The future of water in Australasia –
Cities and demographics

By Dr. Tim Williams

CEO, Committee for Sydney

People everywhere are talking about cities and their future. That’s because people everywhere are heading for cities because that’s where the jobs, desired lifestyle and opportunities are to be found. Most of the world’s population already live in cities and within a generation as many as 70% of the global population will be urban. The challenges for governments and utility providers of this dramatic growth scenario are clearly significant. Great improvements will be vital in city planning, management, coordination and governance and in the provision of strategically enabling infrastructure, if we are to manage urban growth sustainably.

Although preparing for the city of the future does mean planning for the right public transport investment and ensuring growing communities have access to schools, parks and other amenities, few things are more important than how massively expanded city populations will access the water resources needed. This is clearly critical in the context of a place such as Australia whose supplies of potable water for its cities are at best uncertain and sometimes in very short supply due to extremes of climate. Many parts of the country today are for example experiencing drought conditions and for some areas this drought is continuous with the last one.

It is against this backdrop that the population of Australian cities is set to almost double by 2055. That growth makes the discussion in Australia not just about more efficient use of water through smart technology and metering – though both vital – but about something bigger and even more fundamental. That is, the very way in which our cities are to develop. Here we are having a discussion – in which key providers such as Sydney Water are taking a lead – about how best to grow our cities given the huge growth ahead in demand for water. And that means a discussion not just about smart metering but smart cities.

Specifically and from an Australian perspective, controversially, this means that water providers are taking positions on the key structural debate facing all our cities: shall we grow by sprawling ever outwards at low suburban density and via car dependency or shall we take the opposite path of building a more compact city using a higher density mode on transit oriented development and better land-use and transport integration. That is: shall we go up or out?

Research has shown how much more expensive it is for the public sector and utility providers to service a dispersed low density suburbia as compared with a more agglomerated settlement. Some estimates put the cost of providing public services and resources to the former as many times that of the latter. So it is not surprising that we are seeing some utility providers and state governments in Australia making the case for a change in the default model of city development away from sprawl.

The new NSW Government Metro strategy effectively calls a halt to that model. Indeed, most new housing development in Sydney is in-fill and not Greenfield and mostly multi-unit apartments and not separate homes. However, policy contradictions remain as big city motorways are still being delivered in Sydney though they are indeed the main mechanism of the sprawling city and land for residential development is still being released at the edge of our cities: contradictions which show up in higher costs to service providers and for citizens.

The good news? Those of us who care about the liveability and productivity of our cities and who are aware of the evidence that they are best served by the more compact city model have found we have key allies in the water providers who know what works, and what doesn’t, at the ground level. Even more excitingly, our new Prime Minister has made the liveability and productivity of our cities a national priority. Aussie cities may never be the same again: given that business as usual cannot deliver a successful Sydney or Melbourne at twice their current population, that’s good news.

Biography – Dr. Tim Williams

Dr Tim Williams is CEO of the Committee for Sydney, ‘an increasingly influential policy forum’.  He is also a part-time Principal with global consultancy Arup where he has focused on developing digital strategies for governments and councils. His work for the Committee for Sydney focuses on the big city issues in policy-making for Sydney. Before coming to Australia, Tim was recognised as one of the UK’s thought-leaders in urban regeneration and economic development for his role in developing East London as CEO of the Thames Gateway London Partnership, where he helped secure the Olympics for Stratford. He has also served as a special advisor on urban development, governance, city strategy and planning to 5 successive UK cabinet ministers, and to the Mayor of London. He was a founding associate member of Tony Blair’s Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit and was MD of Navigant Consulting’s public services team in London.