Speech by The Hon Tanya Pibersek MP

Speech to Metropolis Women International Network Forum – Connecting Women in Cities

Location: Sydney Convention and Exhibition Centre, Sydney



  • Francine Senécal (Vice-Chair of the city of Montreal Executive Committee, Montreal, Canada)
  • Shubha Raul (Mayor of Mumbai, India)
  • Masoumeh Abad (City Councillor, Tehran Islamic City Council, Islamic Republic of Iran)
  • Clover Moore (Lord Mayor of Sydney)
  • Kerry Schott (Managing Director, Sydney Water)
  • Maria Atkinson (Global Head of Sustainability, Lend Lease)


Thank you Wendy (McCarthy, Chair) for your kind introduction.

I am very pleased to be speaking at today’s forum.

It is a wonderful opportunity to hear from such an interesting group of influential women from such diverse cities as Nairobi, Seoul, Jakarta, Mumbai, Limbe, Paris and Tehran.

Your program is impressive – traversing issues such as climate change, violence against women, women’s migration patterns, food security and waste management in fragile cities and the role of women in local democracy.

Today presents a unique opportunity for me to present a paper – for the first time – which consciously straddles the two responsibilities in my portfolio – housing and women.

I wanted to talk to you about the Australian Government’s housing and urban affairs agenda.

I also wanted to reflect on the changing role of women and what this means for our built environment.

And I want to dream a little about how we might design the Australian cities of the future to reflect the changing needs of our families and communities.

But first – I should set the scene for those of you who are visitors to Australia or to my beautiful home city of Sydney.

As many of you may know – we had a change of government – at a Federal level – nearly a year ago.

It was a great privilege for me to be appointed Housing Minister in this new government – the first Housing Minister at a Federal level for 11 years.

This was proof of the Federal Government’s renewed interest in and commitment to the critical areas of housing and urban affairs policy.

Over the last 11 months I have been working hard to deliver $3.7 billion worth of housing affordability measures.

These initiatives span all the housing tenures.

We are providing tax incentives for young people to save for their first home.

We are rewarding local governments to reform their planning processes and speed up the bringing of new homes to market.

We are establishing an ambitious scheme which will provide tax credits to institutional investors to build homes for low income Australians. These homes will be rented at below market rates.

And – we are working on a national plan to reduce homelessness over time.

The Australian Government has also appointed Australia’s first ever Federal Infrastructure Minister and created an Infrastructure Department.

We are doing an unprecedented stock take of the nation’s infrastructure, prioritising future infrastructure investment and will commence construction on several new projects next year.

This will improve the quality of life within Australia’s major cities and regional centres.

A focus on infrastructure will improve housing affordability, prevent water shortages, keep the lights on and the house warm and make it easier for people to get to and from work and leisure activities.

It will also make it easier to move people around and get our goods to market.

At the same time we have also made social inclusion a national priority.

The objective of our social inclusion agenda is simple: we want to give all Australians the opportunity to be part of the economic and social life of the nation.

Now – these are all critical initiatives that on their own will boost Australia’s productivity and keep our economy and communities strong.

But knitting these initiatives together allows us to leverage even better outcomes for Australians.

Federal Labor Governments over have long understood the importance of a national urban affairs agenda.

That is, we understand the importance of knitting together initiatives that make housing more affordable, that develop regions, that boost transport and reform planning and bring a locational perspective to the delivery our human services.

This is what an urban affairs agenda should do.

And an urban affairs agenda is crucial because Australia is one of the most urbanised countries in the world.

More than four out five Australians live in urban communities – cities.

Australia’s capital cities contributed 78 per cent to our country’s economic growth.

So it is for this reason that we have set up the Major Cities Unit in the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government.

The Major Cities Unit will provide a coordinated and integrated approach to cities.

It will look for and find opportunities – at a national level – where we can make a difference to the prosperity of our cities and the wellbeing of the people who live in them.

So as you can see – in our first 11 months in office we now have a solid policy framework for urban development.

This will allow our cities prosper.

This will give us scope to create or renew urban environments to reflect the realities of our modern lives.

And this will mean we can better match our urban environment to the changing needs of our communities over time.

The changing role of women

When we look at how our communities’ needs have changed – some of the biggest changes have occurred for women and their role in families.

So what are the four key changes that have impacted on Australian women and their families over the last generation?

Firstly, families are a lot smaller than they were 40 years ago.

At the start of the decade in which I was born (in 1961), Australian women had an average of 3.5 babies.1

Now this had dropped by almost half – to an average of 1.8 babies per woman.2

Secondly, labour force participation rates for women have jumped.

More and more women are going back to work after they have children and the number of women caring for kids full time at home is shrinking. 3

As a result – women are using child care much more than we used to.

Here in Australia just under half (45.8%) of all Australian children under 12 were in child care outside the home.4

Thirdly the composition of households has changed over the last two decades. There are more women living alone and living longer than ever before.

There are also more women who are partnered but not having children.

Finally – Australian women and their families are now more geographically mobile than ever before.

With the move to a more global market place – families are moving further away and moving more regularly.

These major demographic shifts have significant impact on our urban environment.

The images of my childhood – tightly knit neighbourhoods of women at home raising kids, cooking, cleaning, volunteering and schools and local clubs – are no longer as common.

When I grew up – the streets were full of gaggles of kids of all ages.

We all grew up together – living in the same neighbourhood for our young lives.

Neighbours kept a look out for each others kids.

The reality now is that much of our family life happens outside the home and outside the local neighbourhood.

Each morning women are dropping off one, two or three kids at different schools and child care centres; heading in to work; then collecting children from various structured, after-school activities.

Families move suburbs, move cities. They move far away from the suburbs in which they grew up; far away from grandparents and other family support.

This limits the availability of family support – and it goes both ways. Women are less able to rely on their mothers to help with the kids; ageing parents are less able to rely on their children to care for them as they age.

Families that move regularly don’t have the opportunity to put down roots in their communities. It can lead to communities which are more fragmented and less connected.

This is now the modern lifestyle for many Australian women and their families.

With housing becoming increasingly expensive – families in Australian cities are living in higher densities.

Australian children in cities are no longer growing up on quarter acre blocks.

There is also a greater reliance on cars.

Our Australian cities are highly car dependent: in Sydney more than 70 per cent of all trips are now made by car.5

Only the US and New Zealand having a greater reliance on cars for urban travel than Australia.

Of course poor transport networks and over reliance on cars increases the time families spend commuting.

A study on commuting by the Australia Institute in 2005 looked at the effect of commuting times on personal relationships and community life.

It found that 35 per cent of Sydney fathers in full-time work spend more time commuting than they do with their children.

Of course this impacts on the whole of family’s well being. Fathers are spending more time commuting to and from work and mothers – as a result – are having to do more of the primary care.

As the authors of this study noted:

The strain of journeys that are not only long but unpredictable, congested or polluted take a toll. Many commuters come home late, grumpy and worn-out, with little physical or emotional energy for family life, friendships or other community activities.

While travel time and commuting is increasing – public space is also diminishing.

In some of inner city areas, where property prices have steeply risen, child-friendly places such as parks, wide nature strips and sporting fields are limited.

It is also difficult to identify suitable places to locate child care facilities.

For those that want to cycle to and from work in our cities – there are also big challenges.

We must ensure that our urban environments do not become sterile and unfriendly for families and children.

And coupled with the increase in structured activities and more time away from home – there is less opportunity for kids just to explore and to roam around playing.

As Professor Gleeson – the Director of the Urban Research Program at Griffith University states:

children need … less scripted, wilder spaces … it is immensely important that children’s recreation spaces and areas are not simply manicured parks. They need those kind of wild spaces, that strange bit of undeveloped land or bushland in which they can take safe risks.

A NSW Parliamentary Inquiry into Children, Young People and the Built Environment found that less room to play and explore may mean children become less risk taking and less outdoorsy.

The NSW Centre for Overweight and Obesity have also raised this point.

It argues that increases to housing density, increased traffic and reduced pedestrian safety, and reduced opportunities for informal, un-structured outdoor play and recreation and under supply of sporting facilities all contribute to increased childhood obesity – one of the greatest health challenges facing our society.

Creating urban environments of the future

So – what does this all mean for our urban environment and for the future design of our cities?

We need to create communities in our cities that support the things modern women and their families now need.

We need communities that more deliberately connect stay at home carers and make it easier for men and women to make choices to share paid and unpaid work.

Our urban spaces need to be multifunctional to match the reality of women’s busy lives.

Women need their cities to be made up of discrete multi-functional neighbourhoods.

They need to efficient forms of transport to get between work, child care, schools, supermarkets and sporting activities.

These are crucial for modern Australian women leading urban lives.

Our urban environment could also be more child-friendly.

We could do a lot better at creating cities that better consider and meet the health and developmental needs of children and young people.

And we could give more attention to the placement of child care facilities, particularly in locations easily accessible for those parents commuting to work.

We need to look at density – with more people living in couples without children or living longer and ageing alone – we need communities of mixed density housing.

This allows women who as they age to downsize from their family home to a more appropriate size dwelling – a well located town house or unit – in the same neighbourhood.

Staying in the same neighbourhood means older women’s access to support and services continues – which for older women is important for their health and well being as they age.

Case study: Ultimo and Pyrmont

I would like to finish with a landmark example of city planning. An example of where a piece of Sydney’s urban environment was transformed. An example of a community created to fit the changing needs of its residents.

Literally 3 minutes walk from here are two beautiful suburbs – Ultimo and Pyrmont.

With careful planning, innovation and Federal and State Government commitment it was transformed from a post industrial wasteland to a vibrant, future-proofed community with the right balance of residential, commercial and public space.

An area of 140 hectares of former docklands, maritime, industrial and medium density housing was totally redeveloped as part of an urban design strategy.

The strategy included guidelines for historic areas as well as plans for commercial, retail, residential, mixed and recreational uses.

The strategy included these key planning principles: the precinct must cater for all household types; it must provide affordable housing for low income earners; existing housing must be protected; opportunities to live close to places of work must be provided.

Overall the project sought to create a high quality urban environment.

Developers added more than eight hectares of green spaces, and a number of small ‘Pocket Parks’, providing smaller, more intimate areas that can be accessed by residents and workers within two or three minutes of their homes or workplaces.

The State Government has recently added the old Water Police site. This will be transformed, with the cooperation of the City of Sydney Council, into a new park which will have access to the harbour and feature a children’s play ground.

Industry is now clean: telecommunications and entertainment industries have moved into the precinct.

A number of key educational institutions were also included – Sydney TAFE, University of Technology Sydney and the Powerhouse Museum.

Many more people now live there – schools are viable again.

The residential population is expected to increase from the 3,000 residents in 1996 to 20,000 by 2021.

The residents are mostly young. Many work in the finance, hospitality and communications industries.

The area is also multicultural – the 2006 census shows that about 35 per cent of residents were born in Australia.

What is more, City West Housing – a leading Australian affordable housing provider – provides affordable housing for low income people living or working in the local area.

This has created a vibrant local community where people are able to walk to CBD, thanks to the inclusion of a pedestrian/cycleway network in the redevelopment.

The precinct has a light rail transport system to discourage the use of cars as well as good bus services and a ferry wharf.

The Ultimo and Pyrmont precinct is a great example of how, with a bit of thought, we can reconfigure our urban design to create more family friendly, more sustainable and generally more liveable communities.


Despite the changes that have occurred in the way we live, from our mothers’ time to today, women still do most of the direct care-giving work within families and communities.

As such, women need to be at the centre of urban planning and development.

They are both key users of urban space in their role as home managers, and as key producers of residential environments in their role as community leaders and initiators of neighbourhood networks.

Home is our base.

Home is our link with the community, schooling, recreation and neighbourhoods.

Our nation building agenda needs to be about creating the communities we will want to live in tomorrow.

It will need to include making greater connections between transport and housing, and making the best urban design possible to create communities that meet the needs of all people, including families.

We also need to find new ways of guaranteeing that key workers and low income people will be able to afford their housing.

We know that it is possible to create good communities.

It has been done in Australia and it has been done overseas.

I believe we can do it again – making good urban design the rule rather than the exception.

Thank you.

  1. Australian Social Trends 2004, ABS
  2. Australian Social Trends 2008, Australian Bureau of Statistics (www.abs.gov.au)
  3. ibid
  4. Office for Women, 2007, Women In Australia 2007, Australian Government, p23
  5. Dodson J. and Sipe, N, (2008) Shocking the Suburbs: Urban Location,Home ownership and Oil Vulnerability in the Australian City in Housing Studies,Vol. 23, No. 3, 377–401, May 2008