A New Age of Progressive Suburbanism?


We are living in a global suburban age… While statistics demonstrate that the amount of the world population in metropolitan areas is rapidly increasing, rarely is it understood that the bulk of this growth occurs in the suburbanized peripheries of cities. Domestically, over 69% of all U.S. residents live in suburban areas; internationally, many other developed countries are predominately suburban, while many developing countries are rapidly suburbanizing as well.”

That’s not some anti-urban crackpot statement (as some inner urban elites might think) but from the introduction to a biennial theme of the MIT Center for Advanced Urbanism (USA). They understand that suburban and regional centres are not irrelevant for the future economy but highly important.  MIT are a pretty credible lot - hardly likely to pursue fringe urban planning or economic theories.

In Australia, however, that message is not getting through. From the Prime Minister, down, there is a sense of irrational exuberance that the jobs of the future will mostly be concentrated in our CBDs and inner cities. Urban planning which supports increased concentration of employment through generous infrastructure allocations to inner urban areas is the manifestation of this inner urban obsession.  And while CBDs and inner urban areas are lavished with costly projects designed mainly to benefit the minority of people who work there, suburban and regional centres – where the majority live, work and play - have been largely left to fend for themselves.

This process started in the late 1990s and early 2000s, notions about the “creative class” --- many of which are being re-examined by author Richard Florida in a new book ---   was a cause celebre amongst planning and government circles. It was widely argued that to attract the creative class of worker (synonymous with high skills and the new economy) cities needed to invest heavily in the quality of life in their downtowns. This was a precursor to the inner urban hipster, and, when real estate prices, rose their successors, the rise of the inner-city latte set.

This thinking fit in well with two other trendy theories, New Urbanism and ‘Smart Growth’ (which redefined suburban progress as urban sprawl). The collective wisdom moved from supporting a growing suburban realm to one that disparaged it: the burbs were for bogans, the home of sprawl, “McMansions” full of low wage earning, culturally deficient and poorly educated masses, eating fast food diets and slurping sugar drinks. Inner cities by contrast were for educated, cultured and knowledgeable people – who had little need for suburban spaces or suburban habits but greater need for inner city waterfront cycle ways, museums, theatres and quality restaurants run by notable chefs. And, of course, lots of baristas. 

Urban planning shifted quickly to a highly-regulated approach which promoted much higher densities of inner urban housing (and limits on outward expansion) because, after all, the inner city is where everyone in the future will want to live, right? The promises of these regional planning policies bordered on messianic. Take this example from the “Draft Metropolitan Strategy for Sydney to 2031” from the early 2000s:

“A home I can afford. Great transport connections. More jobs closer to where I live. Shorter commutes. The right type of home for my family. A park for the kids. Local schools, shops and hospitals. Liveable neighbourhoods.”

And what have we got thus? Some of the worst housing affordability in the world. Worsening congestion. Longer commutes. Limited housing choice, much of it not ideal for raising families.

The ongoing policy focus and infrastructure obsession with centralisation is utterly at odds with economic and community signals. New economy industries in technical, scientific or professional services, or health and social care, have little interest in centralisation. Digital technology has broken that tyranny of distance. Undeterred though, we continue to watch as political and industry leaders promote costly infrastructure projects that enhance and support further centralised employment and a concentration of amenity in inner urban cores enjoyed by a privileged, mostly childless minority.

For the record, the proportion of metropolitan wide jobs in the inner cities of Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane was 11%, 13% and 12% respectively at the last census.  The reality remains that in our metropolitan centres, most people both live and work outside inner city bubbles of privilege. 

The penny is finally dropping in some minds. Former Victorian Planning Minister, Matthew Guy (now Opposition Leader) once extolled the virtues of high density inner urban development. Looks like he has had a Damascus moment, commenting in The Australian (March 1, 2017) that: “Victoria is becoming a great, heaving, unsustainable mess. The whole of Victoria is just becoming an offshoot of Melbourne.”

The emphasis on centralisation of jobs, housing and supportive infrastructure makes little sense in a country with such large land masses and capacity for expansion. Not only that, but the economic winds – enabled by rapid expansion of disruptive technology – are blowing the other way. Suburban and regional centres, long disparaged by the cognoscenti should instead be looked on as part of the solution to economic expansion and development. Where once we promoted urban renewal, we now need to turn our minds to suburban and regional renewal. We need to identify the critical infrastructure constraints of suburban and regional business centres and remedy them to encourage accelerated development of employment opportunities across the board.

In a bid to put some balance into the discussions about urban development and growth, a Suburban Alliance (www.suburbanalliance.com.au) has been formed in Australia – with the intention of supporting research projects into the nature and needs of the suburban economy, and to use these as a platform for well-informed policy advocacy. Wish us luck. The initial focus starts in Brisbane but if the idea finds support, we’d like to see this expand to cover all major urban and regional centres. 

The more supporters we can muster the sooner this absurd preoccupation with all things inner city can begin to be balanced with a better understanding of the important role played by suburban and regional business centres and why these are part of the solution to enhanced economic opportunity.

Ross Elliott has more than twenty years experience in property and public policy. His past roles have included stints in urban economics, national and state roles with the Property Council, and in destination marketing. He has written extensively on a range of public policy issues centering around urban issues, and continues to maintain his recreational interest in public policy through ongoing contributions such as this or via his monthly blog, The Pulse.

Photo: Photograph by Gnangarra [CC BY 2.5 au], via Wikimedia Commons