This is a parking station! Bicycle parking in Antwerp

I didn’t know that Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne have the largest concentration of privately funded motorways of any cities in the world until I read this recent paper, How different are Australian cities?. It’s written by Qld academics Glen Searle, Jago Dodson and Wendy Steele and has a few other surprises and curiosities too.

The authors set out to establish what, if anything, makes Australian cities distinctive compared to cities elsewhere. What a fascinating problem!

They pose two questions. What do Sydney, Perth, Brisbane, Melbourne and Adelaide have in common? And what is it that differentiates them collectively from cities like Vancouver, Auckland, San Francisco, Manchester, Boston, Frankfurt, Stockholm (or) Hangzhou?

They’re keen to look beyond the national context, geography and similar histories to identify factors that distinguish Australian cities as a group from other world cities. They begin by identifying three “distinctively Australian city-structuring influences”.

First, the state has had a particularly strong role in shaping urban development in Australia. For example, unlike North America, governments built the urban and country railways in Australia, starting in the nineteenth century.

Second, governments historically held very large areas of land in our cities. The combination of State power and extensive land holdings enabled governments to “generate urban outcomes that allow the State to respond directly to national cultural preferences”.

Third, Australia has a distinctive national character based on its peculiar geography and history.

The generally mild climate, the abundant spaces, and a nineteenth century immigrant population with particular cultural attitudes have generated a national love of outdoor sport and a predilection for gambling.

I’m not sure if our fondness for sport, gambling (and alcohol) is all that exceptional and I’m not certain either if government land holdings were such a special feature. However the really interesting bit starts when they get down to the business of identifying those features of our capitals that are distinctively Australian. They identify five.

The first is that, unlike most other countries, Australia’s largest cities don’t follow the hierarchy of city sizes defined by Zipf’s law. It predicts the second largest city in a nation is half the size of the biggest, the third largest is one third the size of the biggest, and so on. See for example this article by Edward Glaeser.

The second, as mentioned at the start, is the three east coast capitals have the largest concentration of privately funded motorways in the world. The authors say this was largely driven:

by the emergence of neo-liberal ideology within state governments from the 1980s, and the related objective of minimising debt to retain high credit ratings that signify business friendly government, while also reducing interest payments.

The third is casinos – all our capital cities have large, State-sponsored casinos in or close to the city centre. Apparently this is relatively uncommon. The authors say Western cities tend to have small legal and illegal casinos “tucked away in and near CBDs but big casinos in major cities are rare”.

The fourth one is sporting stadiums. While many cities across the world have funded stadiums for international sport, the authors say the “size and number of stadiums for national and local sport (in Australia) has been disproportionately large”.

The fifth feature the authors identify that distinguishes Australian cities is agricultural showgrounds. They’re a product of the nineteenth century rural base and are “a globally distinctive element of city structure” in Australia.

It’s an interesting list but if there’s such a thing as “the Australian city”, it’s seems to be pretty nondescript. With the possible exception of our non-conformance with the rank-size rule – now that is an interesting question – there’s not really a lot here that defines our major cities as places with a unique or even special personality. There’s nothing that says they’re economically or socially interesting places compared to other world cities.

In fact a few of these features are downright dubious. No one seems to like casinos – high-profile urbanist Richard Florida scorns them at every chance. The folly of cities investing in sporting stadiums to drive economic growth is practically Urban Economics 101. Motorways, private or otherwise, garner nothing but derision in Urban Planning 101.

That’s not to say individual Australian cities don’t have distinctive features – inner city Brisbane, for example, with its hills, frangipanis and Queenslanders, is truly one of the world’s remarkable (and unsung) urban areas. But when it comes to looking at Australian cities collectively, they seem, on the strength of this paper, to be an undistinguished lot.

That doesn’t have to be seen as a bad thing – after all, Australian cities score very well on international liveability indexes. However I think that’s mostly because those metrics are heavily weighted by national characteristics, like health and education policies, rather than because of any factors peculiar to Australian cities.

An additional possibility that occurs to me is the phenomenally high price of dwellings in Australian cities compared to the rest of the world. It’s possible the factors underlying our high prices might be peculiar to Australian cities. I also wonder if the large numbers of local government authorities in our major cities (e.g. metropolitan Melbourne has 31; Sydney has 38) are common in cities elsewhere, or whether they too qualify as a distinctively Australian take on cities.

Is there something the writers have missed?