Speech at the State of Australian Cities Conference by Tanya Steinbeck, CEO, UDIA WA

5 December 2019

I need to apologise in advance. I – am not an academic. In fact, I didn’t even graduate high school.

So it surprises and somewhat scares me that I am standing here today in front of some amazing academics, including my fellow panelists – so here’s what I promise you now.

I will not try to be something I am not and do not want to be.

And in fact, that is exactly what I am going to talk about in the next 7 minutes – as it relates to my city, my birthplace, my home – Perth.

According to many stakeholders in the development and planning industry here, we are in desperate need for a ‘vision for Perth’ OR ‘brand Perth’. Who are we?

How do we, as a city, differentiate ourselves from our eastern states and even global competitors in order to attract more residents, more investment, more tourists, more students?

Also, as permanent residents of Perth, how do we retain the elements of what makes our city one of the most liveable cities in the world, one of the most beautiful cities in the world and not lose ourselves in a patchwork quilt of precincts, activity centres, coastal nodes, sprawl, TODS, GODS…..

Identity itself is a complex concept, it applies both to us as individuals but also to our community or society as a collective. It is never fixed, it evolves as we evolve as people and as a population.

What is an identity crisis? It’s period of uncertainty and confusion in which a sense of identity becomes insecure, typically due to a change in expected aims or role in our society.

For Perth – we are growing up. From a city that was more like a big country town, to the beneficiary of the resources boom and all of the investment and growth that comes with it, we are now asking ourselves – who are we beyond the boom?

At a CEDA event yesterday, over 700 people contributed to the question about what our State Government needed to focus on in 2020. The number one response by far – diversification of our economy. No one likes a one trick pony.

So as mining and resources have been a strong part of our identity, we are all now looking for a bigger picture. We are more than just what you can dig out of the ground.

So just as our self-identity as an individual forms the basis of our self-esteem, this can also apply to cities. Perth is still in adolescence.  When we are in those years of our life, the way we see ourselves changes in response to peers, family, and school, among other social environments. Our self-identities shape our perceptions of belonging, one of our basic human needs and critically important when we are considering the planning and design of our urban environment.

In the era of Keeping up with the Kardashians, social media and influencers, our self-identity is constantly being questioned as we are subtley influenced around what our lives ‘should’ look like.

And so, as a society in the western world we are becoming more and more alike. When our cities are becoming more and more alike, our neighbourhoods more homogenized, the more we crave authenticity and the harder we try to stand out.

Klaus Philipsen wrote about “the global forces of homogenization at work that level the spikes of authenticity worldwide, smoothing the roughness of local history with the glossy lacquer of consumption so that whole cities become nothing more than branded products.”

So does our planning system need to take the lead against the homogenization of our city, to avoid getting lost in the sea of sameness and leverage the natural and diverse beauty of not only its Aboriginal and Colonial heritage and its landscape, but of all its people?

Planning by the people, for the people – it’s a trend that’s catching on. Just look at the Town Team Movement that is taking community driven planning and placemaking to another level.

David Kudla, from the University of Ontario poses that:

“Citizens no longer produce their own communities because they are constantly on the go, moving from one experience to another so they never miss a pleasurable experience. That is, people would rather buy temporary rootedness from consumer markets rather than dedicate their time to develop a rooted urban space. Hence, urban space is created in such a fashion to meet the needs of these hurried consumers, resulting in communities signifying rootedness through consumer market needs.”

Andrea Mubi Brighenti in The Pardoxes of Urban Authenticity summarises the book by Sharon Zukin and argues that “authenticity cant be an attribute of just the physical space, but is tied to the interaction between social groups that inhabit an urban place. In other words, authenticity presupposes the coexistence of social diversity in public places.”

And in the era of social media and digital connectivity – the role of our people owning and helping to create our physical spaces becomes even more critical as more of us interact via a device rather than face to face.

So what I take from all of this – is that it’s the people, the need for belonging, for connection and how we interact with each other in all our diverse forms that creates authentic and bespoke places that cannot be manufactured or replicated.

Many don’t want to live in a copycat city. They don’t want to live in a smaller version of Melbourne, Sydney, or Singapore or a mash up of all of them.

We need to leverage the best Perth has to offer, of great diversity in its people, its natural environment, its beauty.

Grow our city, our spaces and places that bring our people together to connect, interact and to belong. Without the need for Facebook or Instagram.

Us Perth people, we have done very well at keeping this place a secret. Now its time to share it with the world.

Thank you.