I originally wrote this article for the Courier Mail's 'Future Brisbane' series in September, 2017, but since they put it behind a paywall, I thought I'd repost it here so everyone can read it.
BRISBANE residents have lost control over how our neighbourhoods evolve and develop. Planning decisions about where to increase density are driven primarily by corporate profit and short-term vote-chasing, rather than long-term social needs and sustainable planning principles.
On current trajectories, future Brisbane may well be a divided city. The wealthy will enjoy medium-density, mixed-use neighbourhoods in close proximity to public transport, job opportunities and good schools, while the poor are banished to sprawling outer-suburban fringes.
Thousands of middle-class residents will be crowded into poorly-designed highrises with very low ratios of green space per person, working 60-hour weeks just to cover the mortgage.
Rising sea levels and heavier rains will flood low-lying neighbourhoods more often, and skyrocketing inner-city land values will mean governments never have enough money to acquire land for new parks, drainage infrastructure and community facilities.
The word “affordability” has been largely absent from Future Brisbane conversations. But neglecting to discuss the issue doesn’t change the fact that right now, tens of thousands of Brisbanites are homeless. Public housing waiting lists are so long that residents are advised not to bother applying unless they qualify as “very high needs”.
Suburbs like West End and New Farm, which once derived their special character in part from the fact that rich and poor residents lived in close proximity, are becoming glossy brochure parodies of their former selves.
Increasing the supply of apartments hasn’t substantially improved affordability for first-homebuyers, because wealthy investors consistently outbid them.
In suburbs like South Brisbane, we’re now seeing some investors choose to leave apartments empty rather than rent them out cheaply. Others are becoming hotel managers via websites like AirBnB, prioritising short-term visitors over longer-term local tenants.
In short, the private market is failing to deliver genuinely affordable housing.
But there are practical alternatives. Many European cities have strengthened renters’ rights and invested heavily in public housing to preserve the vibrant inner-city creative neighbourhoods that attract tourists and improve urban amenity.
Brisbane City Council and the Queensland Government can and should work together to fund and construct high-quality medium-density public housing in close proximity to public transport and job opportunities. And I don’t just mean 140 dwellings per year like the State Government is currently proposing for Brisbane. I mean thousands of dwellings.
Vulnerable residents can be dispersed throughout the city rather than concentrated together, improving social mobility and strengthening relationships between different demographics and sub-cultures. Government-led housing projects can include sustainable design features like greywater recycling and onsite composting that would rarely be delivered by the private sector. Yes, it will be expensive. But it’s still cheaper than leaving people homeless.
Realistically, a drastic increase in the construction of public housing is the only way we’ll be able to address the housing affordability crisis without significantly lowering property values of existing owner-occupiers.
But the journey towards a fairer, more sustainable city need not stop there. With more investment into pollution control and revegetation, many of the creeks feeding into the Brisbane River can be restored so that once again they are clean enough to swim in (a few nets to keep out bullsharks wouldn’t go astray).
A new Aboriginal cultural centre in Musgrave Park would show genuine respect for the rightful owners of this city.
Inner-city golf courses can be repurposed as fruit orchards, sports fields, nature reserves, and even tiny house eco-villages.
Roads will be narrowed, with general traffic lanes reclaimed for bus lanes, separated bike lanes and broader tree-lined footpaths.
Repair cafes, tool libraries and community composting programs will help us shift towards a less wasteful, less consumerist culture.
Sewerage will become a resource – a source of both bioenergy and fertiliser.
Suburbia’s sprawling backyards will be filled with either granny flats or veggie patches, and community gardens will proliferate in under-used parklands and road verges.
Street artists will replace grey concrete with vivid murals that inspire and engage both locals and visitors.
And of course, we will abandon cringeworthy tags like ‘Brisvegas’ and ‘new world city’ in favour of a civic identity that respects and learns from its history, and embraces progress without becoming a soulless, gaudy, cookie-cutter copy of every other big new city around the world.
But perhaps most importantly, a future Brisbane can and should give ordinary residents more input and control over urban planning.
To meet tomorrow’s challenges, everyone will need to be given a say, not just at election time, but through ongoing participatory democratic processes which ensure that the big decisions that shape our city benefit all of us, and not just a privileged minority.