'Vulnerability in the Australian City Symposium': A Commentary (2006)

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A symposium in Brisbane on Vulnerability in the Australian City was sponsored by the Griffith University Urban Research Program on 5 May 2006. The event was to commemorate the work of Pat Troy on completion of his PhD study program.

This present document outlines the papers presented at the symposium.

A CPDS commentary on the issues raised is interspersed in those outlines. 

The symposium was valuable in identifying:

  •  possible sources of urban vulnerability particular in papers by Frank Stilwell (whose focus was on problems arising in the political-economic environment) and Patrick Troy (who primarily addressed risks with an 'urban' origin);
  • means of responding to such challenges through both the resilience of urban communities themselves (which was the focus of Grace Karsens' paper) and a new form of scholarship based on deep consideration of why it is difficult to solve complex problems (to which Steve Dovers made a very useful contribution)

However there were some sources of urban vulnerability that were not addressed at the symposium, and suggestions about these are included below related, for example, to:

  • instabilities in the global political / economic order;
  • ineffective domestic governance;
  • renewed imperatives for difficult economic changes;
  • potentially corrosive influences from rising powers in East Asia;
  • chronic degenerative diseases; and
  • dysfunctional social relationships.

Other CPDS comments suggest (for example) that:

  • achieving rapid economic change seems a real and inescapable problem to which neoliberalism has been seen as the solution - though in practice it is unsatisfactory;
  • 'capital' does not have ultimate control of urban development. Moreover capital's influence on the community could be made more constructive;
  • rather than simply creating a 'national fund', infrastructure deficits can only be overcome by developing the institutions that have coal-face responsibility for infrastructure;
  • 'radical' approaches to reform seem inferior to incremental options;
  • strategic 'planning' never works. However strategic 'management' is available as a potentially powerful  alternative;
  • there is intrinsic uncertainty about what is truly 'sustainable';
  • security issues that have fed populist politics have a complex origin, and arguably partly reflect a serious failure by students of the humanities;
  • it is unwise to ignore dysfunctional post-modern ideologies, because the practical consequences of attempts to apply them are becoming serious;
  • it is easier to promote a policy (eg NCP) that involves governments not doing anything much, than one (eg ESD) that requires governments to identify and take proactive initiatives;
  • all democratic politics are 'populist' to some extent - but there are ways to reduce the adverse consequences;
  • the inequality that globalization potentially induces might be significantly reduced by serious efforts to increase economic capability;
  • introducing private property rights into functions that suffer market failures, or involve large public policy considerations, must lead to difficulties.
Outline of Proceedings Introduction to Symposium - Professor Brendan Gleeson (Griffith University)

Collegiality is no longer strong in universities. The goal of the symposium is to improve awareness of the challenges facing cities and equip participants with methods to deal with them. 2/3 of Australians live in cities, yet they have often been derided. Pat Troy played a role in defeating 'anti-urbanism'. Urban studies is growing in Australia - and there are 250 urban studies students at Griffith University. State of Australian Cities reports were produced in 2003 and 2005. Public and media interest is strong. Water issues are topical. While people are generally happy, many are concerned. There is a risk of paralysis of will. Globally urban scholarship sees risks as a key issue. Urban infrastructure projects can fail because of a lack of consideration of risk factors, and of consultation.

People are rightly 'concerned' because all are facing increasing risks many of which they have no way to understand or respond appropriately to because of a lack of organised capability to obtain appropriate information or to solve complex problems.

Vulnerability in the Australian City: Towards Security and Sustainability - Professor Frank Stilwell (University of Sydney)

Long standing political economy features create persistent vulnerabilities - because in capitalist cities the profit motive butts against other social and environmental aspects. Thus cities are still bedevilled by problems of housing affordability, transport inconvenience, environmental stress, economic inequality, personal insecurity and unsustainability.

There is undoubtedly a conflict between the 'profit motive' which drives a liberal market economy and social / environmental goals. However:

  • this is by no means the only source of vulnerability (see below); and

  • the creation of a simplified 'economic' space in which individual and corporate actions are coordinated by financial outcomes has been critical to the development of productive economies by Western societies (see Cultural Foundations of Western Dominance).

That simplification was vital to enable rationality to be applied as a powerful tool for problem solving - because rationality fails in dealing with complex problems (for reasons that are also implied in Steve Dovers' paper).  

The economic production challenge (and thus current global population numbers / living standards which require the large scale and creative processing of materials, energy and information) can probably not be managed without such a simplification. If so, there is no alternative, and the focus thus needs to shift from 'blaming' capitalism onto developing the complementary institutional arrangements needed (eg those to allow persons operating in the simplified mind-space that is vital to economic problem solving to understand 'bigger picture' concerns and opportunities), and showing how can they be effective in a globalised environment.

Moreover East Asia's development generally seems to have been orchestrated using arational techniques for problem solving that are based on a quite different epistemology to that which Western societies inherited from classical Greece (see East Asia) and those methods are much less constrained in dealing with complex problems. However the alternative is by no means perfect, and intrinsically requires more hierarchical and authoritarian social / political arrangements (eg see China as the Future of the World).

Achievements have been impressive but political economy constraints have become worse because of globalisation and neoliberalism. Globalisation has locked cities into process of capital accumulation independent of local institutions -and neoliberalism has legitimised this by transforming the nature of the state to inhibit policies for security and sustainability. Policies related to land, labour and capital have this common characteristic.

Land:  How land is used is key political economy issue. This fundamental resource is inseparable for aboriginal people from history / culture - but has been commodified and made a focus for wealth accumulation. Landowners have achieved large windfall gains eg where public authorities have varied permitted uses, and from urban growth. Most increase in land values is privately appropriated - and this results in large wealth redistribution to those in 'land racket'. In Sydney in 1986 it took 4 years annual income to buy median price house. In 2003 this had risen to 12 years. The difference was not in construction costs, but in land values.

There is no doubt that housing affordability is a serious concern, but this account does not consider the effect on affordability of changes in interest rates. In the late 1980s rates were very high to stifle inflation. On a 30 year $100,000 loan, repayments might have been $17,200 pa at 17% interest in the late 1980s but only $7,700 at 6.5% interest in 2003. Thus, though land prices may have risen 3 times relative to average incomes, the rise in repayments (and thus the decline in affordability) was presumably not so severe.

Also, surely the rise in land values is not solely attributable to gains land-owners achieve due to public policy / programs, as other factors have applied, including:

This problem has secondary consequences (eg on owner occupation which is preferred by 70%). Private rental becomes a stress point so governments have found it necessary  to give property owners tax concessions with negative gearing.  This increases supply of rental accommodation while ignoring demand side stress.

Negative gearing on property investment has the effect of dramatically reducing the rentals that tenants would need to pay for any given rate of return on an investment property. Thus, to the extent that negative gearing constitutes a subsidy, it could also be argued that it is tenants who are being subsidised and that negative gearing constitutes a form of public support for housing.

First home buyer subsidies have similar effect. Public housing is subject to restricted resources - so it becomes merely residual welfare housing. Vulnerability  to housing stress is a predictable consequence.

Alternative could involve use of land tax to redirect land surplus to public hands. This would require nationally uniform land tax regime. Removing site revenue from urban land would eliminate speculation - and thus reduce inflation. Revenue gained could be used to increase public housing stock.

How in practical sense could taxes be set to transfer gains in land values to the public? For example:

  • what allowance would be made for (say) inflation or primary residences in determining how much of the sale price of a property an owner would retain? Making an exception for private residences would seem vital or else a person's home ownership would be eroded every time they moved house. For example a person who owned a home worth $300,000 which increased to $400,000 due to (say) declining interest rates or population pressure would (if inflation is ignored) only have $300,000 and would thus have to take a $100,000 mortgage to shift to another home identical to the one they had just moved out of.   Shifting house would become financially impossible for anyone (eg the elderly) who did not have a substantial income;

  • how would the split between the value of land and buildings be assessed when buyers and sellers would have conflicting interests in over- and under-estimating this (respectively), and there was no real market through which an 'expert' could reliable express an independent judgement?

  • how would non-building improvements to land by owners be dealt with (eg landscaping)? If such gains could not be retained by owners no one would ever invest in improvements (or perhaps even in maintenance) and the urban landscape would decay;

  • how would owners be prevented from abusing / degrading land for short term profit when the entire cost of this would be born by the public?

Complex regulation and close bureaucratic supervision (which could be socially stressful and economically dysfunctional) would seem to be required to operate such a tax regime. Moreover:

  • if the public is are to retain gains when land values rise, equity would presumably require that the public compensate owners whose property values decrease. Because there currently seem to be good prospects of a land price crash as interest rates rise to combat inflationary risks, such an arrangement could impose a large net cost on the public in the short term;

  • might the effect of retaining gains in property values in public hands be to encourage the preferential use of very cheap land in remote locations - a practice that would have large impacts on public infrastructure costs?

Could the desired effect be gained if governments merely leased property, rather than enabling private ownership - or would this also require complex regulation and bureaucratic intervention?

Labour: The interests of capital and those who manage capital drive economic change.

Surely consumers and technological advances drive economic change to an even greater degree - because (though business seeks to influence consumers through advertising and governments through lobbying) capitalists who are not attentive to consumer desires and (uncontrollable) technological advancements soon become ex-capitalists.

Also social preferences expressed through the political system have an influence - even though this has been weakened in recent years by the need to allow market (ie consumer / technological) pressures to determine economic outcomes.

The capital accumulation process impacts on society / urban space, and institutions of state / labour and community can be a moderating influence.  Unions and community groups have sometimes cooperated to frustrate the worst excesses of capital's assault on urban fabric (eg 'green bans' in Sydney in 1970s). The state has been re-oriented towards a capital-facilitating role by neoliberalism - while capital has gone global thus putting more pressure on localities.

Neoliberalism reorients the state towards a market-facilitating role (ie towards creating a competitive environment) not towards a capital-facilitating role - and these are quite different because a competitive market puts pressure on (rather than supporting) the owners of capital. 

There is little doubt that governments have become more oriented towards the interests of capital, but this is not so much the effect of neoliberalism as of the failure of other interests to present realistic / practical proposals. 

In a more liberal market economy, the greatest scope for increasing productivity arguably arises from the development of the economy (ie better mutual support amongst firms in industry clusters) - see Defects in Economic Tactics, Strategy and Outcomes.

However this would require much better performance by the owners of capital and (in the absence of any community pressure for improving business performance) capital has arguing convincingly that economic productivity gains should be pursued mainly by a more 'business-like' approach to the public sphere - even though the potential for such gains is limited and the social consequences can be severe (see Governing is not just Running a Large Business).  Australian business has been credibly suggested to focus more on cost-cutting (including reducing taxes) as the basis for strategy rather than new business development [1] - though the latter would be far more beneficial to the community as a whole (eg in terms of creating better quality employment options). This bias might be changed given economic systems that were better able to support new business development (eg via innovation).

PPPs reflect the dominance of private interests even in traditional public sphere. These reflect privatisation of profits and socialization of losses. There is now a corrosive interlock between private interests and public policy (as shown by recent events related to NSW premier). It is critical to end developer funding of political parties. 

This risk seems very real.

A bigger problem is that in an era of corporate globalization there has been a power shift from democratic institutions to undemocratic ones.

Corporate globalization is arguably only one of a large number of factors that have led to serious problems in Australia's system of government - see below.

Solutions might be created through national investment fund for infrastructure and industry development (using worker savings in super funds). This could ensure investment in urban infrastructure and industries such as solar power - that could enhance sustainability and generate export income. But such an interventionist approach is opposed by neoliberals who currently hold sway.

The real problem is to develop institutions that are capable of identifying what needs to be done in terms of infrastructure, and doing it. Infrastructure investment is already escalating - and resulting in problems due to lack of competent machinery to undertake it (for reasons like those suggested in Defects in Infrastructure Planning and Delivery in Queensland).

Infrastructure is always the capital component of a service and has to be planned and managed by those responsible for all other aspects of that service. It can't be orchestrated by creating a national fund, any more than it would be possible to arrange (say) the premises for all retail firms through a national fund - see Infrastructure Constraints on Australia's Economy. Central planning is simply impractical.

Politics: There is a need to (a) understand history to see how the current situation emerged (b) relate physical issues to socio-economic and (c) act, not merely analyse.   Marginal adjustments to status quo can not be as good as it gets. Social progress requires critique, vision, strategy and organisation. Academics are always good at the first - critique. But this needs to relate current issues to drivers that are beyond urban - ie those related to public policy, land / wealth, and control of investment. Vision requires considering also what type of society we want (eg consider Clive Hamilton's idea of transforming 'affluenza' by shifting to a society where leisure, social relations and spirituality are more valued). There is a need to consider 'radical reformism' - ie redressing immediate problems of inefficiency, inequality and insecurity in ways that open up the possibilities of more fundamental political economic transformations.

'Radical reformism' seems very like the theories the US neo-cons relied on in proposals for changing the political and economic prospects of the Middle East by first transforming Iraq. It has not proved a conspicuous success.

There certainly is value in: understanding history; looking at socio-economic dimensions; and acting as well as analysing. However to avoid the failures that usually accompany revolutions and attempts to create utopias, progress must be incremental and build on what already exists and works. 'Vision' must make sense to practitioners if real progress is to be achieved, not just to academics and idealists.

It is disappointing that ALP has abandoned ideas of radical reform. Greens provide a more inspiring alternative - as they prioritise security and sustainability together with social justice and community participation. These need to be combined with economic viability. Specific reforms that can be considered include: land taxation; industrial relations reform; and a national investment fund and these (together with more effective metropolitan planning) should help reduce urban vulnerability.

How does one actually do more effective metropolitan planning effectively?

As noted above in relation to infrastructure, 'planning' for any positive actions can not realistically be separated from those dealing with other aspects of the function.

Thus as suggested in Grace Karsens' paper in relation to the broader community, a great deal can be achieved if those responsible for functions that require planning are made aware of what needs to be done and put into a position where they can act (rather than being prevented from doing so by central planners).

In other words strategic 'management' should perhaps be considered as an alternative to formal 'planning' as a basis for metropolitan management (see Strategy Development in Business and Government).

Urban people, urban places and urban resilience - Dr Grace Karskens, (School of History, University of NSW)

Cities are complex entities. The fate of millions are tied up with them. They are mankind's greatest creation - yet can be agents of their own vulnerability / destruction. There is a need (a) to be interested in people and social justice, not just in impersonal forces, and to take a cross disciplinary approach; (b) for closer relationship between humanities and urban science; and (c) to recognise the importance of historical understanding - and of path dependency (eg effect of past policies and decisions)

Urban ideas have oscillated back and forth over time (eg housing styles once seen good are often later seen as bad). Concerns about materialistic outlooks swamping communal / spiritual values have been around for centuries. Once McMansions were only built by rich people - but they are not new. Australian cities have been seen as marvels - but also as sucking life from the country. 

Now cities seem beleaguered by: global warming; extreme weather; peak oil - in ways which could threaten poorest most severely. They are also vulnerable to terrorist attack. 

Global and older urban landscapes and current challenges all have histories. History shows that hope comes from people - who can make cities more sustainable / secure through common realisation / commitment. Also cities are most at risk when people lose interest - or feel ignored. Despite assurances about consultation people are often left out in city planning. Or people can be seen as one of the threats facing cities (eg as sources of pollution, squandering of resources) - whose behaviour needs to be changed through legislation.

The assumption is that Europeans were spoilers from the start - who hated the bush - and turned their backs on it to build cities / suburbs.  But the reality is that non-aboriginal people have sought to understand / protect environment from the beginning.  Early settlers in Sydney praised the local environment. There was environmental damage in early 19th century but by the 1880s conservation pressures had emerged. Similar trends continued in 20th century. Everywhere community activism thrives.  Many planning policies / government bodies as well as laws were triggered by campaigners.  Not all citizens have such concerns - any more than than all are selfish and materialistic.  Heritage now has a great edifice of policy, laws and professional practice.

Given clear accurate information, a common urgent goal and a sense they can do something about it, urban people will work together for the common good. Forgetting this will make cities less resilient.

As noted above in relation to metropolitan planning, the same scope for working together for the common good applies to the people who work in various institutions, if they are given accurate information and an ability to act.

Settlements and sustainability: vulnerability, security and populism - Professor Steve Dovers, (Centre for Resource and Environmental Studies, ANU)

Settlements and Sustainability: What agenda  Cities are mainly shaped by ideas. Regrets follow when bad ideas are implemented. Today's big ideas concern: globalization; neoliberalism; deliberative democracy; the information age and sustainability. Ideas such as sustainability have an empirical foundation while others, such as neoliberalism, are mainly ideological

Surely neoliberalism is not simply or even mainly ideological.

An urgent need for economic change emerged in Europe and North America in the 1970s because of the adoption of highly effective economic development strategies in East Asia which eroded the competitiveness of previously-highly-developed economies in the manufacturing industries which had traditionally been their most productive.

Based on the experience of various European governments who tried to manage economic transformation (and actually stifled change by doing so), it was apparently concluded by OECD analysts and others who considered the feasibility of industry strategies in North America that the only way to manage the required transformation in countries with democratic systems of governance was to reduce governmental control.

This conclusion surfaced in Australia (and gained bipartisan political support) about a decade later when the need to diversify Australia's relatively-unproductive commodity-dependent export profile was finally confronted in the 1980s.

Neoliberalism was anything but a perfect solution (see below) - but it was 'a' solution to a very real problem rather than simply an ideological preference.

Others are simply realities - which must be accommodated. Which ideas dominate determines who will be vulnerable.

What about the 'idea' that ideas / ideals / theories / principles are irrelevant - which is the foundation of a radically different epistemology that characterises the rising influence of East Asia based on its ancient Chinese cultural heritage (see 'Asia' Literacy).

The point is that it is not only 'ideas' that can make people vulnerable.

Only one big idea (sustainability) is about all the options for future. Sustainability is a universally agreed goal of human progress. 1992 Rio Declaration attempted to reconcile environmental, social and economic over long term - and was about reducing vulnerability / increasing security in democratic / equitable way - rather than in a selective / populist way. ESD has often been espoused, but there is widespread disagreement about what sustainability means.

Surely such disagreement is intrinsic, because the most fundamental sustainability challenge relates to the natural environment which is characterised by ecological systems of immense size and complexity that are inherently beyond human comprehension.

Thus there will presumably (as with the debate about global warming) never be a way to resolve ecological sustainability questions by analysis / debate. The best that humanity seems likely to be able to do is to keep out of the way (eg by reducing the human 'footprint') and recognise that this will not be enough to provide total protection against the effects of changes in the natural environment.

Our Common Future defined sustainability as meeting present needs without compromising future generations while giving priority to the world's poor and recognising the limit which technology places on environment's ability to meet needs. This implies a concern for inter and intra generational sustainability. The link with equity has tended to be ignored - but, if factors that make people vulnerable are neglected, one can not have sustainable development. Despite many attempts, the imperatives of environment, society and economy have not come together. Pat Troy argues that this results from the institutions that are used.  The following considers issues related to: unachieved aspirations; limited capacity in the face of complexity; inadequate institutions; and the limits of intellectual conventions. Cities are complex. They are everyone's and no one's business. ESD has failed to take purchase.

Good point. The fact that sustainability / city issues are both everyone's and no-one's business means that they require different types of solutions.

Arguably the creation of separate agencies for the 'environment' or 'urban planning' can be dysfunctional in terms of generating real progress if they are expected to make decisions and enforce policies.

A more constructive role would probably involve stimulating 'everyone' to take account of relevant externalities in their decision making - and making available reliable and practical information about how this can be done.

Its goals are sometimes seen as: not damaging opportunities for future generations; recognition of major social / political goals (biodiversity / ecology; integration of development and environment); and principles such as short / long term thinking, integrating social / economic / environmental policy, a precautionary principle, global considerations, innovative processes, and community involvement. Boiled down, sustainability involves: equity now and in future; protecting environmental assets; being cautious; using inclusive policy processes; policy integration; and considering long term. Vulnerability / security can be incorporated into the idea of sustainability.

Vulnerability and Security: Uses and Abuses To be vulnerable / insecure is unsustainable. Resilience is opposite of vulnerability and gives some chance. People are made vulnerable by natural disasters, natural phenomena and the insecurity of others. Often people gain security / resilience at the expense of others. Vulnerability, resilience and sustainability are not stable (but rather dynamic) states. Trying to make others less vulnerable is noble. The idea of security is often abused. Security from 'others' in terms of: real / imagined crimes; terrorism; financial turbulence have fed populist politics.

Security issues related to crime / terrorism / financial turbulence have fed populist politics, but they are anything but imaginary - and if the solutions that elected leaders find to these are inadequate then this should not only be blamed on the political leaders involved. Those who should be generating more realistic options must carry a great deal of responsibility.

For example security from 'others' can be very complex. In the case of terrorism risks associated with Islamist extremists, the problem appears to derive from resentments about the historical failures of Muslim dominated societies. Those failures are blamed on malicious external 'oppressors' though they arguably originate internally in dysfunctional cultural assumptions such as (a) that reality is micro-managed by God so that nature can only be studied as symbolic of God see About Arabic Thought and Islamic Science or (b) that the laws by which society is governed must be derivable from Scripture [1] - which is easily shown to be unrealistic; or (c) that individuals should be responsible for others' behaviour - a source of internal oppression that must stifle change (see A Response to Hizb-ut-Tahrir Britain's Manifesto).

The problem is not that political populists exploit differences for political advantages, but that students of the humanities (perhaps because of post-modern assumptions that 'truth' is merely a matter of personal preference) have not done the work needed to identify the adverse practical consequences of those cultural assumptions so as to allow disadvantaged communities to understand what they could do to actually reduce their insecurity.

Security from climatic change / unplanned urban change are less appealing to political populists. Big ideas are always political - and result in policy interventions designed to change behaviours. Sustainability requires living differently, as does neo-liberalism / information age / globalization. The thinking behind sustainability has been less well organised than for neoliberalism.

None-the-less there is a fundamental weakness in neoliberalism - namely that the creation of a competitive environment does not in itself ensure the systemic capabilities required to compete successfully - so it is likely to lead to: economic under-performance and social / regional inequality as well as an inability to understand how knowledge actually has the critical effect on economic growth which economists recognise it to have (see Defects in Economic Tactics, Strategy and Outcomes and Review of National Competition Reforms: A Commentary).

The core problem may be that economics involves an apparently inappropriate assumption that it is dealing with systems governed by simple fixed causal relationships because it tries to be a 'real' science like physics.

Intellectual and institutional voids: The reason for this is both institutional and intellectual. Intellectually obstacles include (a) disciplinary divisions. Interdisciplinary endeavours (eg human ecology, ecological economics and environmental history) struggle to find a place just as cross-sectoral agencies struggle in government. Sustainability is fundamentally integrative - and includes embedded assumptions about: scales of time / space; burden of proof; human motivation; validity of knowledge claims; whether rigor requires numbers etc. Sometimes there are so many assumptions that there is a lack of linkage to real world. Thinking about sustainability requires letting go of disciplines - which many find difficult. Different disciples have different rationalities which are all right at times. Adherence to a single rationality results in a form of determinism

Excellent points. This whole section reflects useful progress.

Perhaps the core issue is that complex systems have no single / simple causal relationships - so that attempts to identify such relationships as the basis for rational thinking must fail. Thus there is a need to adopt institutional frameworks which (a) simplify problems so that they can be solved 'rationally' by decentralised partial initiative (in the Western, especially Anglo-American, world) or (b) adopt arational / integrative methods (which has been the option chosen in East Asia).

But it is hard to go beyond this without venturing into unproductive and nihilistic (PM) constructivism. 

The is probably a vital need to venture into (in order to expose) the unproductive world of post-modern constructivism because the practical consequences of attempts to act on the assumption that 'truth' can anything anyone would like it to be are now becoming painfully obvious.

Institutionally, an integrative approach does not fit into a specialised and hierarchical policy / administrative system. Specialisation has advantages - but also makes it hard to deal with sustainability issues. For example: many governments have sought to establish whole-of-government sustainability capability but not found where to locate it, or achieved significant outcomes (b) strategic environmental assessment (to subject high-order policy proposals to intense scrutiny) is often on statute books, but seldom applied (c) strategic regional planning should integrate policies - yet effective strategic planning is rare (d) many countries have established a National Council for Sustainable Development which has had little impact.

Effective strategic planning is not only rare, it is impossible (see Strategy Development in Business and Government).

The central problem is fragmentation (intellectually and institutionally). A focus on single issues / cause-effect and reliance on one institutional form is not suitable for problems characterised by complexity, uncertainty and dynamism.  COAG adopted both ESD and NCP goals. The former had little impact while the latter was persistent, powerful and pervasive. NCP had a strong intellectual foundation and institutional links, while ESD had neither. Those supports had to be developed over time.

The issue may not just be differences in institutional support - but rather whether the proposal involves government acting positively (ie doing something to intervene in a situation which is inherent in ESD) or acting negatively (ie refraining from doing anything which is inherent in neoliberalism). In dealing with complex systems the latter is easier to justify than the former.

However the simplistic assumptions involved in neoliberalism have led NCP into practical failures (see  Review of National Competition Reforms: A Commentary).

Research, education and the city: A new style of scholarship might help deal with institutional / intellectual fragmentation.  It would be: integrative / interdisciplinary; based on systems understanding; matching historical understanding with focus on present and future; rigorous and empirical (ie seeking to know what really is rather than what theory suggests - while also being critical); policy oriented (not tied to fixations of current government); collaborative - held together by importance of task; and accepting of complexity / uncertainty.  Interdisciplinary scholarship does not reduce the importance of disciplinary expertise or pure research. Patrick Troy has practiced such an approach. The biggest barrier is populism.

Policy populism: an inconclusion: populism is often seen as using simplistic ideas (or using less appealing ideas / fears) for political advantage. This has become more professional and mainstreamed in Australia, because of globalization, information availability, higher levels of education and security debates. Policy populism is characterised by: simple policy proposals based on simplified cause / effect relationships which contain some truth; a single policy option; lack of empirical evidence / policy analysis; glossing over implementation issues and complications; focus on outcomes rather than processes; and reliance on audience ignorance / confusion. There are many example: diverting rivers inland; population caps to address environmental problems; simplistic ideas on urban form; assigning property rights for water; or transferring responsibility to commonwealth or local level.

Surely all politics is 'populist' to some extent in that it involves actions that are based on a simplified understanding of reality - and (in democratic societies) policy must also be based on what the community can understand.

Protections against populist tendencies in democratic political systems need to be provided through market economies and professional civil services - so that populist guesses are not the basis for economic change or policy implementation. Unfortunately in Australia the protection against populism that used to be provided by a professional civil service has largely been eliminated (see The Growing Case for a Professional Public Service).

The resulting institutional deficiency is illustrated by the lack of serious debate of the geopolitical issues related the invasion of Iraq (about which a speculation is offered in The Second Failure of Globalization?) or the practical complexities of a republican system of government (see Australia's Republican Conspiracy?). The insubstantial foundation of populist policies seems similar to the effect of (so-called) 'political correctness' - where influential groups make some claim about reality and seek to impose it on the community without any empirical checks or evaluation of the practical implications (eg consider the way in which 'gay rights' have been advocated without any attention to the apparent linkage between homosexual behaviours and child abuse and neglect).

Perhaps the solution to populist politics (and 'political correctness') is higher quality institutional support to the political system - rather than blaming politicians because they don't have adequate raw material to work with (eg see The Upper House Solution: A Commentary).

There is no doubt that populism is increasingly mainstreamed and (apparently) 'professional' - as illustrated by the pursuit of trendy populist ideas about 'reform' by the Goss administration in Queensland which (a) eroded the practical skill based of the public sector and (b) created a highly centralised and politicised system of public administration which became virtually incapable of generating practical proposals and thus now seems chronically crisis prone (see Queensland's Worst Government, and Improving Public Sector Performance in Queensland). 

Policy populism can be of four type (a) solution seen through single organisation /. instrument / issue / method (b) ignorance / distortion (c) lack of knowledge and (d) over-simplification. Simplistic solutions to problems can divert debate. Solutions to this populism can be (a) to identify policy populism - so that big ideas are subject to more scrutiny (b) education in 'environmental civics' so that people are more aware of complexity of problems and able to identify populists. The fact that environmental programs in Australia are weak in terms of policy is a major problem -  and (c) integrative, policy oriented, empirical and critical scholarship as previously mentioned

The Vulnerability of Australian Cities - Patrick Troy (Centre for Resource and Environmental Studies, ANU)

People live in cities for a reason - initially for security. Over time this was reversed into fear and hostility. The current equivalent of walled cities is gated communities - a form of which (involving walls in minds) accounted for the Cronulla riots. Vulnerability involves the intersection of the possible of unity and hostility. Australian cities were sited by administrative fiat - and security was one consideration in location / layouts. People also come together in cities to concentrate labour, commerce and social / cultural exchange.  Cities have grown for various reasons: technological advantage; transport; influence of powerful groups. Most national wealth is created in cities, and national culture is best displayed there. Cities are where the greatest environmental stresses exist - so that they both symbolise security and its reverse. Cities are: the most intensely shaped landscapes; built as statements of power / vision - with many random elements; systems (with flow / energy transformation); and failures in terms of efficiency, distribution and sustainability.

Surely pre-urban human societies were also unsustainable - eg where efficient hunters drove species to extinction or were forced by population pressure to develop more intensive food production at the time of the agrarian revolution.

Has not all human history involved periodic major transformations where unsustainability was overcome by the increasingly intense usage of energy and technical knowledge? 

Current situation: Rapid population growth and urbanisation has been a worldwide phenomenon. Operations of corporations have been perfected to be beyond normal human familiarity

There is no doubt that many human organisations require non-intuitive behaviours - as this is implicit in a situation where productivity is now largely a product of specialised knowledge. However they have not been 'perfected', and massive scope for improvement remains.

Increased size has been accompanied by increased concentration - and cities are now controlled (in terms of provision of, access to, services) by a few corporations.

The corporations who supply services globally are constantly subject to the vagaries of consumer demand and technological change, and are thus in constant flux (ie few corporations survive more than a few decades).

Thus it seems unrealistic to suggest that the ultimate source of 'control' over cities lies with a few corporations. 

Benefits have come but have been offset by less choice, loss of community connection and loss of diversity. Central city interests (eg government, legal / cultural institutions, property owners / commerce) have shaped growth / transport to their advantage. City centralisation is not the result of poor planning, but of a political process which favours powerful interests.

As noted above, a far greater problem seems to be the virtual absence of practical alternative proposals.

Most cities face problems (eg related to water / waste / energy supply / pollution / gridlock / poor public transport / polarisation - segregation that risks social instability / loss of community - identity / limited job prospects / reduced employment security / reduced public safety / and less public open space / less production of own food). Many have fled to sea / tree change. These pressure indicate that cities are increasingly vulnerable.

Origins of Vulnerability: There are three sources of vulnerability: acts of God; external / contextual factors; and local factors.

Acts of God: Four types can be identified: (a) earthquakes (which are an infrequent risk, and can be guarded against to some extent. Underground services are at particular risk); (b) high winds (a more serious vulnerability - especially in north coastal regions. Building design can guard against this, though climate change is increasing risks); (c) floods (which can be a risk factor due to building in inappropriate locations. They can be moderated by dams, but increased by human agency): and (d) droughts (a risk that seems to be increasing, so recycling needs to be considered).

External / Contextual factors: Flood risk is increased by external factors. Global greenhouse release can increase local vulnerability in ways that can't be controlled locally. Globalization of industry and privatisation of infrastructure can also increase vulnerability. Globalization has led to a race to the bottom, and facilities have been relocated to gain advantage. Companies exploit government concerns to maintain their employment base to gain subsidies

Can one have a 'race to bottom', when global product has been increasing faster than previously and hundreds of millions world-wide have been lifted out of crushing poverty?

Economic vulnerability comes to those who lack economic flexibility / well-developed regional economies. Those who are worse off are those who do not participate effectively in the global economy, so perhaps the way to overcome their disadvantages is to improve such peoples' ability to participate (providing this does not generate unsustainable environmental / social consequences). Way in which this might be achieved were suggested in a book published in 1993 (which dealt with both economic and community development), while a practical process to give effect to this is speculated in Developing a Regional Industry Cluster.

Surely governments who provide subsidies to protect their employment base (rather than developing the dynamic economic capability of their regions to generate highly productive new employment opportunities) are feeble-minded.

Cities' employment bases can be eroded by decisions made elsewhere. Privatisation of electricity supplies has led to loss of capacity minimize risks of failures - a problem which has adversely affected Adelaide. Governments also can't force operators to meet environmental standards.

Why not?

Communities are frustrated in other ways in reducing vulnerability by private property rights (eg by disputes over coercion versus self-regulation that results in inaction) As cities deregulate / privatise services - they become vulnerable to vagaries of the finance / management of those services (eg as illustrated by sale of Snowy Mountains scheme where sole goal will be to profitably use water to generate electricity and environmental management goals will be neglected).

Introducing private property rights into functions that suffer serious market failures or involve large public policy considerations certainly can lead to difficulties in dealing with that function. Some speculations about the issues involved are presented in Second Best Alternatives.

Local factors: The most obvious potential vulnerability lies is failure of some particular service (eg Longford gas plant; sudden failure of electricity supplies; contamination in Sydney's water supply; floods due to blocked drains; traffic jams). Except for electricity Australia's cities are too dispersed to reduce vulnerability by interlinking services. There is often dependence on a single supplier - and risks have been increased by privatisation.

Systems that import all their energy, food, water and resources and export all wastes are unsustainable. Cities are like this.

This point seems simplistic. All living organisms import all their energy, food, water and resources and export all their wastes. That it how ecological systems work, and there is no reason to believe that living organisms (which seem to have existed for several billion years) are unsustainable in any meaningful sense.

Cities used to provide most of fruit, salad and vegetables their residents consumed - and this contributed to high standards of health of Australians in late 19th and early 20th centuries (as shown by Patrick Mullins). Now state planning and development policies make this impossible, and production depends on access to cheap energy - while food supply to population becomes more vulnerable. despite political assurances, planning and developmental processes have increased the vulnerability of cities. Scientists have often warned about increased vulnerability from climate change. Termites are also a risk for which short term gains have potential long term costs (because treated timbers have short lives; and concrete slabs can be penetrated).

One climate change issue that could have immense practical implications concerns the potential for rising sea levels - where there appears to be belated recognition that increases could be much greater than had previously suggested (eg 4-6m [1]). At some time urban and transport planners will need to confront the question of how much (if any) allowance should be made for this in locating future urban development, transport routes and other infrastructure.

Behavioural factors: Responses to problems can involve a kind of collective panic, which gives rise to populism. Also there can be a fatalism about accepting problems because it is believed that nothing can be done.

Response to vulnerability: resilience may partly explain slow responses to vulnerability, but path dependence is more important especially in terms of (a) distribution of wealth and power - where those having it act to protect it even if this increases community vulnerability (b) institutional structures (c) political system (which has become democratic authoritarianism) and (d) inherited physical structures. These create distance between governed and governors.

As suggested above, a far more serious obstacle to responses may involve the lack of organised capability to identify practical options for responding.

What do we do? Not all vulnerabilities are of urban origin - some may relate to social relations. Cities are vulnerable - and this raises issues of access, equity, regulation, protection of values / resources. There is a need for a planning system which takes these issues seriously which recognises legitimate functions of government, and that planning must set boundaries within which market operates. Vulnerability can only be reduced by making cities ecologically sustainable.

Some comments on the need to identify and respect the legitimate functions of government are included in Commentary on The Role of Government in Queensland.

Urban Vulnerability Other Sources of Urban Vulnerability

The papers presented at the Urban Vulnerability symposium suggested numerous sources of vulnerability such as those related to:

  • natural disasters (earthquakes, wind, floods, droughts); natural phenomena; and extreme weather;
  • uncertain environmental sustainability; climate change; pollution; 'peak oil'; worsening food quality; and termites;
  • inadequate services (eg water, transport, energy supples; drainage, public housing, and public open space);
  • economic inequality; financial turbulence; limited job prospects; reduced employment security; and housing affordability;
  • personal insecurity; others' insecurity; crime; terrorism;  hostility; and reduced public safety;
  • reduced choices; lack of diversity; weakened community connections; polarisation / segregation that risks social instability; and loss of community / identity;
  • inadequate institutions and trends such as: globalization / neoliberalism; commodification of land; negative gearing of property investment; dominance of the interests of capital;  and privatisation.

Other sources of vulnerability have been suggested in the comments above, namely:

  • fundamental challenges to the effectiveness of Australia's traditional system of government. As suggested in Australia's Governance Crisis, difficulties can be identified, for example, in relation to:
    • the effect of increased complexity;
    • politically-driven erosion of the knowledge and skill base of the public sector;
    • popular support for politicisation of the head of state, which would be incompatible with representative government;
    • erosion of the ethical basis of moral interpersonal relationships which are vital for a legal and governance system that assumes individual liberty - and consequent pressure to constrain individual liberty; and
    • the buck, passing and fragmentation that result from Australia's huge federal fiscal imbalances and render public administration inefficient.
  • an emphasis on cost cutting in the public sphere as the main focus for overcoming economic productivity deficiencies - arguably due to a lack of community pressure for better productivity performance by business;
  • defective machinery for the planning and delivery of infrastructure - which must be considered in relation to perceived vulnerabilities related to service deficiencies;
  • dysfunctional cultural assumptions, and the failure by students of the humanities to identify the practical consequences of those assumptions;
  • widespread practical problems that have resulted from attempts to apply post-modern assumptions that 'truth' / reality can be anything anyone wants it to be;
  • a lack of institutional capability to deal with emerging challenges.

Vulnerability also appears to arise from:

  • the degenerative diseases (eg cardio-vascular diseases, cancer, diabetes)  that are the cause of most deaths and huge public / private spending on health services. This situation is almost too obvious to mention, yet deserves attention because it seems to involve 'diseases of civilization' to which not all populations are as heavily exposed as Australians are. Arguably this source of vulnerability could be reduced by re-engineering of cities to (a) bring food production closer to consumers in time and space so as to boost its nutritional quality and (b) reduce the risks associated with sedentary lifestyles (see Commentary on Directions for Health Reform in Australia  which seeks to place this issue in context of others considerations in reforming Australia's health system);
  • the lack of an effective global governance framework for a globalized economy. In particular: the United Nations is ineffectual; global financial institutions (eg IMF, World Bank) tend to be biased towards US interests; there is no international agreement about principles on which a more effective global order could be created; and many states are failing creating violent environments which adversely affect others (see The Second Failure of Globalization?). The 'failed state' phenomenon is a particular source of vulnerability for Australians because they are surrounded by a (so called) 'arc of instability', while the US's desperate (and often apparently misguided) efforts to develop unilateral solutions to the world's problems are largely the result of the lack of any effective global governance machinery;
  • financial imbalances which put continued global economic growth at risk (see Structural Incompatibility puts Global Growth at Risk). The source of the problem seems to lie in the export-driven / high-savings economic development strategies that have dominated in East Asia which potentially create a severely-deflationary demand deficit in the global economy;
  • increasingly dysfunctional interpersonal relationships that apparently result from loss of traditional 'put others first' ethical ideals and generate social dysfunctions (eg as reflected most significantly in family breakdown, and the associated child abuse);
  • pressures for substantial and difficult economic change (see Queensland's Economic Strategy for an analysis that has national parallels). The latter refers to pressures for change such as: dependence on a global economic boom that must be unsustainable due to its inbuilt financial imbalances; a productivity slowdown which a new COAG reform agenda seems unlikely to correct; increasingly intense competitive pressures; poor support systems for innovation that are critical to profiting from change;  and heavy economic and fiscal reliance on commodity exports that have inherent boom / bust characteristics;
  • exposure to rising East Asian powers using methods for strategy and exerting influence that are quite different to those of Western societies, and that can have a corrosive influence if not recognised.