On 25 April 2024, the Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities (LKYCIC) hosted Professor Stephen Hamnett for a public lecture titled “Planning for Australian Cities: Nation Urban Policies and Future Challenges”. Professor Hamnett is Emeritus Professor of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of South Australia. The lecture outlined the contemporary challenges Australian cities face post-pandemic and reviewed the prospects for developing a national urban policy for Australia.

Prof Hamnett shared an outline of the state of Australian cities in 2024, and highlighted that Australia lacks a coherent national strategy to guide the growth of its cities. He further shared his opinions on how this lack of coordination, as well as a flawed governance system, have resulted in the absence of an integrated approach to addressing the pressing concerns of young Australians on topics such as housing and climate change.

The migration pattern of Australians from the suburbs back into cities in search of job opportunities, igniting a shift in the spatial distribution of various demographics in Australian cities was also discussed. More importantly, however, his argument focuses on the role of neoliberalism as a driving force behind deepening housing inequality and lacklustre climate action. He elaborated on how market-based solutions and the outsourcing of essential services, which had once been considered public, to private parties has led to unhealthy patterns of development which deepen inequalities. Australians face intergenerational inequality with regards to homeownership, with a steady decline in homeownership rates amongst 25- to 34-year-olds over the past three decades. Private housing development lobbying and neoliberal policies which have given preferences to subsidies for private rental housing continue to exacerbate the issue.

Prof Hamnett also discussed the environmental challenges and its implications on planning in Australia. Among the myriad of issues, increased drought and declining agricultural production constitute the most pressing concerns. Housing is also related in that many Australians find it difficult to afford property insurance as insurance premiums have risen dramatically to allow companies to afford pay-outs for increasing flood events. Elevated household energy consumption adds to emissions issues, and thereby climate change-related disasters, as cost-cutting measures in housing construction have resulted in homes with poor insulation. Further, he discussed the impact of lax regulations on fuel emission standards on the environmental challenges unequally faced by regions in Australia. In short, an integrated and coherent national urban policy has been long overdue for Australia.

Notwithstanding the challenges, Professor Hamnett expressed hope in future generations as observed in the change of voting patterns at the 2022 National Elections whereby younger voters, Greens and Independents now form a larger proportion of the electorate. Learning from the pandemic, he closed the lecture with a reflection on an observation from the Covid crisis – that we are actually capable of making radical changes when we have to. It is fundamentally a matter of choice.