400+ urban researchers descend on Wellington: “Pacific Futures: Australasian Cities in Transition”

This week the hills of Kelburn will be alive with the sound of more than 400 urban nerds gathering for the State of Australasian Cities conference. Guest poster Becks Newnham has the lowdown

2023 is the first State of Australasian Cities conference (SOAC) to be hosted in Aotearoa, with researchers, policymakers, advocates and practitioners are all converging on Te Herenga Waka – Victoria University of Wellington.

Tamatha Paul, the new MP for Wellington Central, will kick off proceedings on Wednesday morning with a keynote speech “Politics, Planning and Pōneke”. 

Across the three days of this bespoke event, a staggering 250 papers will be delivered in quickfire style by conference delegates from almost 40 NZ and Australian universities, including four papers focused on Wellington: 

  • Paneke Pōneke – Accelerating rebalancing the streets of Wellington  
  • Heritage and Housing  current politics of planning in Wellington city, New Zealand   
  • Governance processes and creative development: A reflection on creative placemaking in Wellington, New Zealand 
  • From the Golden Mile to the Millenium Square A vision for Wellington City from the study of urban morphology and pedestrian movement

You can knock yourself out by reading The Book of Abstracts (a mere 334 pages!).  

There are nine conference tracks: City Economies, City Governance, City Health and Liveability, City Housing, City Movement and Infrastructure, City Nature and Environment, City Cultures, City Design and Reckoning with Settler Colonial Cities. The summaries for these are well worth a read – see below. 

SOAC has been a big deal in Australia since 2003 when the first conference was held in Brisbane. It only transitioned from being called the State of Australian Cities to State of Australasian Cities in 2020, all thanks to the Australasian Cities Research Network

Among the plethora of academics and PhD candidates at SOAC2023, there are lots of presenters from other sectors such as Blaschke and Rutherford Environmental Consultants, Consentire, Gordon Consulting, Inner City Wellington/Live Wellington, Kāinga Ora, Manaaki Whenua Landcare Research, Nicholson Consulting, Pollock Consulting, Pūrangakura Research Centre, The Committee for Sydney, The Urban Advisory, Wellington City Council and WSP. 


More on the conference tracks at the State of Australasian Cities (SOAC 2023) Conference


Economies emerge from the multitude of decisions that people make, and nowhere is this more evident than at the city level. COVID-19 has profoundly transformed the face of city economies, as many services and jobs have shifted online and not returned to in person, and the missing tourists and their dollars are palpable. And where people have returned, workforce shortages in hospitality, care and food production among other industries remain.

Smaller cities in the region have capitalised on their relative affordability in the cost of living crisis, and are working to attract and retain both businesses and remote workers and their families. Economic development units across Australasia are starting to experiment with innovative ways to attract and retain talent, paying more attention to things like place-making, internet capability, liveability and affordability. Injustices and stressors remain, especially so for Indigenous, migrant and minority groups.

Meanwhile, climate emissions trading has changed the direction of city economies, as enterprises begin to change their practices to meet targets set at the city and regional scale. Funding for climate transition projects, infrastructure, managed retreat and changes to procurement are all implicated in city economies, as are the economic activities of large private enterprises, manufacturing firms, large-scale employers of health and education and small and medium enterprises.

In this track, we invite contributions to provide reflections on the question: where do we want our city economies to be in this post-pandemic phase or in the next decade, and how can we support that transition as researchers and policy-writers?

Potential papers might include:

  • The range of city economies including: diverse enterprises, labour, markets and exchange, finance and investment, and property;
  • What city economies might mean for those who are usually overlooked: the informal economy, Indigenous enterprises, unpaid labour of caregivers, migrant workers in essential services and more;
  • The role of circular economy, degrowth, Indigenous economies, doughnut economics and community economies approaches to city economies;
  • How innovations in city economics can contribute to climate change mitigation and adaptation.


City governance involves multi-sectoral and multi-scaled practices of decision-making affecting cities and settlements. Examining city governance is crucial for understanding and navigating multiple transitions underway and much-needed within and across Australasia, the wider Asia-Pacific region and beyond.

Much rides on how we choose to envisage and respond to issues of collective concern in cities, including the drivers and consequences of ongoing urbanisation, the vexed omni-crises that stem from and implicate cities — including climate adaptation and mitigation, socio-economic inequality, housing affordability and adequacy, and infectious disease transmission and healthy city planning, critical infrastructures, and more — and rectifying long-standing injustices of settler-colonial urbanisation and tackling the challenges of reconciliation and co-governance.

Within the broader conference theme of ‘Australasian cities in transition’, the City Governance track presents an opportunity to consider city governance transitions from multiple perspectives, including:

  • How are social, cultural, environmental and economic transitions impacting city governance?; How might we rethink city governance to better understand and respond to how Australasian cities are in transition both now and looking ahead?;
  • How might city governance, itself, be undergoing transitions of various kinds? For example, how might we reconcile political ecologic and political economic approaches for (more-than) human flourishing?
  • How are cities leading or lagging in responding to crises and slow emergencies?;
  • What kinds of outcomes are being experienced or pre-figured by the governance of urban transitions?;
  • What are the current intellectual and methodological transitions underway in the world of urban research?;
  • How are cities renegotiating their governance, especially as cities and their (sub)urban networks are grappling with changes to democratic shifts and extensive COVID-19-led reforms?;
  • What are contemporary and future trends of policy mobility and innovation?;
  • How do we consider time and space in city governance, and trends, fads, and divergences?

With a broad definition of the processes, actors and whereabouts of city governance, the City Governance conference track chairs welcome papers addressing these and related questions.


We are interested in exploring how we could, do or should make Australasian urban spaces and centres healthier and more liveable places. We are seeking to explore how Indigenous values have, are and will be empowered, enabling healthy places to live, grow-up and work. In the face of climate change, population growth, a growing disconnect from nature, an ageing population and other urban challenges, we are demanding more than ever from our urban spaces; we are seeking places and spaces that acknowledge our pasts, value and listen to our Indigenous voices, increase our resilience, create a sense of belonging, are inclusive and support hauora.

Navigating those challenges requires placing hauora (holistic health and well-being) at the centre of our urban decision-making. Yet how we envision and define healthy and liveable places varies by place, group, within and across cities and urban areas.

We want to explore what hauora and well-being mean and for whom, and what conceptual models are available to and are guiding the transformation of Australasian cities. With Australasian urban areas responding to recent or ongoing natural disasters, and pressures from a housing crisis, how do we make sure that health and Indigenous values are at the heart of the decision-making and (re)build urban spaces that support hauora, well-being and liveability?

We invite contributions that explore these and related health-focused questions from diverse spatial scales (individual to the community and population), disciplines and from research, practice and governance.

We invite people to share their experiences of:

  • working on projects that focus on Indigenous values, urban health, well-being or liveability;
  • best-practice examples that support hauora in urban areas;
  • working in a governance setting to incorporate Indigenous values, and holistic perspectives of health and well-being into urban planning and governance.


Residents and governments throughout Australian and Aotearoa New Zealand cities are grappling with a range of housing issues from homelessness, housing affordability, planning issues, financialisation, and poor housing quality. These issues have profound implications for city dwellers’ lived experiences, sense of inclusion/exclusion and understandings of social justice and the ‘right to the city’.

In the context of a seemingly endless set of housing crises various political and economic solutions have been proffered as quick-fix solutions. Often these solutions are set within neoliberal frameworks that rely on market outcomes and it is clear that cities are at the centre of a range of emergent market processes involving new financial actors and policy practices.

However, in addition to these institutional forces effecting housing change, community action and indigenous housing aspirations and practices are producing new forms of housing outcomes. These alternative ways of making ‘home and housing’ in the city are potentially transformative. Urban housing is being refashioned by a range of top-down and bottom-up social, economic, political and community processes. Drawing on a broad understanding of contemporary urban housing issues, processes and solutions we welcome papers that engage with existing and emergent housing processes (including indigenous housing, planning, finanicalisation, homelessness etc) at play in Australian and Aotearoa New Zealand cities.


We are living through an infrastructural moment. Across Australasia, this moment manifests itself in contradictory forces. On the one hand, we have seen the expansion, reinvestment, and reinvention of primary and critical infrastructural systems. On the other hand, many existing infrastructures—transport systems, water and sewage pipes—are failing in both catastrophic and subtle ways.

These breakdowns have been caused by deferred maintenance, changing investment priorities, and, especially, the profound environmental shifts the Australasian cities and their residents are experiencing as a result of the climate crisis. Within this context, infrastructures have become a new focus of investment, innovation, and socio-political debate. Thus, leading to new interactions between these investments and peoples’ mobility behaviour in cities.

Scholars from both technical and critical analytic backgrounds have turned to infrastructure as a site of investigation and intervention in the region’s present and future urban condition. This track showcases complex conversations and research on 21st-century transport and infrastructure planning.

How do we transform existing infrastructure policies and planning according to new social, environmental, economic and technological realities?

How can we build sustainable infrastructure that is simultaneously inclusive and climate resilient?

There are many critical questions at the heart of this track of SOAC 2023.

This track bridges technical and social science research into the region’s infrastructures inviting papers from scholars engaging with Australasian infrastructures through a variety of philosophical, theoretical and disciplinary lenses. We are interested in debating the future of infrastructure and gathering evidence about the critical challenges transport and infrastructure planning face in big and small cities in this region.

Potential papers might include, but are not limited to, the following areas:

  • History, present and future of infrastructure;
  • The social and environmental life of infrastructure;
  • Infrastructural politics, violence, maintenance/breakdown/failure;
  • Political economy of infrastructures;
  • Transportation modes (Roads, AVs, Public Transport, Active transport, MicroMobility);
  • Transport technologies, data science and analytics;
  • Transportation sustainability and resilience;
  • Transport governance, policy and funding


Humanity faces an unprecedented convergence of ecological and climatic changes that are and will profoundly affect civilization. Because cities are now the primary habitat of humans, it is in the urban environment where the impacts of climate change and biodiversity loss will be most keenly felt by humans, and where adaptation and regeneration measures must be focused.

It is clear then that the way we conceive of, construct, and live in urban environments must change rapidly. There are increasing calls for built environment professionals to more effectively understand and then work with and include nature in cities by taking holistic socio-ecological approaches to design and planning. This requires an urgent shift in cultural norms; how humanity (re)learns how to work with ‘nature’ rather than seek to extract from and control complex ecologies is perhaps the greatest opportunity of these times.

This track focuses on the interrelated benefits of understanding and working with socio-ecological systems or ‘nature’ in cities and the ecological and climatic contexts they sit within. We invite the submission of research that addresses and investigates the various benefits that increased nature in cities might bring such as: increased biodiversity health and habitat restoration; nature-integrated climate change adaptation, resilience, and mitigation; and increased human individual and cultural wellbeing.

These topics may be examined through science and technical engineering approaches, design-led socio-cultural processes, planning and policy strategies, sociology and psychology approaches investigating the benefits and impacts of human-nature relationships, and/or approaches employing a social-cultural-climate justice lens.

Key questions underpinning these works might include:

  • How can we create and remediate cities so they become complex self-regulating systems that produce and regenerate ecological and societal health?
  • How can our cities and buildings be designed to evolve and become more, rather than less fit for place and purpose over time?
  • What are the issues and challenges for urban nature?
  • How do we plan for and recover from climate and other disaster events by working with nature?
  • How can our cities imprint our own Pacific Australasian indigenous green/ biodiversity identity?
  • How do we live with rather than control nature?
  • What are the potential solutions, goals and ambitions for the future?

Topics in this track may include: Biodiversity health and habitat restoration; Nature-integrated climate change adaptation, resilience, and mitigation; Nature related human wellbeing, identity, and justice.


Cities and urban spaces are important places where people actively construct, create, reflect, and contest cultural meanings and practices. While for some, culture is understood as art galleries and museums, or reflecting certain communities traditions and heritage, here we are interested in exploring the broad ways culture is connected to, reflects, and fuels urban transformations.

We invite papers that consider how cultural meanings and practices are constructed and expressed in the transitions and transformations already underway in Australasian cities, and those that are needed.

This includes (but is not limited to):

  • Contests over belonging and exclusion in Australasian cities;
  • Material cultural shifts that point towards new and more regenerative urban practices (for example, in fashion, food, waste, and re-use initiatives);
  • Representations of urban transformation and transition in art and design (including film, social art, public sculpture, street art, music, photography, and memorials/monuments);
  • Shifting cultural expectations and practices in response to crisis and uncertainty (for example, Covid-19, extreme weather, flooding, heat waves, political polarisation);
  • Indigenous cultural narratives as a driver for change linking past, present and future;
  • Planning the creative city with urban subcultures, cultural commodification, studentification, punk subcultures, nightlife, festivals, sports, and tourism;
  • Cultural planning and development with traditional culture, cultural heritage and assets, mega-event led urban development and regeneration;
  • Immigrants and cultural diversity, cosmopolitanism, cultural ghettos, gateway cities and ethnoburbs, cultural integration, and planning for multiculturalism;
  • Home culture, work from home, belonging, sense of place, gender and culture of sharing.


The compact city model – ideologically derived and widely adapted from early Western settlement patterns – has enjoyed success in contemporary urban practice and academia, particularly over the past 20 years. The characteristics of this model are a medium-to-high residential density supported by a mix of uses and transport options accessible within a 5-to-10-minute walking catchment.

Recently there have been a number of challenges to such ideological dominance, three in particular.

Firstly, the cultural appropriateness of an Anglo-centric model for contemporary Australasian society is being challenged. Secondly, the Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated two significant social trends: the desertion of the office for working at home and the death of conventional retail. Thirdly, the impact of climate change is challenging assumptions and norms about how we design and build resilience into our cities. This last point has been brought home recently with urban flooding in Australia, and Cyclone Gabrielle wreaking havoc across the North Island of Aotearoa New Zealand on the heels of already devastating floods in Tāmaki Makaurau.

Given these challenges, we are interested in explorations and critiques of contemporary urban design approaches in relation to issues of social or cultural inequity and injustice. We are especially interested in papers from Indigenous scholars that explore culturally appropriate city design in Australasia. We are also interested in explorations of how urban form can respond to changing lifestyle patterns and preferences that are emerging from the pandemic and related social trends. In light of recent events, we are particularly interested in papers that explore the environmental impact of climate change on the city and speculate on what urban forms might emerge from responses to this impact, as well as papers that present evidence to inform current or future development projects that deal with urban flooding.

Of further interest is scholars exploring historical research on alternative city design models that have sought to be greener or more open – such as the Garden City, the modernist tower in the park, or post-war new towns in Scandinavia and England – in relation to the compact city model and contemporary urban design approaches.

In short, how can city design address the challenges of social and cultural equity and justice, post-pandemic patterns and preferences, climate change and resilience, and what can we learn from historical attempts to create alternative urban environments?

Picture of a leafy, city block in Barcelona with lots of bikes parked and people sitting and chatting in the street


Cities in settler-colonial contexts have dark histories.

Colonisers enforced the idea of property and aligned socio-economic values upon Indigenous land. Customary uses and peoples were displaced to make way for urban land use and spatial organisation standards legible to settlers. If cities were to serve the settlers, city-making operationalised settler ways of being, thinking, doing and imagining as the normative substrate of living together. Although vitally important, Indigenous links to their lands, and values of well-being and identity, and the integration of land and people, were hard to maintain. Indigenous traditional owners, settlers and recent arrivals must now address pressing urban issues: spatial inequality, energy access, loneliness, waterway pollution, wealth inequality, biodiversity loss and climate change implications.

Local government in Aotearoa New Zealand is aiming to develop a more ‘community-focussed, citizen-centred governance system’, yet how might this play out when prevailing social narratives advance the view that difficult colonial histories are transcended, and settler-Indigenous relations now operate as an equitable partnership? How might understanding the city through settler-colonialism, ‘as not an historical event tucked safely away in the past but rather a constantly evolving structure that seeks allies in modern economies’ (Glenn, 2015) offer means to reveal land-people relationships?

This session seeks the sharing of critique and ideas for a just future which serves diverse peoples while better caring for Mother Earth. How can we change trajectories from the dark colonial foundations still felt by Indigenous, to create a home in which all can thrive, where our Indigenous voices are heard, where urban wellbeing is given priority, and all belong.

Topics might include:

  • Activist histories or acts of resistance in place making
  • Projects that demonstrate mana-enhancing partnership or co-governance
  • How might Treaty people/ tangata Tiriti identity/Country impact city-making practices?
  • Stories of reconciled urban land, eg papakāinga; Lived experiences and performative accounts of city conditions and/or Country
  • Critique of place-making practices through the complicating power dynamic of settler colonialism and/or whiteness.

To this end we welcome scholarship and creative practices from a broad range of situated approaches to knowing and knowledge creation.

Check out the SOAC 2023 website!

Image credits:

  • Banner and all composite images: SOAC / Urban Design Forum
  • Boardroom – Intercontinental
  • Medium density housing, Ijburg – Green Matters
  • Before and after intersection, London – Healthy Streets
  • Digging money sign – Satoshi Kambayashi | The Economist
  • Kākā – Judy Lapsley Miller
  • tables, trees, people, bikes in a Superblock – Barcelone Digital City
  • Te Waihorotiu (Auckland) rail station render – City Rail Link

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