The economic case for density: how Australia can fix its cities

Melbourne: probably not dense enough. Image: John O'Neill/Wikimedia Commons.

It was a time of extraordinary change. Cook had not long named New South Wales, the American Revolution was well underway, and in towns and cities of England, the Industrial Revolution was about to begin.

Rivers were taking industry out of cottages. Machines made possible through advancements in ironwork required greater scale, more people and more power, and so were being housed in purpose-built factories and mills adjacent to running water. Individuals who once were generalists, and who had owned production from beginning to end, became part of a process: specialists, narrowing what they did, becoming better at it, and producing more.

It was a process observed by the father of modern economics, Adam Smith. In his 1776 magnum opus The Wealth of Nations, Smith identified the key to increasing productivity as specialisation achieved through scale and density.

As populations swelled in cities, poets wrote of dark satanic mills, painters portrayed industry as hell incarnate, a new world formed of developed and developing nations. It was not the same scale nor pace as today, but it too was a period of great disruption.

Cities and the economy of us

Much has changed in the quarter of millennia since.


Whereas cotton from the fields of the Mississippi delta was the raw material of the industrial revolution, and gold caused the rush across the states of Australia, in advanced economies, the raw material is us. It is our ability to generate work with our heads and not with our hands, our mind and not with what is mined, our knowledge and innovation capacity that is the main source of wealth.

Rivers are no longer the driver of density: they’ve been replaced by the location of skilled workers, a steady flow of graduates, and the need to be close to likeminded firms. Specialisation which once took place within firms now takes place across firms, through clustering, benefitting through economies of agglomeration. Machinery to produce more tangible goods and drive economies of scale has been replaced by how efficiently we transport ourselves in and out city districts, producing more intangible goods.

These days we talk less of scale and specialisation, and more of cities as the manifestation of Smith’s fundamentals for a productive economy. Rightly so: as Dobbs, Woetzel and Manyika say in No Ordinary Disruption, with each doubling of population every city dweller becomes on average, 15 percent wealthier, more innovative, and more productive.

Half the planet’s population are city dwellers, but they generate three-quarters of the world’s GDP. In Australia, that figure rises to 80 per cent: it is one of the most urbanised countries in the world, with three quarters of the population living in cities of 100,000 people or more, compared to 68 per cent of Americans, 71 per cent of  Canadians, and 62 per cent of Brits.

So, there is some evidence that Australia’s prime minister Malcolm Turnbull is asking all the right questions with his newly formed portfolios on “innovation” and “cities”.

Cities and productivity

Yet not all cities are good productive cities. Africa has the highest average city density of all continents yet is nowhere to be seen on global productivity tables. India has 8 of the world’s top 10 densest cities – yet none of them are close to being the most productive.

In contrast Australia has some of the most productive cities in the world: Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide placed 10th, 13th, 35th on GDP in the 2010 Global Urban Competitiveness report. Yet when looking at GDP per capita, this slips to 97th, 110th, 121st respectively; and on patent applications, it’s even worse, and those rankings are 281st, 237th, and 260th.

There are infrastructure problems, too. Enright & Petty declare in Australia’s Competitiveness: From Lucky Country to Competitive Country that Australia has “some of the worst exemplars of urban sprawl in the world”. The independent statutory body Infrastructure Australia estimates “congestion is likely to cost Australians $53bn by 2031.”

Meanwhile, in Mapping Australia’s Future, the independent think-tank, the Grattan Institute, found that residential patterns and transport systems mean that central business district employers “have access to only a limited proportion of workers in metropolitan areas”.

The lesson here is that good productive cities require planning. Policymakers and politicians need to encourage density to increase the strength and scope of agglomeration economies, to develop skills matched to jobs being created, to strengthen supporting the local economy that benefits from both.

Good productive cities require high connectivity, too. Leaders need to facilitate quality exchange through infrastructure and transportation – to connect firms with each other, to connect workers to firms, to connect consumers to the local economy, to build the economic competitiveness of human capital: the economy of us.

The better connectivity, the more exchange, the greater innovation, the greater productivity. This is why the 3m people living in Silicon Valley have an economy larger than the 90m living in Vietnam. It is what Venables from the London School of Economics described as the New Economic Geography – the value in interaction and exchange brought about by clustering of firms.

Innovation and the importance of exchange

“More densely populated cities are more attractive to innovators and entrepreneurs,” explain Dobbs, Wetzel, Manyika, “who tend to congregate in places where they have greater access to networks of peers, mentors, financial institutions, partners, and potential customers.” It is no coincidence that those who excel online and can locate anywhere in the world choose to neighbour offline, clustering in places like Silicon Valley, Bangalore, and Silicon Wadi in Tel Aviv.  

Face-to-face exchange has been necessary for innovation in cities “since Plato and Socrates bickered in an Athenian marketplace”, explains economist Professor Edward Glaeser in his book Triumph of the City.  “Innovations cluster in places like Silicon Valley because ideas cross corridors and streets more easily than continents and seas. Patent citations demonstrate the intellectual advantage of proximity.”

But innovation is about more than STEM graduates, the co-ordination of government and industry on R&D, the promotion of entrepreneurship: it is about cities that can develop and retain innovation through quality exchange; it is about cities where firms will choose to cluster because they can see the value in exchange and infrastructure is in place to facilitate it.


This is the fundamental difference between providing skills for ideas born elsewhere, or providing skills for cities where ideas are exchanged, innovation occurs, patents formed, and productivity increases.

It is why Malcolm Turnbull’s two new portfolios must be intrinsically linked for long-term economic growth. The more complicated the world becomes, the more value there will be in proximity to those who may have the answer; the more value there will be exchange with those who may have the answer; and the more value there will be in connectivity to those who may have the answer.

The more complicated the world becomes, the more it will value cities with answers.

The challenge is to make them Australian.

Kevin Keith is an Australia-based researcher who helped research Alastair Campbell’s book Winners and how to Succeed. He now works for the built-environment body Consult Australia.

 
 
 
 

In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.