As COVID prompts an urban exodus, we need to make sure that we protect regional liveability and identity

COVID has taught us that we do not always need to commute to work. While this can take pressure off cities, we need to make sure that we do not just transplant all the problems that impact on urban liveability and quality of life onto regional areas.

Introduction

Prior to COVID, major Australian cities already had significant liveability and sustainability issues that impact on ‘affordable living’. These include low urban density, urban sprawl encroaching on our food bowl and ecosystems, ‘big box’ outlet stores on strip malls, poor public transport, long commutes to insecure work, car dependency, poor provision of social infrastructure in growth areas, noise pollution, visual clutter and air pollution, climate change vulnerability and unaffordable housing.

In the era of COVID, as they have discovered that they can work from home, Australians, Europeans, Americans  and British people have begun leaving cities for regional living. This ‘escape to the country’ certainly can help to strengthen the conviviality and prosperity of regional townships and reduce the pressure on major cities. As reported in August by the Australian, regional leaders argue that regional Australian locations may be best placed to lead the recovery from the pandemic. “They say there is space, opportunity and jobs, as well as reducing the inherent risk of urban density”. In short, people increasingly appear to consider regional Australia to be more liveable than major cities. But what about the unforeseen impacts on regional liveability — author Neil Gaiman’s warning that wherever you go, you take yourself with you?

Rural and regional liveability

As detailed in the Victorian Public Health and Wellbeing Plan, Liveable communities are:

Safe, attractive, socially cohesive and inclusive, and environmentally sustainable; with affordable diverse housing linked via convenient public transport, walking, and cycling infrastructure to employment, education, public open space, local shops, health and community services, and leisure and cultural opportunities.

Regional towns, to where many city folk are moving, may offer many features of village life that are captured by this definition of liveability and RMIT’s Urban Liveability Checklist. However, they are also missing some important ones. Even larger regional cities have been shown to lack much social infrastructure that city dwellers may take for granted. This can include community and individual support services and resources such as health, education, early childhood, community support, community development, culture, sport and recreation, parks, and emergency services.

Because of geographical and demographic differences such as low population density and distances from major social infrastructure, we cannot compare rural liveability directly with urban liveability. For example, while regional centres may lack employment options, they may have far greater access to green space. As will be discussed below, they also may once have offered cheaper housing. Country-dweller are used to driving long distances to access amenities that may be offered across a range of small townships or travelling to a larger rural town to access the facilities and services that they seek. This can lead to social isolation and health risks for older people who prefer to age in their long-term homes, but who then find that they cannot access hospitals, GPs, aged care, public/community transport, supermarkets, community centres, libraries, or networks such as U3A. The most pressing issue for many long-term older residents of regional towns, however, is the way that city migration is pushing up the cost of housing.

Housing affordability

As people move to regional centres – especially those within easy reach of major cities – house prices are booming, properties are selling quickly, and rental properties are becoming more scarce and expensive. In holiday and lifestyle destinations such as Byron Bay, landlords are evicting their long-term tenants. Then they either increase the rent drastically to capitalise on wealthier new arrivals, or they will convert their rental properties to short-term Airbnb accommodation. This has resulted in a hidden population of women and older people, including working professional people, finding themselves at risk of homelessness. But liveable places are not just about having affordable and diverse housing. Indeed ‘affordable housing’ and ‘affordable living’ mean very different things for people corralled financially to the periphery of cities or underserved regional locales which are located far from jobs or transport. And nowhere are we more of risk of damaging regional liveability than in our peri-urban towns and districts close to our major cities.

Risks of overdevelopment

Towns within a two-hour commute of our cities are increasingly hosting new housing developments, which may offer ‘a master-crafted neighbourhood on the edge of the historic town’. Many of these developments could increase the local population considerably. Whilst the development may be within walking distance from town, I have seen one sales brochure that lists nearby local facilities and destinations in terms of driving time (‘High School – 3min’). Would-be purchasers are offered a village centre and early childhood facilities – which could offer local employment. However, the fine advises that ‘all proposed amenities and their locations are subject to change’. This suggests these facilities would only be provided if population numbers were to reach a certain threshold. In the meantime, new residents with young children will be driving them to existing early childhood learning centres — thereby adding to traffic and increasing demand on existing services. All this extra traffic will, of course, flow into town and destinations such as shops, schools, and other facilities.

The risk with these developments is that they may end up leveraging off a regional town’s current amenity, rather by than adding any value to it. Yes: additional residents may bring additional prosperity to the town. However, a car-dependent, low-density satellite population may detract from the very amenity that forms the core of the developer’s marketing pitch.

In the absence of a national policy framework or stronger state legislation, these developments are mushrooming across regional Australia. Potential buyers are at risk of buying into developments in which provision of core social infrastructure is ‘subject to demand’. Like nearly all peri-urban developments, instead of seeing firm commitments to provide core local social infrastructure from inception, people are being sold a dream rather than an extant, complete community. As a result, the consequences of poor urban development that impacts urban liveability and people’s sense of identity in cities are beginning to be felt in regional Australia.

The risk of placelessness

In the Experience of Place (1990), environmental psychologist Tony Hiss argued that as the places in which we live and interact change, so too do we undergo personal change. Therefore, our experience of a change in a place is “both a serious environmental issue and a deeply personal one”.

Our relationship with the places we know and love is not abstract but is close and intricate. Places can define us and affect our quality of life: we can belong to them. As Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians well know:

[…] good health is more than just the absence of disease or illness; it is a holistic concept that includes physical, social, emotional, cultural, spiritual, and ecological wellbeing, for both the individual and the community.

Whenever we make changes in our surroundings, we can short-change ourselves all too easily, by cutting ourselves off from some of the sights or sounds, the shapes or textures, or other information from a place that has helped shape our understanding of the world and ourselves, and that are necessary for us to thrive. Overdevelopment and urban sprawl can damage our own lives as much as they damage our cities and countryside.

In the Australian article, Sydney-born journalist, Annabelle Hickson, who in the 2000s moved to regional NSW to be with her partner, identified regional character and identity as drawcards for people alienated by city life:

We do have a quite distinctive sense of place… It’s strong and it’s unique and it’s so beautiful. I think that is becoming more and more treasured as everything becomes increasingly the same. And that is something that is really important to me.

Paradoxically, regional character and identity are the very qualities that may be damaged by incremental urban development that, when combined, can create a regional-suburban tipping point.

 Destroying the very things that makes a place special

Regional Australia provides wildlife habitat, Indigenous cultural landmarks, biodiversity, scenic beauty, critical agriculture and contact with nature. Yet even despite koalas’ iconic status, their habitat is rapidly being lost to land-clearing for agriculture, primary industry and low-density, car-dependent housing. The devastation from the 2019-20 summer bushfires was not enough to sway the Federal Environment Minister from recently approving the destruction of 52 Hectares of koala habitat in regional NSW. The accelerating loss of agricultural land closer to our cities has been causing concern for some time:

Melbourne’s foodbowl grows 47% of the vegetables produced in Victoria and has the capacity to meet around 41% of Melbourne’s total food needs … If the city’s footprint continues to grow as it has in the past, the capacity of Melbourne’s foodbowl to meet the city’s food needs could fall to around 18% by 2050, due to population growth and urban sprawl. Loss of production in the foodbowl is likely to contribute to higher food prices.

As we ramp up an economic recovery from Coronavirus, we risk accelerating the tragedy of the commons, in which “individual users, acting independently according to their own self-interest, behave contrary to the common good of all users by depleting or spoiling the shared resource through their collective action”.

Where to from here?

We humans have been profiting from the sale and development of land for thousands of years. With a global population approaching eight billion, the era of the Anthropocene indicates that we are now impacting on the global commons. As environmentalist Prof David Suzuki has noted, in many ways our human brains are hardwired to remember just a few years back, and only to be able to imagine a future based on the immediate lessons of our actions. However, without a culture based on sharing the collective lessons of our ancestors, we are fated to repeat their mistakes.

The migration and development forces impacting on regional Victoria are being felt across Australia and the rest of the world. More than ever before, we need to ‘think global, act local’. But without commitments and binding legislation to make this happen, we will continue to clear bushland, habitat, and agricultural land until we find that we have fundamentally altered local character and quality of life. Climate change is only accelerating this process, as well as threatening our access to agricultural land and water.

Local councils, sandwiched between overriding state legislation and local developers, often hold the key through their local Vision documents and strategies. For example, Macedon Ranges Shire Council (situated between Melbourne and Bendigo) holds the following Vision: “in partnership with the community, protect and enhance life across the Macedon Ranges.”

Community engagement of local stakeholders identified three themes that underpin Council’s Vision. These are Liveability: strengthen community resilience, inclusion, safety, accessibility and connectivity, protect our natural environment, heritage and rural character; Efficiency: smart service delivery, asset management and resource allocation; Sustainability: consider and respect the needs of current and future generations in all we do. These themes are implemented via five priority action areas, which link back to the Vision: (1) promoting health and wellbeing; (2) protecting the natural environment; (3) improving the built environment; (4) enhancing the social and economic environment; (5) delivering strong and reliable government. In this way, the Council has elegantly aligned its vision and strategies with the UN Sustainable Development Agenda.

If local councils such as Macedon Ranges Shire are to achieve their Vision, then integrated international, national, state, and local commitments and legislation are required. I suggest the following:

  • A bipartisan, ongoing, Federal constitutional responsibility for sustainable urban land use planning, linked clearly to the UN Sustainable Development Agenda. Approving the clearing of koala habitat for quarries or suburban subdivisions, or expediting coal mining, are out of step with scientific global reality.
  • Enabling state legislation in which all Acts and government departments declare their commitments to the UN Sustainable Development Goals. In particular, the Victorian Planning and Environment Act needs to require all development proposals to demonstrate clearly how they will deliver positive health, social and environmental outcomes. Health, social and environmental impact assessments, underpinned by detailed liveability analyses, can generate the required evidence.
  • Stronger protection for the integrity of municipal policies, plans and bylaws. In Australia, local government is often framed as an inconvenient service delivery mechanism, rather than the level of governance most connected to the collective vision and concerns held by local citizens. State governments often override local Councils and ‘call in’ development proposals when they are seen to align with ‘jobs and growth’, even though said jobs and growth are often poised to diminish regional liveability.
  • Improved use of liveability research, planning, investments and governance structures to ensure the early delivery of services and social infrastructure to meet the needs of emerging communities in growth areas.

Above all else — as declared by Prof Jeffrey Sachs, economist, academic, public policy analyst, and director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University — “we need a politics of respect for knowledge”. Overstretched policymakers are often too busy to think or design creative responses to complex challenges. We need to ensure that all tiers of our Government systems have the organisational resources necessary to be ‘thinking institutions’ that are well-informed by evidence and an engaged, informed citizenry. Sachs argued that to achieve this, we need a strong interface between citizens, the knowledge community, and the policy community.

Summary

As we recover from COVID, we need to make sure that we enhance the liveability of all our cities, towns, and shires. We need planning laws to protect regional Australia from tract housing, big-box retail, strip malls, fast food, liquor outlets, high-volume traffic, and longer commute times that have stripped the character and liveability of much of Australia’s sprawling cities.

As WHO Healthy Cities co-founder, Prof Trevor Hancock has said:

Eventually, the Covid-19 pandemic will come to an end, but it may leave an important legacy – a chance for us to choose a new way of life and a new economy that is healthy, just, convivial and sustainable.

Regional Australia offers the promise of reconnecting us with place, with nature, with each other, and with ourselves. Are we willing to protect what we still have?

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