Former Director, Cities Research Institute
Professor, Urban Management and Planning, Griffith University, Gold Coast
Professor Paul Burton is committed to research – not just what he calls “highfalutin stuff” aimed mainly at his colleagues in the academic community, but research that helps planners and policy makers address the current and future challenges of cities.
In particular, he has an interest in the sustainability of cities – how they function for those who live in, work in, or visit them now and how they might do so better in the future. This is what drives his work as Professor of Urban Management and Planning at Griffith University and until recently as Director of the think-tank, the Cities Research Institute.
He is also passionate about sharing knowledge through conferences and has been a big supporter of Destination Gold Coast’s work to attract major national and international gatherings in this field to the city.
Fifteen years ago, with his young family, he left Bristol in the UK for a job in a city he knew little about. It was the interesting job at Griffith University that drew him initially. But now he is a great advocate for the city – its physical beauty and lifestyle but importantly because it has become a great centre for education and knowledge sharing and innovation.
“I was used to living in historic European cities. And then I come to the Gold Coast and the sun's out all the time and it's essentially a brand-new city in this amazing setting - I was just blown away by it.”
The evolution of the Gold Coast as Australia’s sixth largest city made it an interesting place for the establishment of Griffith University’s Cities Research Institute and Professor Paul Burton was key to its establishment.
“We came into existence in November 2016 with a mission to harness the tremendous talent and expertise of researchers at Griffith University who share a passion for helping to make our cities better places.” He says.
“Within the Institute we can draw on the expertise of architects, civil and coastal engineers, land use and transport planners, urban designers, systems analysts, economists and lawyers and public health specialists. And for over fifteen years we have been supported in this through a very productive partnership with the City of Gold Coast, one of the very few in the country, but one which other cities are looking to copy.
The research undertaken through the Institute helps inform many different policy areas – and supports advocacy related to a wide-range of challenges facing cities.
“The Gold Coast is still growing rapidly in many different ways: the number of people who live and work here, the jobs they do and they places they go to enjoy themselves, and of course in the people who come here for holidays and events. You know, the key places in the city, the key bits of the economy are changing constantly – which is what makes this such a vibrant place.”
In this exciting, rapidly changing context, his research at Griffith University focuses on important local issues but draws lessons for cities all around the world.
As Director of the Cities Research Institute until early 2023 his approach to research was very much focussed on delivering work that could be applied in the real world.
“The key thing for me was always that we did research that was of the highest academic standards, and that, wherever possible, it was about addressing real world needs and issues. I think we have an obligation to do research that not only challenges practitioners but which they also find useful.”
At present, Professor Burton is collaborating on research exploring tiny houses as a contribution to solving Australia’s current housing crisis.
“We're looking at whether some of the principles behind the design, the construction, and the delivery of tiny houses can be applied to the new homes we need to deal with the current housing crisis.
“Tiny houses alone won't solve it. No single thing will solve the current housing crisis. We've got to keep attacking it from all directions.
There are three major issues facing all our cities he says, including the Gold Coast.
First, the housing crisis has been brewing for a long time. It’s particularly affecting women in their 50s and 60s and also young people looking to leave home or move here to study – both in terms of access to the rental market or being able to afford to buy a home of their own.
He believes that employment growth is also a major factor affecting the city. There is scope to transition the economy from its traditional sectors to more diverse offerings, especially in tourism and construction.
The tourism offerings could be diversified away from just theme parks and outlet stores to capitalise in sensible ways on the amazing natural environment and our Indigenous heritage, he argues.
The construction sector also presents enormous opportunities. He believes in 10 to 20 years, less construction work will be done on site by tradespeople. More construction elements will be prefabricated off-site in much more pleasant surroundings and transported to the final site for quick assembly. It’s already happening in Europe and if the Gold Coast is savvy, we can be at the forefront of applying these new skills and new technologies in the construction sector, showing the rest of Australia a more sustainable way forward.”
“And of course, we have other great opportunities in the health and care sector stemming from health-related research and developments going on at Griffith University and in the Gold Coast Health and Knowledge Precinct. This underpins so much opportunity for the Gold Coast to build a stronger and more diverse economy to keep pace with our growing population.
The third area is about transport and connectivity and how people get around the city. This also affects the housing and employment challenges and opportunities.
“The Gold Coast grew rapidly in an era where privately-owned, petrol-fuelled, private vehicles dominated, and they continue to dominate the city. But this will change. Electric vehicles will replace petrol fuelled vehicles pretty soon and we will continue to embrace what is known as Mobility as a Service. This sees us paying to get around as and when we need to rather than investing large sums of money in our own vehicles which spend a lot of their time sitting idle in expensive car parks”.
He says living and working from the Gold Coast will be made a whole lot easier and more flexible as the Gold Coast’s connectivity through transport innovation continues to improve.
Professor Paul Burton is an important player in attracting conferences to the Gold Coast in the area of city planning and urban design.
His work with Destination Gold Coast Business Events continues to be critical. He is an important Ambassador for the city as he shines the light on the enormous expertise in the city in relation to urban design and planning.
His collaborations have helped to establish the Gold Coast as a hub for knowledge sharing by peers in this sector. Without doubt Professor Paul Burton and Griffith University have been proud catalysts in attracting these events which have tremendous economic benefit for the city.