Monday, 2 September, 2019


More than half of humanity now lives in cities, a proportion expected to grow to three-quarters by 2050. How are they doing, and what is Greater Newcastle’s role in responding to this trend within Australia?

As a key indicator of wellbeing, the United Nations (UN) has started tracking the liveability of cities. Access to affordable housing, health care, clean air, public transport and adequate waste management are the critical measures of liveability that the UN will be watching.

Australia’s capital cities are already showing signs of strain. Sydney and Melbourne, as we have noted previously, are homes to 40 per cent of the country’s population - 10 million people. Expected population growth will intensify competition to access opportunities for quality education and training, satisfying jobs, infrastructure and services. It is vital that we look outside our capitals to build on the economic opportunities that smaller cities and regions can offer and to create vibrant communities.

Australia’s larger regional cities (with populations greater than 50,000) experience greater housing affordability, lower crime rates, less congestion and less marked inequality when compared to their capital counterparts, according to the Regional Australia Institute. They collectively represent an economy equivalent to the size of Finland. Here in the Hunter, the Gross Regional Product amounts to more than $50 billion annually. That is more than Tasmania, the Northern Territory or the ACT.

This economic capability is complemented by their functionality as an outlet for capital city population and their roles as regional hubs. They provide regions with access to health care, education and financial resources. These cities thus occupy a key niche in the country’s socio-economic ‘ecosystem’.

The potential of such cities was highlighted in the inaugural Second Cities: Smaller and Smarter Symposium in 2018, the first gathering of its kind in Australia. The forum enabled the 220 participants to learn more about leveraging opportunities in our non-capital cities while resolving urgent urban and regional challenges.

This year’s Smaller & Smarter Cities: International Symposium is structured around the highest priorities identified at the conclusion of the 2018 event. It will present leading national and international practices on:

  1. socio-economic diversification and resilience
  2. collaboration across government, industry and community
  3. identity and positioningto promote the region as a place to live, invest and visit.

The opening keynote address on 10 October will be delivered by Nigel Jacob - co-founder of New Urban Mechanics (NUM) in the Boston mayor’s office. The NUM team have been recognised as being at the forefront of urban design since soon after their formation in 2010. The challenges they are addressing are becoming increasingly prevalent in cities around the world.

Working experimentally, Jacob has created a risk-tolerant culture at NUM. They have collaborated with government, artists and architects to trial Plugin housing (easily assembled temporary shelters). In pursuing better access across the city, they have developed micro mobility in the form of e-scooters and autonomous vehicle transport. They have also invested in city climate resilience through measures such as flood-resistant public spaces, among many other innovations.

“We’re committed to finding new ways to collaborate with our community beyond the traditional model,” Jacob said in an interview earlier this year. “It may be about technology, but it may also not be about technology. It is really about understanding people in new ways.”

Jacob has been named a Public Official of the Year by Governing Magazine, earned a White House ‘Champion of Change’ award, and won the Tribeca ‘Disruptive Innovation’ award.

He is one of 30 national and international speakers and panellists confirmed for the Smaller and Smarter Cities: International Symposium. They are real-world practitioners in business, planning, management, consultancy and government coming together to help us to explore an inclusive and sustainable future for Greater Newcastle.

The symposium runs 9-11 October. Find out more at

This opinion piece by Prof. Will Rifkin, Director, HRF Centre was published in the Newcastle Herald on 31 August 2019.

The contribution was researched by graduate intern, Alice Peart. The HRF Centre is leading the delivery of the Smaller & Smarter Cities: International Symposium in partnership with the City of Newcastle, the Hunter and Central Coast Development Corporation, Hunter Water, AECOM and sponsors.