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Lessons Adelaide can learn from London

04 September 2014

Like many before me I’ve made the pilgrimage to the ‘motherland’ in search of adventure and career opportunities. London’s bright lights have drawn me away from my home in Adelaide, but why, I hear you asking.

Adelaide; world's most liveable city?

Despite a population just shy of 1.3 million Adelaide is home to worldScreen -Shot -2013-10-23-at -5.58.33-PM-720x 270 class sporting events (Tour Down Under), wine (Penfolds) and cultural attractions (Adelaide Fringe Festival - the largest of its kind in the southern hemisphere and second only to Edinburgh’s). Nestled between the sandy coastline to the west and hills to the east, Adelaide regularly ranks amongst the world’s most liveable cities and is considered to have some of the best town planning in Australia.

It has a proud history of town planning thanks to Light’s Vision. Colonel William Light, after settling on the site that was to become present day Adelaide, lay out the city by dividing it into North Adelaide (1.4 km²) and Adelaide (9 km²), located north and south of the River Torrens, respectively. He enclosed it in 9 km² of Park Lands for recreation, public use and the provision of open space. The city is laid out in a distinctive grid pattern centered on Victoria Square with four additional squares, one in each quadrant.

Fast forward to 2014, nearly 180 years after the states formation, a once in a generation investment in the heart of the city is unfolding. This 696505-adelaide -ovalincludes the first stage of a AU$24m upgrade to Victoria Square and a AU$25m upgrade to Rundle Mall - Adelaide’s only and Australia’s first outside pedestrian shopping mall. In addition to investment in a new AU$1.8b hospital, a AU$200m national world-class medical research facility (the South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute, affectionately known as the ‘cheese grater’) and the AU$535m upgrade to Adelaide Oval (right). Not to mention the myriad of trendy small bars popping up in the city’s laneways thanks to the government relaxing the liquor licencing laws.         

Notwithstanding the strong benefits that are associated with such investment, there are two problems, firstly it is entirely public sector investment and second the city now faces an investment cliff as projects come to completion over the next couple of years.  This is set against an economic backdrop of slow economic growth over the past decade with recent blows including the withdrawal of BHP’s AU$20b Olympic Dam uranium mine expansion to the north of the city and the planned closure of General Motors’ Holden car manufacturing facility in Adelaide’s north. Both represent the loss of thousands of jobs and a huge blow to the economic bottom line and the city’s confidence.

What does all of this mean for planning in Adelaide? As a small city where development has traditionally been slow, the community is conservative The -30-year -plan- reflected by tepid local governments, typified by the infamous ‘Le Cornu’ site in North Adelaide where there has been twenty development approvals over 25 years yet the site remains empty, and strong  resistance to change. The State Government’s most recent long term vision for planning in the city – the much hyped 30 Year Plan for Greater Adelaide, released in 2010 - was met with resistance from the public for its proposed density and height increases to accommodate a growing population. The last 4 years show it has failed to stem urban sprawl on greenfield sites, particularly notable in Mount Barker to the east, home to a mixture of agriculture and native forest and Virginia to the north, the heart of Adelaide’s horticulture industry.

What can Adelaide learn from London?

So what have I learnt, in my short time in London, that I could take back and apply at home? There is much Adelaide, particularly its residents, can learn from a city like London. A strong, integrated public transport network makes getting around the city quick and easy without the use of a car. That said, I can hear Londoners moaning about the Tube but its all relative. Higher density living, particularly near public transport, does not mean living in a shoebox but convenience and a more cosmopolitan lifestyle - never mind the room I saw for rent last week, literally the size of a single bed mattress. 

If Adelaideans were more worldly in their perspective they could build on Adelaide’s history of being a well planned city to accommodate new residents in vibrant higher density, well connected communities, without compromising prime peri-urban agricultural land or remnant native vegetation. We must learn from London’s bold, forward looking attitude and embrace reform if we are to maintain Adelaide’s place as one of the world’s most liveable cities in the future.

Adelaide born and bred, Josh Rule gained qualifications in town planning from the University of Adelaide and then spent three years working in federal politics before moving to London in June 2014. He is the RTPI’s new Policy and Networks Adviser.