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Are we building a city of inequality?

Catherine Carter

Urban optimists – and I put myself in this category – laud the rise of cities as the great engines of innovation and economic opportunity.

But a new book from urban theorist Richard Florida, The New Urban Crisis, finds the most innovative and creative cities often have the highest levels of social and economic inequality.

Florida is the author of the 2002 tome, The Rise of the Creative Class, which elevated the importance of knowledge workers and tech-savvy millennials in the eyes of policy makers and planners the world over.

Florida’s theory, one espoused by other urbanists such as Edward Glaeser in The Triumph of the City, was that bringing the tech-savvy and talented minds together in clusters of innovation is the secret to the long-term success and prosperity of the world’s cities.

But today the professor at the University of Toronto acknowledges that hitching our wagon to the creative class has come at a cost.

For starters, Florida says the “winner takes all” mentality has overrun many of our cities. Just as Taylor Swift and Ed Sheeran dominate the music charts, so too some cities take the lion’s share of high-value innovative activity, such as technology companies and entrepreneurial start-ups. This is why the fifty largest metropolitan areas across the globe are home to just seven percent of the world’s total population, but produce 40 percent of global economic activity.

Within these superstar cities, a crisis of “plutocratisation” is emerging, where the super-rich snap up trophy houses while the musicians, artists and other creative types, not to mention cleaners, hospital orderlies and baristas, are pushed further out to the city fringes.

We are seeing this happen in Sydney, as even those workers on above average wages fear they’ll never get their foot on the property ladder. When teachers, nurses and police officers can no longer live in a city, it’s in trouble.

While Florida argues that “superstar cities” like New York and London are absorbing more than their fair share of industry, talent and wealth, there is a similarly alarming story for us in Canberra. And that story is found in the widening gap between the haves and have-nots.

“As a city gets bigger, denser, more productive and more economically successful, inequality rises. In a way, the more successful a city or metro area becomes, the more unequal it becomes, and that is quite challenging,” he says.

Florida says the solution is to invest in services and opportunities for working class people – from affordable rental housing to better public transport.

What can we do about this in Canberra?

Affordable housing is an obvious one. Report after report now confirms that average incomes are unable to keep pace with average home prices in our cities.

According to a report released by PowerHousing Australia and CoreLogic in June, there were more $1 million houses sold in Canberra over the last year than houses below $400,000. As Canberra’s urban renewal agenda ramps up and old public housing stock makes way for new development, we need to make sure no one is left behind.

Investment in public transport is equally important. We know poor access to public transport exacerbates social isolation and economic inequality. Projects like the Canberra light rail can, if done well, provide people with access to jobs and opportunities, while also encouraging clustering of like-minded industries and spurring on smart density.

We also need to reject the “winner takes all mentality” (which Florida says is an evolution of NIMBYism) which allows those firmly established in a city to dictate the terms at which it lets others in. NIMBYism now erupts in opposition to new development, regardless of the long-term benefits. “Restricting housing construction does not just hurt developers—it makes housing less affordable for everyone,” Florida says.

Ultimately, we need to tackle rising inequality head on by investing in our people and our places.

While our future is intertwined with the innovation economy, we need to make sure that Canberra is a city of opportunity for everyone.

Feature image: Martin Ollman

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Catherine Carter

A lover of books and beauty, a seasoned traveller and a creative thinker, Catherine is passionate about Canberra. Head of the Property Council of Australia’s Canberra office for more than a decade, Catherine now heads up Indigo Consulting Australia where she provides specialist business and communication advisory services with a focus on urban environments, new forms of collaboration, community building and diversity. Catherine was the recipient of the Telstra Business Women’s ACT Community and Government Award in 2010, and the National Association of Women in Construction Crystal Vision Award in 2017. More about the Author

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