Perth could become a model for 21st-century urban planning

What is the future of Australia’s wealthiest state? The Conversation, in conjunction with Griffith REVIEW and Curtin University, is publishing a series of articles exploring the unique issues facing Western Australia.

Perth-SkylinePerth is not high in the national consciousness, although its growth has sparked some interest.

The latest Australian Bureau of Statistics projections about its population growth are remarkable – three million by the early 2020s, passing Brisbane later that decade, five million by 2050, bigger than Sydney now: the prospect of becoming Australia’s second “global city” megalopolis beckons.

It is not hard to deconstruct these projections, and they may be overstated. Perth has always grown in fits and starts depending on the mining industry. But in-between the spurts it continues to grow, because people find interesting things to do and a good place to live. So Perth will keep growing at a fair clip.

On The Gruen Transfer a few years ago, the ABC’s chosen marketing gurus were asked to sell the idea of a “bogan-proof fence stopping Western Australians from crossing to the east”.

I was amazed by how seriously they took it.

The view from across the Nullarbor is that Perth is a “Wild West” town with few of the features of a cultivated and civilised society. There is some truth in this, as our treatment of the Noongar would indicate, and we have little of the iconic architecture or memorable townscapes of the European ideal.

But this is a city with a very strong civil society, especially in environment and planning. I study cities around the world and find that idealism about environment and planning is the basis of a strong city, essential to any potentially sustainable future.

From my professional point of view, I know that self-satisfied cities are in trouble. The best are full of people who are dissatisfied with what their cities are doing about the future, and who set up organisations to change this.

Perth is much more than a relic of the Wild West; its civic sensibilities are strong and it is setting the pace towards building a sustainable future. The American–Pacific states threw off their Wild West past to become the epicentre of sustainability, innovation and cool, confounding preconceptions. Perhaps the analogy can be applied here.

Maybe the better challenge for The Gruen Transfer would be to sell the sustainability lessons that have been learned in the Indian Ocean state.

The “Wild West” should not care for its environment – it should just exploit its forests. But that is not our long-term or recent history.

People noticed the amazing wildflowers very early on, and now we know that the south-west corner of Australia is one of the world’s biodiversity hot spots.

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