The Age of Suburbia


“Mr. Covid has been the best city and regional planner Australia has ever had. The suburbs will shine, and regions will grow. Maybe we should forget about big city infrastructure projects for a while and spend it on our future resilient communities where people look out for each other.”

That is a note from late 2020 from a good friend of mine - a highly regarded town planner in Australia, who has led city planning both for large metro cities and worked across the globe, most lately in the Middle East. He is no fool. The irony is – and he is right – that it has taken a global pandemic to shake ourselves out of from the focus on centralised, high density urban cores, surrounded by dormitory suburbs from which workers would commute daily, preferably in high volume public transport, to their city-based offices. Our subservience called for endless amounts of public money to be thrown at inner city altars, rewarding the increasingly privileged professional clergy who enjoyed commensurately rising real estate prices, while suburban areas languished.

But the lure of the emerald city was always an illusion. In early 2013 in “The demography of employment part one: a suburban economy,” I made the observation that none of the actual evidence supported this vision:

“We have collectively developed a fixation on our CBDs and inner-city areas as economic drivers of employment. While they are very significant in size, they are not dominant relative to the spatial distribution of jobs throughout metropolitan areas. If the evidence is clearly pointing to cities with employment overwhelmingly located in suburban locations, and points to this trend continuing, it is possible that a variety of public policy settings could need resetting given the realities of our urban environment. It is equally possible that opportunities for growth and development to meet market demand for employment lands in suburban locations haven’t yet been fully captured.”

By early 2015, in “Is it time for suburban renewal?” I wrote: “there seem now to be no shortage of publicly funded initiatives focused on delivering a better quality of urban existence within a five kilometre ring of the CBD, and too few focused on the hard and soft infrastructure deficits that our suburban areas are still living with.”

However, no end of evidence or public debate was sufficient to wrest the planning orthodoxy from their centralised vision of the inner urban economy and its elites living, working, and playing within a mystical 5-kilometre ring of a CBD temple.

Even obvious policy failures – rising congestion, chronic infrastructure lags and falling quality of life – did not test the faith of planners and pundits in the religion of centralisation. A 2018 ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) News investigation into overcrowding and infrastructure inadequacies in Sydney and Melbourne prompted the Planning Institute of Australia to respond with the suggestion that what was needed to fix the problems caused by centralisation and density by pushing more centralisation and density: “We want Tokyos, Parises, and New Yorks – and we can do that by planning well.” The fact that this policy prescription was electoral poison, and against the demonstrated market preference of consumers, was clearly irrelevant to PIA at the time.

But as my friend has since wryly observed, a virus has changed all of that. Property industry leaders who once worshipped at the altar of centralisation have sniffed the winds and seen hope of new salvation in the suburbs. Fund managers are predicting a significant fall in demand for CBD offices as workers adopt more amenable work-life practices – working from home or from suburban hubs. The chief of publicly listed developer Stockland – Mark Steinert – is now publicly predicting a shift of the entire metropolitan economy away from CBDs to more suburban locations. Such comments would have been heresy only just 12 months ago and no doubt been savaged by Stockland’s investors. This now amounts to conventional wisdom.

The evidence is flooding in globally: high density urban cores are finding economic demand surge towards suburban homes or suburban work hubs. There has been an exodus of workers and their employers from centralised, expensive cores. Once prized New York real estate is boarded up, tenants gone. Manhattan offices now are being touted as possible residential conversions.

Elon Musk has declared he is moving to Texas, while tech giants Oracle and Hewlett Packard have similarly set up shop in the more affordable, more amenable, more liveable cities of the Lone Star State. Fast growing US city economies are no longer poster-children cities like NYC or San Francisco or LA, but mid-scale cities like Austin Texas, Nashville Tennessee, or Phoenix, Arizona. The move is on. Remarkably, for the first time in 170 years, California has actually lost population.

Even the Emerald Isle – Ireland – has seen Covid-induced changes to work lead to public policy responses in support of remote working. "COVID-19 has brought a change in terms of the way we work and remote working - or connected working, as I call it - is now a reality,” said Irish Minister Social Protection Minister Heather Humphreys. "It was an aspiration only a year ago, and now it's a fact of a life - and it's a good thing".

Here at home, the evidence is also piling up. Regional economic growth even before Covid, according to the Regional Australia Institute was shifting away of the CBDs. This trend appears to be getting an adrenaline boost from Covid. Exhausted by lockdowns, the lure of a less dense environment is proving hard to resist for growing numbers of workers and employers. Regional cities that lie within a couple of hours of a major capital or ar established lifestyle regions – Geelong or Bendigo in Victoria, or Newcastle, Gosford, or Byron in NSW - have been the first to feel the wave of demand from fleeing city dwellers.

Only the most fervent centralist could not acknowledge that the age of centralisation has come to end. Indeed, as much was observed to be happening pre-Covid by the respected Brookings Institute in early 2019 - the process is accelerating and is unlikely to reverse.

Where does this leave the anti-suburban elites - the likes of Australian urbanist Elizabeth Farrelly who infamously declared: “The suburbs are about boredom, and obviously some people like being bored and plain and predictable, I'm happy for them … even if their suburbs are destroying the world”?

Hopefully, it leaves them without a worshipping congregation anymore. After all, you can save energy and reduce emissions simply by working at home, or close to it. It is a lot more effective and convenient than taking the bus or crawling through big city traffic. Suburbanization could prove a surprising solution to reducing GHG. Hopefully, this will lead to a new emphasis on suburban infrastructure, from regional town centers to better wireless networks.

We are at the dawning of an age of suburbia – where regional and suburban economic needs can respectfully and rightfully claim equal status with those of the inner city. Policy makers would be wise not to resist this change but instead to embrace and support it.

PS: Yes, “The age of suburbia” is a nod to the flower power song of hope from 1969 by The Fifth Dimension - “The Age of Aquarius.” You can get all groovy and sing along to the lyrics “Harmony and understanding, Sympathy and trust abounding, no more falsehoods or derisions, Golden living dreams of visions” … and watch the clip here:

Let the sunshine in!

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 credit: Meganesia via Wikimedia under CC 4.0 License.