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The papers in this session address the conference theme of The Connected City, which explores the provision of urban infrastructure. The key infrastructure issues facing Australian cities today may be summarised briefly.

At the start of the 20th century, Australia’s major cities had either already developed a low-density townscape with significant decentralization of housing and jobs, or were beginning to sprawl at the edge of their old, compact core. Networks of suburban roads, railways and tramways, reticulated water supplies, underground sewerage systems, and gas and electricity distribution systems made it possible for large numbers of people to live in a suburban setting. Telegraph and telephone wires allowed the urban system to work effectively. The low-density physical form of Australian cities was built in an attempt to avoid the sort of urban problems that can develop in a high-density setting. Building such cities required heavy private and public investment, however, and the most rapid periods of suburban development took placed during two periods of economic growth: the so-called ‘Long Boom’ from around 1860 to 1890, and the ten years preceding World War I. This economic growth, derived in part from the wealth of the rural sector, also stimulated job opportunities in country towns, many of which enjoyed a Golden Age of prosperity and high quality amenities before World War I. For example, Tamworth, Young, and many other towns in New South Wales had electric lighting before Sydney did.

As the population of the capital cities continued to grow – from totals of 1.2 million in 1901 to 12.5 million in 2000 – heavy investment in infrastructure was needed if this land-extensive housing stock was to be replicated and improved. During the 20th century, improvements in public transport such as the electrification of suburban trains and trams encouraged commuting and the creation of new suburbs, but eventually public transport systems became congested. Jobs came to be located increasingly away from the old CBDs and inner suburbs and commuters began to switch to private transport. Road building enabled cities to sprawl further and eventually to outrun their public transport systems. Suburban sprawl is a heavy user of water, can gobble up valuable areas of farmland, and can make it difficult for the providers of infrastructure to keep up with population growth. During Melbourne’s post-World War II housing boom, the Board of Works ‘was like the runner restrained by the competitor tugging at the back of his singlet’ (Dingle and Rasmussen 1991: 214), as every new house built in the south and east took the Board’s pipes further away from the western suburbs sewage farm at Werribee. By the end of the 20th century, a perception had developed that the standard of infrastructure provision in both country towns and the outer suburbs of the capital cities was inadequate, and this has had important political implications.

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