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Rivers are no longer the driver of density: they’ve been replaced by the location of skilled workers, a steady flow of graduates, and the need to be close to likeminded firms.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 Machinery to produce more tangible goods and drive economies of scale has been replaced by how efficiently we transport ourselves in and out city districts, producing more intangible goods.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.

 
 
 
 

To make electric vehicles happen, the government must devolve energy policy to councils

The future. Image: Getty.

Last week, the Guardian revealed that at least a quarter of councils have halted the roll-out of electric vehicle (EV) charging infrastructure with no plans to resume its installation. This is a fully charged battery-worth of miles short of ideal, given the ambitious decarbonisation targets to which the UK is rightly working.

It’s even more startling given the current focus on inclusive growth, for the switch to EVs is an economic advancement, on an individual and societal level. Decarbonisation will free up resources and push growth, but the way in which we go about it will have impacts for generations after the task is complete.

If there is one lesson that has been not so much taught to us as screamed at us by recent history, it is that the market does not deliver inclusivity by itself. Left to its own devices, the market tends to leave people behind. And people left behind make all kinds of rational decisions, in polling stations and elsewhere that can seem wholly irrational to those charged with keeping pace – as illuminted in Jeremy Harding’s despatch from the ‘periphery’ which has incubated France’s ‘gilet jaunes’ in the London Review of Books.

But what in the name of Nikola Tesla has any of this to do with charging stations? The Localis argument is simple: local government must work strategically with energy network providers to ensure that EV charging stations are rolled out equally across areas, to ensure deprived areas do not face further disadvantage in the switch to EVs. To do so, Ofgem must first devolve certain regulations around energy supply and management to our combined authorities and city regions.


Although it might make sense now to invest in wealthier areas where EVs are already present, if there isn’t infrastructure in place ahead of demand elsewhere, then we risk a ‘tale of two cities’, where decarbonisation is two-speed and its benefits are two-tier.

The Department for Transport (DfT) announced on Monday that urban mobility will be an issue for overarching and intelligent strategy moving forward. The issue of fairness must be central to any such strategy, lest it just become a case of more nice things in nice places and a further widening of the social gap in our cities.

This is where the local state comes in. To achieve clean transport across a city, more is needed than just the installation of charging points.  Collaboration must be coordinated between many of a place’s moving parts.

The DfT announcement makes much of open data, which is undoubtedly crucial to realising the goal of a smart city. This awareness of digital infrastructure must also be matched by upgrades to physical infrastructure, if we are going to realise the full network effects of an integrated city, and as we argue in detail in our recent report, it is here that inclusivity can be stitched firmly into the fabric.

Councils know the ins and outs of deprivation within their boundaries and are uniquely placed to bring together stakeholders from across sectors to devise and implement inclusive transport strategy. In the switch to EVs and in the wider Future of Mobility, they must stay a major player in the game.

As transport minister and biographer of Edmund Burke, Jesse Norman has been keen to stress the founding Conservative philosopher’s belief in the duty of those living in the present to respect the traditions of the past and keep this legacy alive for their own successors.

If this is to be a Burkean moment in making the leap to the transformative transport systems of the future, Mr Norman should give due attention to local government’s role as “little platoons” in this process: as committed agents of change whose civic responsibility and knowledge of place can make this mobility revolution happen.

Joe Fyans is head of research at the think tank Localis.