Occupying a seemingly invisible position between the major conurbations and rural Australia are four or five million urban dwellers – about 20% of the national population – living in several dozen mid-sized and smaller cities that form a critical element of Australia’s settlement network. These are urban citizens, not straw-chewing country folk, participating in urbane activities with an intensity that may eclipse many of their suburban cousins. Their cities each have a rich history, an evolved complexity and individual character that contribute to distinctiveness and engender a strong sense of identity.
This group of cities is also a vibrant contributor to urban change, with many growing at rates exceeding the major capitals. Inward migration is attracted by a combination of lifestyle choices, proximity to recreational or natural features (sea, snow or bush), housing affordability, and a quest for more intimate participation in community activities. In turn, this is being reflected through increasingly sophisticated, cosmopolitan character that, with increasingly flexible work modes, is attractive to footloose creative enterprises and micro-businesses.
A workshop conducted at LaTrobe University Bendigo last September attracted a spectrum of participants from cities, government agencies and universities around Australia and New Zealand to discuss the issues, opportunities and challenges facing ‘mid-sized’ cities. It was concluded that these cities are under-recognised in debate, research and policy formulation, with existing information limited, scattered and lacking a clear focus. Poor recognition is compounded by absence of a clear, agreed term. For now ‘regional cities’ seems to be the best available, despite risking confusion with the wider ‘regional and rural’ agenda which, while important, is largely distinct from addressing the urban aspects of cities beyond the dominant metroplexes. To be commensurate with their contribution and potential, a significant lift in information resources, research capacity and cross-sectoral communications is required.
Regrettably, the Our Cities paper adopts an arbitrary statistical unit population threshold (rather than function and identity) to include some mid-sized cities and urban clusters in its discussion while excluding many others. Again a significant proportion of Australia’s urban scene remains largely invisible during policy formulation.
Proposed Centre for Regional Cities A group of interested practitioners spanning various professions, local and state government, business and academia is pursuing establishment of a Centre for Regional Cities. This will provide a platform for trans-disciplinary and crosssector discussion, information interchange, experience-sharing of precedents and initiatives (national and global), and a clearing house for sharing skills and expertise. This can help bridge the fragmented decisionmaking and communication blockages that frequently constrain or dilute transition toward preferred futures.
Initially concentrating on Victoria – reflecting the new State government’s appointment of a Minister for Regional Cities – this initiative will pursue a national perspective and may encompass New Zealand, whilst drawing on best practice globally. Persons and organisations interested in contributing to this initiative can contact [email protected]
Inspiration for the potential of mid-sized cities comes from the Swedish city of Malmö, a former ship-building town the size of Wollongong that now ranks in the world’s top ten cities for creativity and for sustainability. Among Australia’s mid-sized cities, there are several potential contenders to emulate this achievement.