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Rivers are no longer the driver of density: they’ve been replaced by the location of skilled workers, a steady flow of graduates, and the need to be close to likeminded firms.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 Machinery to produce more tangible goods and drive economies of scale has been replaced by how efficiently we transport ourselves in and out city districts, producing more intangible goods.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

 
 
 
 

Leeds is still haunted by its pledge to be the “Motorway City of the Seventies”

Oh, Leeds. Image: mtaylor848/Wikimedia Commons.

As the local tourist board will no doubt tell you, Leeds has much to be proud of: grandiose industrial architecture in the form of faux-Egyptian temples and Italian bell-towers; an enduring cultural legacy as the birthplace of Goth, and… motorways. But stand above the A58(M) – the first “urban motorway”  in the country – and you might struggle to pinpoint its tourist appeal.

Back in the 1970s, though, the city council was sufficiently gripped by the majesty of the motorways to make them a part of its branding. Letters sent from Leeds were stamped with a postmark proudly proclaiming the city's modernity: “Leeds, Motorway City of the Seventies”.

Image: public domain.

During the 1960s, post-war optimism and an appetite for grand civic projects saw the rapid construction of motorways across England. The construction of the M1 began in 1959; it reached Leeds, its final destination, in 1968. By the early 1970s the M62 was sweeping across Pennines, and the M621 loop was constructed to link it to Leeds city centre.

Not content with being the meeting point of two major motorways, Leeds was also the first UK city to construct a motorway through the city centre: the inner ring road, which incorporates the short motorway stretches of the A58(M) and the A64(M). As the council put it in 1971, “Leeds is surging forward into the Seventies”.

The driving force behind Leeds' love of motorways was a mix of civic pride and utopian city planning. Like many industrial cities in the North and Midlands, Leeds experienced a decline in traditional manufacturing during the 1960s. Its position at the centre of two major motorways seemed to offer a brighter future as a dynamic city open for trade, with the infrastructure to match. In response to the expansion of the roads, 1970s council planners also constructed an elevated pedestrian “skywalk” in an attempt to free up space for cars at ground level. Photos of Leeds from that time show a thin, white walkway running through blocky office buildings – perhaps not quite as extensive as the futuristic urban landscape originally envisaged by planners, but certainly a visual break with the past.

Fast forward to 2019 and Leeds’ efforts to become a “Motorway City” seems like a kitsch curiosity from a decade that was not always known for sustainable planning decisions. Leeds’s historic deference to the car has serious consequences in the present: in February 2019, Neville Street – a busy tunnel that cuts under Leeds station – was found to contain the highest levels of NO2 outside London.

City centre planners did at least have the foresight to sink stretches of the inner motorways below street level, leaving pedestrian routes largely undisturbed. Just outside the centre, though, the roads can be more disruptive. Sheepscar Interchange is a bewildering tangle of arterial roads, Armley Gyratory strikes fear into the hearts of learner drivers, and the M621 carves unsympathetically through inner-city areas of South Leeds with pedestrian access restricted to narrow bridges that heighten the sense of a fragmented landscape.

 

Leeds inner ring road in its cutting. Image: author provided.

 

The greatest problem for Yorkshire's “Motorway City” in 2019, however, is not the occasional intimidating junction, but the complete lack of an alternative to car travel. The dire state of public transport in Leeds has already been raised on these pages. In the early 20th century Leeds had one of the most extensive tram networks in the country. The last lines closed in 1959, the same year construction began on the A58m.


The short-sightedness of this decision was already recognised in the 1970s, as traffic began to build. Yet plans for a Leeds Supertram were rejected by successive Conservative and Labour governments unwilling to front the cost, even though smaller cities such as Newcastle and Sheffield were granted funding for light transport systems. Today, Leeds is the largest city in the EU without a mass transit system. As well as creating congestion, the lack of viable public transport options prevents connectivity: the city's bus network is reasonable, but weaker from East to West than North to South. As a non-driver, I've turned down jobs a short drive away that would be a logistical impossibility without a car.

Leeds' early enthusiasm for the motorway was perhaps premature, but there are things we can learn from the 1970s. Whatever else can be said about it, Leeds' city transport strategy was certainly bold – a quality in short supply today, after proposals for the supertram were watered down to a trolleybus system before being scrapped altogether in 2016. Leeds' rapid transformation in the 1960s and 70s, its grandiose visions of skywalks and dual carriageways, were driven by strong local political will. Today, the long-term transport strategy documents on Leeds City Council's website say more about HS2 than the need for a mass transit system within Leeds itself, and the council has been accused of giving up the fight for light rail and trams.

Whilst central government's refusal to grant funds is the greatest obstacle to Leeds' development, the local authority needs to be far more vocal in demanding the transport system the city deserves. Leeds' desire to be the Motorway City of the Seventies might look ludicrous today, but the political drive and utopian optimism that underpinned it does not.