced a congestion charge for cars driving into the city. But what is clear is that we need to support cities for people first. People are the key.