Against decentralising: why crowded is good

Note: This post was original published on 6 July 2015; I’ve updated it several times because both parties keep revisiting a decentralisation agenda.

Once again we’re hearing the argument that Australia would be a much better place if only we could actively “decentralise” population. The argument is we should encourage people out of our big cities – notably Sydney and Melbourne – and into smaller cities, like Wollongong and Ballarat. One recent claim comes from the Liberal Party’s Tim Smith, the member for Kew and Victorian Shadow Parliamentary Secretary to the Leader (Population Policy and Housing Affordability). In an article in The Australian, he argues:

Opposition Leader Matthew Guy’s vision is to decentralise Victoria and develop its regional cities, to take the pressure off Melbourne and grow country Victoria.

The state desperately needs a government that is committed to decreasing the percentage of newcomers who make their home in Melbourne. Our state needs a government that will ­engage in a mature debate about how to incentivise newcomers to move to country Victoria, or give them the confidence that if they move to a regional centre they can commute to Melbourne with reliability and ease …

… An effective decentralisation agenda is key to improving capital city liveability and the economic wellbeing of the regions.

In pursuit of this, various governments over the years have tried to move departments out to regional cities. Smith implies that Labor doesn’t want decentralisation, but the evidence suggests Labor is just as keen on the idea as Smith is. The Victorian government under John Brumby even ran an advertising campaign in Melbourne encouraging people to move out and resettle in regional Victoria.

This sort of argument has often been based on the idea that these regional areas have lots of existing infrastructure that we can exploit at little cost. It has been encouraged by talk of the “Death of Distance” and “The Flat World” – the idea that globalisation and modern telecommunications are making location obsolete, so you might as well live in the countryside. It’s particularly popular wherever there are plenty of marginal regional electorates.

And this argument seem to be spreading. So here’s the case against spending government resources to actively encourage decentralisation.

The first argument against encouraging decentralisation is that it is essentially a policy to encourage people to live where they don’t want to live. People are capable of figuring out where they want to live, and of moving when things don’t suit them. At least for most people, the reasons for living in the city and the country aren’t hidden; they’re well-known. Let people vote with their feet, and don’t rig the poll.

A second argument, advanced in earlier eras is that we need to fill the countryside with people in order to defend it from invasion. This view is now largely obsolete, although I suspect it is still in the backs of the minds of some older Australians.

A third argument is that regional infrastructure is not necessarily up to the job of coping with strong growth after all. A couple of years ago I read the CEO of the Committee for Gippsland arguing in the Herald-Sun that a coming influx of residents to rural Victoria meant we need to spend more on regional infrastructure. This is in part a bait-and-switch: first we need decentralisation to exploit unused infrastructure, then we need more infrastructure to cope with the new population.

And the fourth and strongest argument against active decentralisation policies is that big, dense cities are good for innovation and economic growth and personal growth too, and that those benefits should be embraced rather than resisted. Crowding people into cities has literally built our civilisation. We shouldn’t start trying to fight the process without good reason. We should be finding ways to support it.

Australia’s city-dwellers have a long tradition of not criticising country life. It seems almost rude to point out that living in big cities is, in very many ways and for the vast majority of people, better than living in towns or the bush. Big cities benefit from enormous economies of scale and scope. Small towns struggle to get doctors; big cities have specialists who will be able to recognise your specific type of epileptic attack. A gay Chinese 17-year-old in a small town is likely horribly alone; put them in a city and they’ll find their subculture. An industrial designer in Roma has to rely on social media for conversation about widget design; in Prahan they can go down the pub with half-a-dozen colleagues and talk more and more wildly about widgets as the evening grows late.

The growth of cities is no accident. They represent a lot of people voting with their feet.

Recent years have brought a flood of new US books in praise of cities. Ed Glaeser is probably the world’s leading urban economist, and his 2011 book Triumph of the City made the argument for cities. “There is a near-perfect correlation between urbanization and prosperity across nations,” he wrote. “On average, as the share of a country’s population that is urban rises by 10 percent, the country’s per capita output increases by 30 percent … Across countries, reported life satisfaction rises with the share of the population that lives in cities, even when controlling for the countries’ income and education.”

Also in 2011, The Economist’s Ryan Avent published The Gated City. And in 2012 Berkeley economics professor Enrico Moretti, a human capital specialist, published The New Geography of Jobs (available at Amazon), buttressing the case for cities. Moretti’s work includes an NBER working paper called Human Capital Externalities in Cities – download it from the NBER or read a summary at CNN.

Enrico Moretti’s argument is that by jamming smart people together, cities produce ideas and boost productivity. Think Florence in the fifteenth century, London almost anytime in the past 600 years, but also Silicon Valley and San Francisco in California. The California example is the strangest: a huge slice of the people who are supposed to making distance obsolete live and work within 100 kilometres of each other. And that’s despite the fact that this clustering has made homes wildly expensive.

The argument is less common in Australian. The Grattan Institute has done some work on cities as engines of prosperity. And in 2006, the Australian economist Glenn Withers published a CEDA paper, Can Distance Be Defeated?, in which he made essentially the same argument as Moretti. Withers referred in particular to the work of Frank Levy and Richard Murnane, who were among the pioneers of the idea that the high-level knowledge that fuelled innovation was tacit and serendipitous and hence was “conveyed in the direct personal interaction that is a function of co-location”.

Or to put it another way, some of us get our best ideas down the pub with our mates.

Since I wrote the first version of this post in 2015, an empirical study has also popped up – The Optimal Distribution of Population across Cities, an NBER paper by David Albouy, Kristian Behrens, Frédéric Robert-Nicoud and Nathan Seegert. The authors are blessedly modest about their ability to calculate the right size for cities. But they do say that their modelling suggests cities “may well be too numerous and underpopulated for a wide range of plausible parameter values”. (The paper is also useful for the history and analysis it provides regarding economists’ claims over previous decades about city sizes.) None of Australia’s largest cities ranks in the world’s top 50 by population. On the NBER authors’ numbers, they may be smaller than is optimal for us.

No-one quite knows what a pro-cities policy would look like. Moretti favours policies that increase labour mobility and education levels. The Grattan Institute argues for better urban transport. Avent gives a more important role to regulatory policy. Withers, one of the original authors of Australia’s successful skilled migration program, emphasises the need to keep managing skilled migration successfully. But there’s more work to do teasing out any positive policy implications of this thinking. And I’m not arguing for any of these policies here.

Nevertheless, if these analysts are right, one policy implication is clear. If you want people to expand their minds and grow the economy, don’t actively discourage the growth in our cities or spend tax dollars to encourage “decentralisation”. Yes, avoid growth that destroys what has made our big cities attractive in the first place. But don’t pretend that getting people out of cities is a sensible policy goal in its own right. It may help economic growth in Wollongong and Ballarat, but the evidence suggests it will do so at the expense of national productivity, innovation and creativity.

Update: More recent writing on the economic benefits of cities:

  • Why Do Cities Matter? Local Growth and Aggregate Growth, by Chang-Tai Hsieh and Enrico Moretti  – Argues that increased constraints to housing supply in high-productivity cities like New York, San Francisco and San Jose lowered US GDP.
  • Urban Growth and its Aggregate Implications, by Gilles Duranton and Diego Puga – Another urban growth model where human capital spillovers foster entrepreneurship and learning in heterogenous cities.
  •  Order without Design: How Markets Shape Cities, by Alain Bertaud – A much-admired book which spends time on applying economics to cities. “Everybody should read it” – Paul Romer.

About David Walker

David Walker runs publishing consultancy Shorewalker DMS ( and is an editor and writer for hire. David has previously edited Acuity magazine and the award-winning INTHEBLACK business magazine, been chief operating officer of online publisher WorkDay Media, held policy and communications roles at the Committee for Economic Development of Australia and the Business Council of Australia and run the website for online finance start-up eChoice. He has written on economics, business and public policy from Melbourne, Adelaide and the Canberra Press Gallery.
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49 Responses to Against decentralising: why crowded is good

  1. conrad says:

    You could have the best of both situations in some cases — if we stuck fast trains (versus slightly faster than slow trains, as we use now) between some of these smaller cities, you could potentially live in them and work in the other. For example, a fast train between Melbourne and Ballarat would take not much more than 10 minutes — far better than getting a train from suburbia, and more people would move out there. This already happens in Paris and some of the smaller cities that surround it.

  2. Anon says:

    Minor typo ” put them in a city and they’ll find their subculture. “

  3. paul frijters says:

    Hi David,

    you make the mainstream economic case for large cities. One can ask the next question though and wonder if there is an optimal size of cities in Australia (4 million?) after which the congestion externalities start to outweigh the agglomeration benefits. The optimal thing to then do is not to become rural, but rather to have more cities of around 4 million, which one might argue is what is happening with Brisbane right now. Perth too would seem a candidate for a future 4-million people city.

    • Moz of Yarramulla says:

      Optimal size for a big city seems to be 10-20 million. I’m not sure Australia has the hinterland to support a 20M city, but 10M seems quite doable. If we used the Japanese model of using shinkasen to pull outer centres into the capital hinterland we could probably turn “the east coast” into one city. At the very least Woolongong/ Sydney/ Newcastle/Canberra would become one “easy commute” block, inevitably pulling the outlying areas into Sydney.

    • David Walker says:

      Paul, Alan Davies has some figures on this at The Urbanist.

      Short version: Big cities like London, Paris and New York all seem pretty sought-after. One US study suggested that when the population of a city doubles, its GDP increases by 120 per cent on average. The same study found commute times increase on average by just 7 per cent when population doubles. Densities also increase. That’s part of why commuters in large cities tend to have more, not less, jobs within a particular commuting time budget.

      Sydney may have limits imposed by geography and national parks. But Melbourne and Brisbane/Gold Coast can probably both at least double in size.

    • David Walker says:

      Latest update: NBER paper on The Optimal Distribution of Population across Cities. From the abstract: “The received economic wisdom is that cities are too big and that public policy should limit their sizes. This wisdom assumes, unrealistically, that city sites are homogeneous, migration is unfettered, land is given freely to incoming migrants, and federal taxes are neutral. Should those assumptions not hold, large cities may be inefficiently small.” My take is that “city sites are homogeneous” is a particularly bad assumption.

  4. Moz of Yarramulla says:

    I have arrived at the same conclusion almost the opposite way and at the other end of the size spectrum. From experience I know that I prefer to live in a large city. It has more variety, so is more likely to have what I want, whether that’s groceries or culture. I’ve also experienced “decentralisation”, which even inside Sydney has been dismal. At one stage I worked as a consultant with my employer in Parramatta (the “second centre”) and my clients in the CBD and close to that. In many ways the only thing worse that having to get the train from Parramatta to the CBD for an urgent meeting is having to do that then get a taxi to Botany. Did not work, we moved.

    What makes it hard is poor urban design. Green space is all very well, but if it’s pocket parks full of dog poo and homeless people, it’s almost worthless as space (the trees still work). Likewise public transport has to actually work or we end up paying a rental premium to live in the city, another to park our car there, plus the overhead of actually owning that car. Rental, because in CBD developments it’s easy to pay rent size amounts of strata fees etc on an apartment… one way or another there’s significant ongoing bills.

    I do like the idea of express trains, and in Sydney even a rough triangular route would be a huge benefit. With stations at, say, Central, Botany Airport, Bankstown or Cabramatta, New Airport, Parramata, Strathfield you could run the trains we have now faster if they had dedicated lines, or build new rolling stock that ran at 200kph or even 150kph, and get much nicer journey times to the secondary centres. The airports would help with profitability. Current express Central to Parramatta via Strathfield and Redfern is 22-27 minutes, bypass Redfern and you’d be looking at under 20 minutes. But the “express” to Cabramatta, a similar distance, is 35 minutes (or 50 on a non-express). Making that part of an express loop would open up the southwest much more.

    • Moz
      We sort of ,have decentralisation already .

      For example Greater Sydney covers an area which is a bit less than half the size of Belgium. One of my friends each workday drives from her inner west home to her factory in the far SW of Sydney which takes about 3 hours (minimum) for a return trip.
      And the boundary between Sydneys outer SW suburbs and the southern highlands of NSW gets more blured every year.
      These days the ‘city’ traffic on the M5 doesn’t ease off ,at all ,until you are well south of Phesants Nest ( 74 K’s from the GPO) and it’s often not until after the turn off for Bowral etc that the M5 really feels once again like a ,inter-city expressway .

      • David Walker says:

        John, those numbers sound about right. From a report on “urban sprawl” in Belgium:

        “According to the United Nations criteria 94% of the Belgian population is living in an urban area and most of Belgium can be considered part of one urban landscape.”

        Belgium has a population of just over 11 million and Sydney’s is just under 5 million.

  5. Robert Braby says:

    David, have you read the late Max Neutze’s book in which he develops the theoretical case for decentralisation? Essential reading for anyone interested in the subject. He explains why urban centres fail to achieve optimum size, either over-shooting or under-shooting he mark because of various market imperfections – externalities, imperfect foresight and imperfect co-ordination.
    I think he addresses your objections.
    G.M. Neutze, Economic Policy and the Size of Cities (A.N.U.) 1965.

    There is also the alternative multi-nodal theory for large cities which I developed, based on similar theoretical concepts but applied to intra-urban dispersion. In:
    Economic Analysis and Policy, Vol. 4, No. 2, Sept. 1973.
    Reprinted in J.C. McMaster and G.R.Webb, Australian Urban Economics, A Reader 1976, Ch.9.

  6. David Walker says:

    Neutze deserves a lot of credit as an early advocate of congestion pricing, among other things. The ALP in the late 1960s seems to have taken some of his planning ideas (though not congestion pricing) quite seriously; he’s seen as a key influence on the attempt to grow Albury-Wodonga.

    I think from now on he’ll always be most famous for his declaration that decentralisation has been “everyone’s policy but no-one’s program”. That observation proved enduringly accurate, because decentralisation has always been more attractive as regional seat politics than it has as policy. I’m not sure Neutze ever understood that.

    Neutze worked and wrote at a time when planners were much less humble about their ability to transform the way people lived and to scientifically estimate optimums of all sorts. His was also a time when labour was less differentiated by skill. It was a time when people were prone to what now look like wild underestimates of the importance of specialised labour and services, deep markets and the agglomeration effects which Levy & Murnane talk about. It was a time before Saskia Sassen pointed to the qualities of “global cities”. In short, Neutze lived and wrote in a different world.

    You can argue, though, that Neutze’s beliefs have provided fuel for the enduring Australian interest in decentralisation, even though global thinking has moved a long way.

    Keynes shrewdly observed:

    “The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed, the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually slaves of some defunct economist.”

    In Australia’s decentralisation debate, Neutze is a perfect example of the defunct economist.

  7. Robert Braby says:

    Defunct, but with no lasting influence unfortunately, although Albury-Wodonga might have become a sizeable urban centre by now if Malcolm Fraser had not come along and dismantled the decentralisation program the Whitlam govt. introduced, although I am not sure if Albury W. would have had enough water. During the severe drought a few years ago when water levels in the Murray River dropped, the water level in the dam used to service the Albury golf links was very, very low. I suspect water might be a restraint to the growth of most regional centres.

    Incidentally, rumour has it that Whitlam, in typical style, suggested renaming the centre Whitlamabad. By contrast, someone published a book at the time entitled the Wit of Malcom Fraser. It had many pages, all empty! Perhaps you need a sense of humour to be a visionary reformer.

  8. Matt B says:

    The distribution of populations is generally drifting to cities …. an unquestionable trend as Melbourne and Bendigo get bigger and small towns shrink or disappear. The question that’s not overtly considered in your piece is what is the policy and moral obligation to the populations that remain after people move to he city – often with low levels of educational attainment and a whole range of social and economic problems. The decentralisation push is one part of the historic and contemporary policy response – and has its flaws – but you critique this without considering what the alternative might be to the addressing the underlying problems that decentralisation is, in part, a response to.

    • David Walker says:

      Actually, Matt, I have considered other ways to address the problems which decentralisation sometimes claims to be responding to. I have simply kept those opinions out of this post. That’s partly because I’m not sure of them.

      Our understanding of how to deal with rural disadvantage is pretty poor, something I’ve referred to previously. Indeed, the fact that so many people think the only possible fix is to persuade residents not to leave may be blocking the emergence of more useful policy responses.

      What do you think the policy responses should be for those that remain?

  9. Greg says:

    A third argument is that regional infrastructure is not necessarily up to the job of coping with strong growth after all. …. This is in part a bait-and-switch: first we need decentralisation to exploit unused infrastructure, then we need more infrastructure to cope with the new population.
    This is not a new argument by any stretch. I recently found Meinig’s classic “On the Margins of the Good Earth: SA Wheat Frontier 1869-84” where he quotes from Jamestown Review 1879 on port development – “One not uncommon dodge is to get the Government to erect a wharf or jetty .. at the head of a shallow creek. They are next told that the outlay is utterly useless without the channel be cleared and deepened so that vessels may come up to load. This being done the discovery is made that this famous jetty or wharf being at last approachable from sea is still inaccessible by land, and a railway is the only thing that will put things to rights.”
    The book is really very good in many ways and he does highlight the political, regional and bureaucratic battles around centralisation versus decentralisation of the railway and port system in that era.
    Another strong point is of course the reactions of individuals and policymakers to “climate change” on the wheat frontier.

  10. Peter WARWICK says:

    I am not an analyst in any of this, but I thought there are many businesses these days, that do not have a lot of client contact, who are able to set up in the regionals and conduct 98% of their business online. Perhaps with document exchange, couriers can be deployed.

    I suspect that the very large cities will decay from within, as people residing in the forever growing outer fringe suburbs will despair of the long and tortuous commutes to the CBD. Perhaps the solution to this is expansion of the rail network (more duplication of existing lines) which carry multiple express trains. Or perhaps the outer fringe dwellers will simply become a small city within the big city, and rarely venture into the CBD.

    The groceries and culture thing put up by Moz seems spurious. There are groceries and culture aplenty in the regionals.

    This is a non- expert speaking here.

    • We do a lot of road trips , often of around 2500k or more, return.
      The quality of the coffee food and groceries ( and culture) in the Riverina , Riverland , NE South Australia Etc , least in main towns, is pretty good to very good these days.
      And overall population numbers seem healthy . However there has been a fair amount of people moving from very small towns and villages into more central places such as Wagga , Yass etc.

      On the other hand once you get much past Wellington on the road to Broken Hill things very quickly thin out.

      • Peter WARWICK says:

        Yes, I think very small towns are pretty well doomed apart from the diehards who are happy in them. The problem with them is a lack of decent education facilities, and very often they exist because of one industry (could be cattle, wheat etc). The young uns leave for better opportunities (often never to return) and it is the oldies left doing the heavy lifting in the towns.

        There are a considerable number of samll towns that are retirement villages/ towns with a visiting doctor and other health professionals.

        There is really nothing the guvman can do other than help out with some health support.

        • Peter WARWICK says:

          Dont quote me on this, but I remember reading where Westpac decided to move their housing mortgage division to Adelaide some years ago. Why ? Cheaper office rentals, more than sufficient pool of trained staff, and the internet does most of the work, with wet signed document exchange done by couriers, or the signed documents could be handed into the local Westpac branch. And the Post Office has become agents for most of the banks these days.

          Dont know about you, but I have not been inside a bank for some years, and do not see the need any more.

        • Moz of Yarramulla says:

          When we recently got a mortgage with a mostly-online bank they still required us to meet a muppet in order to finalise the paperwork. At work we get a steady stream of visitors who apparently find online interactions insufficient (I work with IoT devices, so you might expect that it would all be internet based… and you’d be wrong).

          I’m really curious about where your small town cultural experience comes from. I’ve lived in regional centres and small towns, and in my experience the cultural activities are very hit and miss, as are the groceries. That’s why I mentioned them.

          At the serious end, a coeliac friend ended up in Ballarat ICU overnight because the locally made and clearly labeled “gluten free buns” weren’t. At the trivial end, the one classical music event in six months in Broome was canceled due to lack of ticket sales. And Broome is a tourist town, it’s not exactly a backwater.

          In Sydney the opposite problem occurs… so many events on I have to pick and choose. But in smaller cities with both food and entertainment, the general problem is that if you like what’s there you’re in luck but there’s a very narrow selection and if you don’t like it you’re SOL. So for me to move to somewhere like Armidale or Bendigo, let alone Newman or Broken Hill, I’d need to make enough on top of the Sydney wages to cover going “into town” a few times a year. Or just accept that I have no hope of ever living in Sydney again, sell the house, take the low wage, and learn to like fishing or whatever else the locals do for fun. I’ve failed at that before, I see no reason I’d succeed now.

        • David Walker says:

          Peter, your Westpac example may not be the best one. I was working in the finance industry in the early years of that Adelaide mortgage processing facility and it was known as “The Black Hole”: loan applications went in, but no approved loans ever came out.

      • Moz
        Where I live may not be that typical – if there is such a thing as typical.
        However I think that if you lived within 50 K’s of Orange, Goulburn or any similar size settlement in the Riverina etc it probably would be not that different.
        We have classical concerts about once a month ( apart from mid winter , just too cold) and there is also healthy folk music scene .

        We are able to get local grown : free range pork, black faced lamb ,fruit vegies etc as well as the stuff I grow myself (and in the season black truffles) all at pretty good prices . A French mate and I each winter get a free range pig and make our own jamon Specialist groceries we make occasional trips to Ashfield for Chinese stuff and to Haberfield for Italian stuff.
        And these days it’s amazing what you can get delivered to your door

        There are several cafes that do very good coffee and food. And wehave a triage style emergency center, it’s the only town for about 90k on high traffic highway.
        As well as that there is a GP centre for the surrounding district.

        The real proviso on all of this is , can you ‘earn your living in the city’ but not actually live there .

        • Moz of Yarramulla says:

          John, it’s not that I wouldn’t like to live outside Sydney, it’s that I’ve tried and been disappointed. I definitely couldn’t keep earning the money I do now, despite working in a supposedly suitable field. Even moving to the “remote centre” of Melbourne for a few years meant a 30% pay cut. I tried to find remote work but the best I ever got offered was two weeks in the city, two weeks working from home… so I’d be paying Sydney rent plus the cost of owning a rural house (plus rural internet).

          I have worked with people who commute ridiculous distances every day (in my current workplace the longest is only about 100km each way), and I think the worst was a near-Newcastle to Bankstown daily train ride. He drove ~30km to a station a couple of stops out of Newcastle IIRC to save some time, but it was still ridiculous IMO.

          The food stuff… like I said, if that’s what you’re into living out of the big city is a huge win. But I want fresh organic barley fruit bread… that’s a niche item in Sydney, I’d likely have to make it myself in a small town. Likewise the 27 essential asian condiments in our fridge – we could “import” them, but it’s a pain.

          Also, it needs to be said: I don’t own a car for ethical reasons and would very much like not to have to change that. But that’s the sort of choice that even semi-rural people can’t make. Even semi-rural-with-fibre-internet people, a lot of the time. Ask me how I feel about Malcolm crippling the NBN sometime!

        • Moz
          I really enjoy staying in the inner city – lived in the inner west for around 25 years.
          We moved out partly because of what I do and partly because real estate prices in the inner city were way too high for the amount of space I need to do my work.

          The place I really could not live in , is where most endup living : in the ‘sprawl’.
          For example : on a day to day basis ,we hardly use the car, everything we need in town is within bicycle distance. And when we go to various friends places we don’t have to worry about DUI- we walk there.

        • Moz of Yarramulla says:

          I’m with you on the sprawl, it seems like the worst of both worlds. Albeit different people draw that line in different places, to me it’s about half an hour on the train. Or in my case 30-50 minutes on the bike from work. I will move with the job if necessary so I can keep riding to work.

          I do keep looking for remote work, but I’ve got too many friends who’ve taken those jobs and either been left on the fringe/fired, or told “we really want you to move to the valley/London/Tel Aviv after all”. Which actually makes Google and NAB *better* than most because they offer one day a week from home to selected staff.

  11. derrida derider says:

    In an overpopulated country (which is now pretty well every country in the world) there is no doubt that the environmental damage is minimised by keeping as many people as far away from the natural environment as possible. And if you want to maximise GDP per capita you should crowd them together too, so they trade with each other.

    So yes, given a population of 24 million in Australia decentralisation is a mug’s game. That’s quite consistent, though, with claims we’d lead happier and more sustainable lives if a lower population enabled us to spread out more.

    • Moz of Yarramulla says:

      The network effect of big population centres is huge, in other words.

      We would probably be better off if we simply treated the whole Sydney basin as a human dump site, forgot farming or national parks or anything else there, and focused on turning it into the one big city with 20M people in it. Turn Melbourne and the bay back into a fish farm like it used to be and so on round all the other little cities [1]. That definitely beats the “we need 50M people” calls we hear from politicians every now and then.

      [1] I say that purely because Melbourne has better farmland than what’s left in Sydney. And frankly, the climate is better here… although we are working on that.

  12. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Decentralisation? What could possibly go wrong?

    I guess you’re right David, and you’ve couched your argument with sufficient caveats, but still I remember coming across something just a week or so ago contrasting our approach with the audacity of the Chinese in building new cities all over the place. It took me aback because I thought it was an interesting and worthwhile point.

    The growth or non-growth of cities is full of arbitrary influences and the basic principles of market development or simple laissez-faire are a useless guide to city development – because cities are so shot through with what I call the ecology of public and private goods. So, at least in principle, the instincts shown by Victorian Oppositions from Brumby and Bracks to Guy seem right. Still I think the practical arguments are probably on your side – perhaps strongly.

    I have to admit to liking myself the idea of fast trains with Melbourne as a hub connected to Geelong, Ballarat, Bendigo and perhaps a town or towns in Gippsland, but when you think about it practically it’s possible a trick is being played. There’s a big difference between point to point connection and something requiring two connections. And how many people can be easily serviced from a single connection in any of those regional town/cities? Perhaps that could be solved by integrating the fast trains with loops around the regional cities’ areas but we’re talking more cost.

    Then there’s the establishment of new cities. A perfectly sensible idea in theory, but have we ever done it well. Without knowing a lot, I presume Albury/Woodonga is a failure and Canberra is one of the great disappointments of our national history (though this is a subjective view obviously.)

    • conrad says:

      My alternative future gazing suggests that Canberra is mainly a failure because it was put in a stupid position for rather odd reasons (so it couldn’t get shelled from the coast…). If you look at places like the Gold Coast, then you can see lots of people moved their because it was a nice place on the beach, and it’s now so big it’s almost part of Brisbane. That was without huge fiscal encouragement. If Canberra was somewhere nice , I suspect it would now be a bustling city like Sydney or Melbourne. Perhaps it time someone dug it up and moved it finally.

      • Conrad
        ‘ shelled from the coast ‘ was one of the reasons. However at the time they decided on the site for Canberra ,there was really no road south of about Nowra ,virtually everything going to Sydney or Melbourne went by coastal steamers. So I guess they would have had to spend a more on transport links if they had gone for ,Batemans Bay.

        Think that might be why they went for a place that was reasonably close to the Sydney Melbourne train line.

        BTW They did plan to build a train line from Canberra via Braidwood , Nerriga , Sassafras and then down Wandanian ridge to Jervis Bay – the intended Port for Canberra (which is why a section of the southern end of Jervis bay is still Commonwealth territory )

      • Nicholas Gruen says:

        Agreed, but that’s also quite a good argument for a fast train between Canberra and Sydney. Could be a fillip to growth and decentralisation along the whole corridor.

        • John r Walker says:

          Yes the Sydney Canberra corridor looks possible, urbanisation is happening anyway. And the engineering side of it looks OK.

    • Nicholas
      Canberra is the worlds biggest , provincial town.

    • David Walker says:

      Nick, you seem to have thought your way through some of the the common errors here. You are right that if we wanted to decentralise, better point-to-point rail connections would not solve all our problems.

      To take one example, most Ballarat residents do not live on the corner of Lydiard and Mair Streets, and most of Melbourne’s jobs are not in the CBD. Most people working in Melbourne go from their house in the suburbs to a job in the suburbs, typically within 45 minutes’ commute. They do not go to the CBD, and they do not use public transport.

      I’m not convinced that the establishment of new cities is a sensible idea even in theory. But certainly in practice, Canberra is about as good as it gets.

      • Nicholas Gruen says:

        Yes. Agreed. And that’s not very good alas.

        • John r Walker says:

          Canberra Sydney could , if we are lucky, be an example of building the transport infrastructure that is needed if centralisation isn’t to mean the worst of both worlds in practice I.e. sprawl

  13. Moz of Yarramulla says:

    Fast trains are all well and good, but remember that even with the slow old trains it’s only 45 minutes from Sydney Central to Paramatta (now 32 minutes in many cases), and people still insist on driving. By people I mean managers, who count as people in this context. If you got Flinders St to Bendigo down to 30 minutes it would help the commuters a lot, but I’m not sure it would help move businesses out that way.

    You’d still face the “OMG, Paramatta is *so* *far* away” memory effect. People would be willing to meet with you if you came in, but you’d get very few willing to make the trip all the way out there. And to a motorist that train time is irrelevant, they are stuck firmly in traffic, I mean, the mindset that cars are the only way to go anywhere… with the accompanying disadvantage that travel time for any urban journey has a huge uncertainty. 20km is “20-90 minutes, possibly longer in bad weather”.

    In Sydney you also have Eastern Suburbs Syndrome, a huge mass of people who think Sydney University is in Western Sydney and know in their gut that the inner west is populated by hordes of ravaging povos just itching for a chance to sink their fangs into some juicy eastern suburbs flesh. Seriously, I’ve been to dinner parties and met people who’ve never been west of Broadway inside Sydney, however far they’ve traveled outside the city. I didn’t see that so much in Melbourne, but then I never hung out with the lovely folk of Toorak either.

    • Back in the late 90s we lived in Haberfield Sydney ,will never forget one day seeing a large group of eastern suburbs types going on a guided ‘food tour’
      of the ‘exotic food’ in Haberfield’s shops .

  14. Pingback: Standing up for cities | Club Troppo

  15. Pingback: Against decentralising: why crowded is good | Club Troppo

  16. Nicholas Gruen says:

    A somewhat tongue in cheek take from Ross Douthat:

    First, the easy part: Let’s take the offices of our federal government, now concentrated in the vampiric conurbation of Greater Washington, D.C., and spread them around, in poorer states and smaller cities that need revitalization. Vox’s Matt Yglesias has proposed a version of this idea — distributing various health and science and regulatory agencies to Detroit or Cleveland or Milwaukee — and it’s perfect for the next politician who claims to want to really drain the swamp.

    • Nicholas Gruen says:

      Actually I think some of the ideas towards the end of the article are quite interesting. Seems like an interesting thing to do to try to support noblesse oblige from the privileged, though it may be difficult to bring off.

      • John R Walker says:

        Agree the ideas have appeal ,and would be viscerally resisted .

        Personal experience is that even moving an office out of Canberra to nearby Goulburn( only around 80Ks away) is a difficult thing to do.

  17. Grey Nomad says:

    Has Barnaby Joyce considered what affects his pork barreling the public service to various regional areas will have on the regional areas surrounding Canberra. Areas such as Cooma, Yass, Goulburn, Collector, Michelago, Bungendore, Tarago, Braidwood and even towns along the south coast. Many people from these regional areas, both public servants and private enterprise workers, work in Canberra and as such support their regional area. The domino on effect, on the above regional areas, of these people losing their jobs directly or indirectly as a result of departments having to leave Canberra will be catastrophic.

  18. Chris Lloyd says:

    “The first argument against encouraging decentralisation is that it is essentially a policy to encourage people to live where they don’t want to live.” I think this is the weakest argument. There are externalities to the decision. They avail themselves of infrastructure that they did not pay for and contribute to congestion.

    “And the fourth and strongest argument against active decentralisation policies is that big, dense cities are good for innovation and economic growth and personal growth too, and that those benefits should be embraced rather than resisted.” I am afraid that this is the weakest argument of all. Why not infinite population? You later cite an article that tries to estimate this optimum, without noting that it makes your previous argument bollocks. And I would not trust economists to estimate the optimal size based on their outdated GDP metrics.

    “The growth of cities is no accident. They represent a lot of people voting with their feet.” Yet, in Europe the pattern is very different. A much larger number of cities were seeded. Australia is packed into three cities. This is indeed an historical accident. If Britain had decided to create 50 convict colonies we would look very different now.

  19. There is a big practical problem facing plans for bigger regional centers , water. Last year so many existing relatively large towns were carting water and counting the days until even that option was exhausted.

  20. David Walker says:

    Chris, some of this makes a lot of sense. In particular, densification does create congestion. (Note that the best remedy for congestion seems to me to be a congestion charge that forces people to consider the density tradeoff.)

    On the other points I have doubts.

    Anyone living anywhere uses infrastructure that they did not pay for, and it’s not clear to me that infrastructure outside big cities costs less than city infrastructure. (Indeed its lower use and the lower densities outside cities may create higher average costs per person in some circumstances.)

    Why not infinite size for cities (or to put it another way, why not put all the people in one city)? If the benefits scale indefinitely, one big city might be desirable. I suspect there is an optimum below infinity, though; the trick is to identify it, whatever it is. Right now I don’t know it. (Albouy et al are appropriately modest about their ability to calculate it either.)

    I’m not sure how that makes my previous arguments bollocks; I may simply be misunderstanding what you’ve posted, but I’d welcome further explanation. If you wouldn’t trust economist to calculate optimal size, you might try suggesting your own model.

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