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The Political Economy of the Compact City: the Story from Perth

Posted by on April 27th, 2016 · Cities, Government, Housing supply, Planning reform, Transport

Perth CBD from Mill Point [By JJ Harrison (, CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons]

After enjoying great economic prosperity during the mining boom, Perth now finds itself grappling with the challenges of pursuing a compact city agenda in a more financially precarious era.  The effects of this new era are already emerging; for example, while the high-profile Elizabeth Quay waterfront redevelopment opened recently, some of its associated private development projects have encountered delays. As Sydney and other major Australian cities will attest, overcoming such economic challenges to successfully pursue a compact city agenda is no easy task.

Yet Perth does have a distinct advantage over most Australian cities in this respect, thanks to its long-standing centralised planning model. The details of this distinctive planning culture are examined in a new City Futures Working Paper by Dr Raymond Bunker and Dr Laurence Troy. Entitled The changing political economy of the compact city and higher density urban renewal in Perth, the paper offers a detailed examination of the policies and politics shaping redevelopment efforts in Perth in the 21st century. It is the second such working paper to provide a long-term perspective on Australian compact city policy, following the paper on Sydney published in November 2015.

The history of urban renewal in Perth exhibits both familiar and unusual qualities. On the one hand, Perth’s planning efforts have benefited from the continuity of being driven by a centralised planning authority since the 1960s. In keeping with the growing complexity of metropolitan planning tasks, this authority has expanded its role over the years, and has received substantial bipartisan support. This has allowed it to avoid some of the dislocation experienced in other states caused by the government’s appropriation of metropolitan strategies as political statements.

On the other hand, Dr Bunker and Dr Troy argue that the same key elements of neoliberal urban governance have informed compact city policy in Perth as in other Australian cities, namely “a shift in focus from use value to exchange value in renewal projects, enhancements to the executive power of state governments, and greater interaction by governments with powerful lobbying groups and corporations.” To allow a comparison with Sydney, the paper adopts the same structure for examining the key factors that contribute to and demonstrate these outcomes, including:

  • the changing focus of Perth’s metropolitan strategies, from 2004 to 2015;
  • recent directions in infrastructure policy and funding;
  • the emergence of public development corporations; and
  • the use and reform of the planning system.

Through this analysis, the paper concludes that:

“[Perth’s] isolation and relatively small and cohesive bureaucracy has allowed it to address the challenges associated with the transition towards a more compact city in ways that reflect [a] distinctive (if not unique) planning culture…[this means] an adequate system of ‘monitor and manage’ in relation to short, medium and long-term aspirations is being put in place.”

This working paper has been produced as part of an ARC Discovery Project entitled Planning in a Market Economy: The Case of the Compact City, being undertaken by Bill Randolph, Simon Pinnegar, Hazel Easthope, Laurence Troy and Laura Crommelin. Together with the Sydney piece, these policy papers lay the groundwork for the project’s innovative conceptual and methodological analysis of the nature and extent of higher density urban renewal in these two cities. This analysis will include mapping of recent high density developments against housing targets and projections; an examination of the full life-cycle of high density developments in key case study areas, from planning to development to sale; and a qualitative exploration of the motivations and experiences of those involved in creating the current policy context. The project is due for completion in late 2016; check back regularly for further updates.

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